With John Calipari at the helm, the Joe Craft Center is crawling with professional-level talent on a normal day, but this was no normal day.
Thursday was the opening day of the John Calipari Basketball Fantasy Experience and Kentucky’s practice facility was overrun with some of the best players in the history of the program. In the men’s practice gym, there was Wayne Turner with Nerlens Noel practicing over his shoulder. Over on the women’s court, Derek Anderson was coaching up some of the campers that had paid to be a part of it all. On the Memorial Coliseum floor, Walter McCarty was getting reacquainted with the local media.
Listening to Calipari and all the former players in attendance, there was a common theme.
“Only at Kentucky,” Calipari said.
“There’s no place like Kentucky,” McCarty said.
Other schools at other big-time programs host events similar to this one where a lucky few get to experience what life is like for an elite college basketball player. Other schools don’t quite do it the way it’s being done this weekend.
The culmination of it all will be on Saturday at 2 p.m. when two teams of current and former pros go toe-to-toe in front of thousands in Rupp Arena at the first-ever UK Alumni Charity Game. But before that, a team made up of members of UK’s 1996 national championship team will play campers from the Fantasy Experience in a four-quarter game. Some of those players from 1996 will even be playing a doubleheader, suiting up in the Charity Game as well.
Of course, it will be fun for the Big Blue Nation to see Tony Delk shooting 3s again and Jeff Sheppard running up and down the Rupp floor, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the simple fact that they are together again and the simple fact that the man leading the program wants so badly for them to be involved.
“This is a neat thing,” Calipari said. “They’re going to have a ball and for us and the state and what we’re doing and bringing back our former players, it’s really a good thing.”
And it doesn’t stop with ’96. Mike Pratt, Jimmy Dan Connor, Sam Bowie and Joe B. Hall are just a few of the legends who will be in attendance and part of the festivities. Coach Cal is even trying to bring Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones – a member of the 1948 and 1949 national title teams – back to the building named after his coach.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Calipari said. “When you’re sitting in the seat I’m in, you’re the keeper of the tradition. Being part of that means you reach out like I do with Coach Hall, like I do with Herky Rupp and (Adolph Rupp’s) family. You reach back and you bring people back in and you make them understand and let them know this is about them, this is their program.”
It’s one thing that Calipari led the Wildcats to the eighth championship in program history, but it’s events like this that make him exactly the man to coach the Commonwealth’s team.
“I think hiring Coach Cal was probably the best thing the University of Kentucky could do after Tubby Smith leaving,” Turner said. “I think Cal is just the perfect coach for the job.”
Like all of the UK legends walking around Lexington this weekend, Turner is ecstatic to be back. No matter what happens in the games on Saturday, Turner will remember the experience. That doesn’t mean he’s not out to play some good basketball.
The 1996 team had a chance on Thursday to play four-on-four with one another. There was plenty of friendly trash talk going around, particularly between Walker and Turner, the point guard with the corkscrew shooting release.
” ‘Toine’ was yapping about back in ’96, so I told him, ‘It’s not ’96 anymore,’ ” Turner said. “It’s a different ball game. I’m making shots, they’re all backing up. I’m like, ‘This is not ’96, I’m making shots these days.’ “
Come Saturday, the Cats will be playing together again, with a different set of campers taking them on each quarter.
“They already told me, ‘You tell everybody to get to this game because we are not losing. We will not lose a quarter,’ ” Calipari said.
Those teams of campers aren’t the 1996 team’s biggest competition right now. Instead, comparisons between their squad and the 2012 Wildcats that just brought home No. 8 are dominating conversations. Coach Cal made sure to point out the 1996 edition would not have been together in modern-day basketball with how many more players turn pro early, but he did say the two teams belong in an elite group.
“Both teams were good in different ways,” Calipari said. “You could say those are maybe two of the better teams in the last 25 years.”
Turner was willing to speculate a bit more. He believes the matchup would be a good one, but he thinks his team would win by wearing down their more recent counterparts.
“Where I think we may have had a little bit of an advantage is we had a bench,” Turner said. “We had a bench and could go one through 10. We could sub out Anthony Epps and put me in, sub out Derek Anderson, put Ron Mercer in.”
All of that is purely conjecture, but many of the players that would have decided that hypothetical matchup will be playing come Saturday. Tickets to the event aren’t yet sold out, but Coach Cal can guarantee that everyone who does come is in for a good time.
“If 4,000 people had showed up, 10,000 come, 15,000 come, whatever comes they’re going to have a ball,” Calipari said. “They’re going to say, ‘I’m so happy.’ “
All seats for the Alumni Game are reserved and priced at $40 (lower level) and $20 (upper level). Tickets can be purchased only at the Rupp Arena box office, online at Ticketmaster.com, at any Ticketmaster Outlet or by phone at 1-800-745-3000. There is a four-ticket limit per person. Online orders and phone orders will have additional fees attached. All proceeds from the game will go to charity.