Since the ABA-NBA merger and subsequent folding of the Kentucky Colonels 1976, the state of Kentucky has had no professional basketball team. The absence of a professional team in basketball or really any sport has certainly played a role in the way that UK sports, basketball in particular, have become so intertwined with the state’s culture.
College basketball is THE principal athletic attraction in the Bluegrass State, and it’s not even close. With quality programs like UK, UofL, and WKU, Kentuckians have simply not needed to follow the NBA to satisfy their collective (and sizable) basketball jones.
Kentucky fans across the state fancy themselves (and rightfully so) to be among the most educated basketball fans in the nation, but if basketball at its highest level was brought up, you were just as likely to be met by derision as an intelligent conversation about the game. Complaints like “they don’t play any defense” or “they just don’t care as much” were prevalent, but, for my money, were merely statements indicating an underlying sentiment: “I don’t have any reason to care about the NBA.”
Recently, there have been small changes on that front. The successes of players like Tayshaun Prince and Rajon Rondo, and to a lesser extent, Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike, have pushed UK fans toward the NBA, if only to follow box scores.
Something a bit more seismic as it became clear this spring that a handful of UK players would be taking their talents to the 2010 NBA Draft. I started to spot some interest in projecting where John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Patrick Patterson would suit up. Some would even venture to look at the rosters of teams in contention for UK guys and analyze those rosters to see how they would fit in.
Then, draft night came.
Leading up the draft, everybody knew that the success of so many former players would be a boon for the program. However, draft night was a confluence of a group of beloved players, a two hour long UK infomercial, and realization that something amazing was happening.
Five guys went in the first round, including three guys in Wall, Cousins, and Patterson who will forever be etched in UK lore, and the hearts of Big Blue Nation. All of sudden, Kentucky had at least three teams in the NBA, the Wizards, the Kings, and the Rockets, plus Rondo’s Celtics and Prince’s Pistons.
A month passed before the NBA Summer League tipped off, and the interest did not wane. Daniel Orton was a bit underwhelming in his games, but it was widely talked about. Patrick Patterson then debuted successfully. John Wall then took the floor as the most hyped player around and he did not disappoint. Cousins followed and was equally, if not more impressive.
Finally, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe went head to head, causing another moment of realization for many ‘Cats fans: that interesting matchups like that will be happening all season, and every time they do, UK is going to be a central part of the conversation. All of a sudden, UK is on everybody’s tongue. LeBron is predicting Cousins or Wall will win Rookie of the Year honors, mentioning specifically that both are ‘Cats; announcers are spouting phrases like “UK invitational”; and everyone is dinstinctly aware of the Big Blue bond between UK’s five draftees.
Now, you hear about ‘Cats fans buying the NBA Summer League pack online because stupid Insight doesn’t carry NBATV. You see UK fans all over Wizards and Kings blogs to see what people are saying about Wall and Cousins.
This is the NBA Summer League we are talking about, not the NBA Finals. UK fans care way more about the Summer League than the majority of big NBA fans out there, a clear signal to me that Kentucky fans have been dormant NBA fans all along, awaiting something to awake them from their slumber. Well, I think that something is here.
The thing is, that something is only going to get bigger.
Fast forward to All Star Weekend 2011. Wall, Cousins, Patterson, and maybe even Bledsoe are among the top performing rookies around. All have been named to the Rookie team for the Rookie-Sophomore game. Early in the second quarter, whoever is coaching the Rookie team sends all four former ‘Cats out on the floor together. How cool will that moment be? Do you think ‘Cats fans might be watching?
Fast forward to five years from now, All Star Weekend 2015. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are well established stars. Enes Kanter is making his second All Star appearance and guys like Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Michael Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague are in the conversation for All Star honors. Do you think UK fans might be watching THAT game?
A few years from now, there will be an array of former UK stars across the NBA. One thing about the NBA that has never really resonated with UK fans is the fact that it’s about the players, not the team. I didn’t follow the Chicago Bulls out of some great loyalty to the organization. I followed them because of Michael Jordan. The NBA has never quite caught on with ‘Cats fans because we’ve just never had players that could make us follow it. That has changed, and will continue to change, and UK fans will follow accordingly.
Now, the next step is when we have former UK players trying to get together on the same team via free agency. With the way that big time players are aligning themselves, it can’t be that long until a group of former ‘Cats tries to put together an all-UK big three, right?