Getting championship rings ‘just like winning’ again for ’96 greats

The following is a story from Guy Ramsey, the lead writer of UK’s official blog, Cat Scratches. Ramsey contributes to CoachCal.com on occasion and has agreed to share his story with us on the 1996 Kentucky team, which will finally get its national championship rings at the halftime of UK’s  game with Mississippi State on Wednesday.

Members of Kentucky’s 1995-96 national championship team never waste an opportunity to get back together. When they do, there’s a familiar script.

They first catch up on each other’s lives and families, but it’s not long before they start reminiscing. There are too many memorable moments to count, but there seem to be two they always bring up.

The first is familiar to any history-minded UK fan: that remarkable first half against LSU when the Wildcats scored a school-record 86 points en route to a 129-97 victory. Their coach might not even know about the second.

With time to kill in the days and nights before their two games in the Final Four, the Cats staged rather intense wrestling matches in their hotel rooms. Considering the size and athleticism of the group, it doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which one Tony Delk, Antoine Walker or another star could have suffered an injury that would have put the season in jeopardy.

“The things that we remember most and are most special are a lot of the off-the-court things that we did together as a team,” Jeff Sheppard said. “That’s one of the things that brought us so close together and made us the team that we were on the court.”

Seventeen years later, “The Untouchables” still laugh about it.

“If somebody would have gotten hurt before the Final Four, Coach Pitino would have killed us,” guard Derek Anderson said.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the roughhousing never resulted in more than rug burns. The ’96 Wildcats would finish off a 34-2 record en route to the sixth national title in school history and first in nearly two decades.

“That team was one of the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled,” said Rick Pitino, who coached at Kentucky from 1989 until 1997. “That’s based on a number of factors: passing, cutting, defense, unselfishness, relentless full-court pressure, and a mixture of great players in the upper classes with the younger ones. They had total focus every night on putting their opponent in the ground defensively for 40 minutes. You don’t see that too often from any basketball team.”

The 1996 national championship team will receive title rings from UK at halftime of the Kentucky-Mississippi State game on Wednesday. (photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

That “total focus” started with an uncommon bond the team shared, the same bond that made those hotel-room hijinks so much fun. As a matter of fact, Sheppard doesn’t even think Pitino would have been too surprised or even too angry to learn about the wrestling.

“He probably would have said, ‘That figures,’ ” Sheppard said. “A part of him would have been really upset and a part of him would have been real excited.”

He would have been excited because all the fun times off the court reflected just how special a team that rolled up a 22-point average margin of victory was.

“If you want to see a real brotherhood, you look at that ’96 team and look at us 17 years later,” Anderson said. “We’re still the exact same way. We’re closer than basketball and that’s why we won championships.”

A look back at UK’s roster makes that chemistry even more noteworthy. The Cats were a team of stars, featuring nine players who would go on to NBA careers. Jeff Sheppard – the Final Four Most Outstanding Player during Kentucky’s 1998 title run – played just 12.8 minutes a game and averaged 5.5 points. Nazr Mohammed – the only player on the ’96 team still in the NBA – was stuck on the bench behind the likes of Walter McCarty, Mark Pope and Antoine Walker, so he spent much of the season playing on UK’s junior varsity squad.

“I think the only thing that could have possibly gone wrong with that team was selfishness on anyone’s part and they totally bought in to just ‘championship.’ ” Pitino said. “Because of that, we did wind up winning it. It was an unbelievable run and I’m really proud of those guys on what they accomplished. They were just a great group of guys to coach.”

After UK capped off the title run with a 76-67 win over Syracuse, the Cats were given a hero’s welcome in returning to Lexington from East Rutherford, N.J. They raised a banner to the rafters in front of a full house in Rupp Arena. That ’96 title, however, was during the early stages of when it became commonplace for schools to design championship rings and distribute them to players. UK’s title teams in 1998 and 2012 would both receive team rings, but the ’96ers received only the rings given out by the NCAA.

“We were just happy to win,” Anderson said. “We weren’t really concerned about that.”

Though they never spent too much time thinking about it, UK’s ’96 greats are about to be able to compare jewelry.

In a halftime ceremony at UK’s game vs. Mississippi State on Wednesday, members of the team will be given school rings to commemorate the 1996 national championship. Of the 15 players on the team’s roster, 11 – Anderson, Sheppard, Delk, Walker, McCarty, Ron Mercer, Anthony Epps, Wayne Turner, Jared Prickett, Oliver Simmons and Jason Lathrem – plan to be in attendance. Pope, Mohammed, Allen Edwards and Cameron Mills will receive their rings individually.

“It’s showing what the program’s giving back to us,” Anderson said. “Usually you give so much to a program and they forget about you. When your program remembers you and gives you a blessing like this, it’s just like winning. It’s like actually coming home from winning a championship. It’ll be like coming back to Rupp Arena when we won and seeing 24,000 people celebrating with us again.”

The ring the 1996 national title team will receive on Wednesday.

On the night of the ring ceremony, the first 10,000 fans to arrive at Rupp will receive special posters commemorating the team. All members on the ’96 team participating will be available to sign the posters and other memorabilia at the Kentucky Proud Market in the Lexington Center before the Mississippi State game.

The gesture is just the latest in a series of efforts made by the Kentucky program under John Calipari and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart to reach out to those who were a part of its extraordinary history. Back in August, the ’96 were in Lexington for a team reunion. It was there they were surprised to learn they would be receiving championship rings and their ring sizes were taken. Executive Associate Athletics Director DeWayne Peevy delivered the news along with an invitation to be a part of Coach Cal’s Fantasy Experience and the UK Alumni Charity Game in September.

“It’s the greatest thing ever,” Anderson said. “You’ve given so much of your time and your life, everything to your program, and to have them give some of it back, you can’t say enough about that. There’s no price tag, there’s no winning percentage, there’s nothing you can cherish more than that.”

Anderson, however, isn’t done pouring himself into the UK program. A few weeks ago, he was on campus to speak to the team about the stories of perseverance he writes about in his book, “Stamina”. Not long after, he made the six-hour drive from Atlanta upon learning of Nerlens Noel had suffered a torn ACL, the same injury that ended Anderson’s senior season in 1997.

“What I was telling him and the players is coming from where I come from and the things that I’ve had to endure as a child, it never pushed me away from it,” Anderson said. “It only brought me closer to success by not giving up.”

In town to receive their long-awaited championship rings, Anderson and his teammates will no doubt spend any time they can with current Cats. They are all part of a unique fraternity, one that Anderson only appreciates more as the years go on. He’ll be sure to pass that perspective on whenever he can.

“You won’t get this opportunity to be amongst the best of the best in college and people and athletics and fans,” Anderson said. “You won’t get this opportunity again. So if you don’t embrace this moment now, don’t be upset when you never see it again. You have to find this moment and enjoy it.”

He likely won’t be encouraging any wrestling for team bonding though, especially not if Coach Cal’s in the room.

If you would like to be there as the ’96 Cats receive their rings, tickets are still available for Wednesday’s game against Mississippi State. Call the UK Ticket Office at (800) 928-2287 or the Rupp Arena Box Office at (859) 233-3535 or visit Ticketmaster.com to purchase tickets.