By now, everyone has heard the numbers. Four years. Seventeen NBA Draft picks. Eight lottery choices. Two No. 1 overall picks. Two Final Fours. A national championship.
But until the players who made those numbers come together, it’s difficult to fully understand the parade of basketball talent that has come through Lexington during the John Calipari era.
That’s where the UK Alumni Charity Game comes in.
On Monday, 12 former Coach Cal players returned to Rupp Arena to play in the second annual UK Alumni Charity Game. At the end of the first quarter, Calipari summoned them all – along with “assistant coaches” DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe — to midcourt to present more than $1 million raised through the event. Taking the microphone, he took a moment to reflect.
“I just got to tell you, folks,” Coach Cal said. “How proud are you of these guys right here?”
The 19,255 in attendance responded, giving the former Wildcat stars a standing ovation that lasted nearly 30 seconds. It may have been the loudest moment of the evening, but fans had plenty more to cheer for.
“It’s a state of basketball,” John Wall said, “so it’s not surprising to me knowing that anytime you put something together and this great group of guys come back, it’s all like a brotherhood. Coach Cal and the University of Kentucky do a great job of getting everybody organized and putting stuff together. I’m happy to have the opportunity to come back and have fun and put on a show for the fans.”
Led by Wall – flashing the same speed and athleticism that helped reestablish UK basketball among the nation’s elite – the Blue team defeated White, 111-95. Wall led all scorers with 40 points – proving his former backcourt mate wrong – adding 10 rebounds and 10 assists to tally the triple-double that evaded him in college as Blue built a lead that grew to as large as nine points in the fourth quarter.
“E. Bled told me I wasn’t going for 40 so I just tried to get 40,” Wall said.
It was then, however, that White rallied. Led by Brandon Knight – Wall’s point-guard successor – and his team-high 30 points, White closed to within 88-86 when Terrence Jones was fouled on a made layup. Knight was equal to the task of facing the former No. 1 overall pick, hitting six 3-pointers in 11 attempts.
“We’re both competitors and it’s tough for us to just get out on the court and kind of just not play,” Knight said. “So you get on the court and you want to make sure nobody gets hurt and play smart, but at the same time go at each other a little bit and have some fun.”
Jones would miss the free throw, and Calipari would grab the microphone shortly thereafter as the clock ticked closer to six minutes remaining. He announced the running-clock rule would be abandoned for the final minutes and directed players to play “serious” the rest of game. Wall and his Blue team would take the challenge to heart, pulling away for a double-digit win.
“It was fun,” Wall said. “The main thing is to give back support to the community. It’s fun being back and Kentucky and playing on that court again. It was fun and for a great cause.”
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and DeAndre Liggins needed not listen to Calipari, because they were playing with the energy that defined their Wildcat careers from the opening tip. The two swingmen guarded each other for nearly every second, defending in a way not customarily seen in an exhibition setting.
Kidd-Gilchrist finished with 26 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and four steals, while Liggins had 20 points and five rebounds.
Patrick Patterson (20 points and 13 rebounds) and Josh Harrellson (11 points and 10 rebounds) also posted double-doubles for the Blue team, while Anthony Davis – Kidd-Gilchrist’s former teammate – had one of his own with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Davis struggled with his shot, hitting just 5-of-18 field goals, but not when time was running down.
Davis hit buzzer-beating 3-pointers to end both the first and second quarter, including an off-balance shot from well beyond midcourt to close out the first half and bring his team to within 45-44.
Davis’ shots drew smiles from players all over the floor, a common occurrence throughout the UK Alumni Charity Game. Though not all the former Wildcats played together, the bond they shared having worn the same colors and suited up for Coach Cal is unmistakable.
“A lot of coaches, once you’re done playing for them, you don’t hear from them,” Knight said. “That’s not the same with Coach Cal. I not only hear from Cal, but (Rod) Strickland, Coach Strick, Kenny Payne, Coach (John) Robic. I hear from all those guys all the time. So it’s really a family when you come here. It’s not you play for us, you leave, we’re done with you. We always stay in contact, always keep in touch. It’s really family oriented.”
They have similar feelings for the fans who came out in droves to support them. Even during the offseason, the schedule of a professional player is tight. The former Wildcats come back even though they don’t have to.
“It just shows the appreciation that’s here, the tradition and how much the fans are behind the players here,” Knight said of the large September crowd. “I think that’s why we take the time out of our schedules now to come back and play in things like this, because we know we have a lot of support when we were here. It means a lot to us, so we have to take time and come back and do things like this.”
In coming back, the former players have spent time with the current generation of Wildcats. The players now in the NBA just finished a season during which they lost locker-room bragging rights as UK missed out on the NCAA Tournament. They don’t see that happening again.
“They’ve got a lot of talent and I think that as Coach Cal gets in the gym with them and works with them and they start to mold together and build together and grow together, there’s going to be a lot of competition throughout the gym and I think it’s going to really pay off,” Knight said.
Alumni weekend raises more than $1 million for charity