Kentucky's fans are some wild cats Team is life for some, and delivering babies, heart rehab only No. 2

March 31, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO -- He was standing on the Riverwalk yesterday, his teeth brown and broken, his stringy dark hair tied in a ponytail under a blue baseball cap, smiling and waving to anyone who passed by. "Go 'Cats!" he yelled, over and over again.

He looked like he was straight from the coal mines.

He was a Kentucky basketball fan.

A few minutes later, he walked up into the mall attached to this city's most famous attraction and into a group who looked like they were straight from the horse crowd in Lexington. They laughed when they saw him.

They laughed even harder when he pulled his fake teeth out of his mouth and his wig off his head. Just another Kentucky fan killing time before last night's NCAA championship game against Utah.

The game Kentucky fans everywhere simply refer to as "The Big One."

It was the way Johnny Pittman and his friends talked about it a few hours earlier. Pittman and some friends were standing in the lobby of the Plaza San Antonio Hotel, where the Kentucky team and many ardent fans have stayed during the Final Four.

"We lost The Big One last year," said Pittman, 67, referring to the 84-79 defeat to Arizona in the NCAA final in Indianapolis. "But we're going to win The Big One tonight."

Despite their team becoming the first school since Duke in 1992 to make it to three straight championship games, this has not been an easy season for Kentucky fans. Then again, it's all a matter of perspective. Or lack of reality. When the Wildcats were in the midst of a stretch when they lost to both Louisville and Florida at home, a banner at Rupp Arena read, "Only 265 days until football season."

"It's been a long and frustrating season," said Clara Crouch, her blue-and-sweater adorned with all the first names of the current Kentucky players. "We're not used to losing games at home."

Sitting nearby, Troy Christopher said, "Being a Kentucky fan is hard work. It's hard on your health. I'm looking forward to getting back to work so I can rest up."

Bob Wiggins knows all about the hazards of being a Kentucky fan. He might be the most loyal, attending 615 straight games, home and away, over a 20-year period. The Ripken-like streak ended when Wiggins, packed and ready to go to last year's Great Alaska Shootout, was felled by a heart attack.

He missed four games.

"But I watched all four in the hospital," said Wiggins, who had an angioplasty performed and was back in his seat at Rupp two weeks later for the team's home opener. "I even called Ralph Hacker [the team's radio announcer] at courtside in Alaska and Jeff Sheppard got on and wished me well."

Asked how much money he has spent over the year following his beloved 'Cats, Wiggins shrugged. "This is my hobby," he said. "I'm not a golfer and I don't fish. I really don't know how much I spent. But I really don't want to know."

Kentucky basketball is a big business. Oscar Combs became a millionaire because of it, starting up a newspaper for Kentucky called "The Cats Pause." A year ago, Combs sold it for a reported $6 million. He bought a beautiful home in Florida.

He spends his summers there.

He winters in Lexington.

Like most fans, Kentucky fans are superstitious. Take Troy Christopher's big white Stetson with the blue K stitched into the side. He was wearing it yesterday in the lobby of the team's hotel, but would leave it in the room when he went to the game.

"You remember that little game we had against Duke in Philadelphia six years ago?" said Christopher, referring to Kentucky's infamous 104-103 overtime loss to the Blue Devils in the East Regional final. "Well I wore it that night."

There was a sense of redemption last week when the Wildcats beat Duke, 86-84, in overtime.

Earlier that night in at Suburban Hospital in Louisville, Mary Anne Fitzgerald was sweating. The 28-year-old woman had gone into labor during the game and the contractions were coming a bit too fast, since Fitzgerald and her husband, Bill, were watching the game.

When it was time to start pushing, the Wildcats had just come back from their 17-point deficit and had gone ahead on Scott Padgett's three-point shot with 3: 39 to play. Fitzgerald, who had already been given an epidural, held off pushing until the game was over. Talk about a Cat's pause.

"The nurses had wheeled all the carts in and I was trying to watch the game around them," Fitzgerald told the Louisville Courier-Journal, which ran the woman's story at the top of Page 1 two days later. "They asked me if I wanted something to slow things down some, and I said yes. They told me it better not go into overtime."

Kyle Scott Fitzgerald was born shortly after the game ended.

"It was well worth the wait."

Pub Date: 3/31/98

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