Current Wildcats Could Use Some Fight

Legend has it that in the early days of what is now the University of Kentucky, a faculty member who had just watched its football team play, said, “They played like wildcats.”

Seriously, that’s how the current name, Wildcats, emerged.

When a current UK fan complained about how John Calipari’s Wildcats lacked fight against Arkansas, it caused me to think back about the history of the game that a Canadian college professor, Dr. James Naismith, invented.

When you see a Kansas home game on TV, you surely have noticed that one end of the court is labeled “Dr. James Naismith Court.”

Naismith taught his game to a lot of Kansas students, one of whom was Adolph Rupp, who coached UK to greatness.

In the beginning, dribbling was not allowed. The ball could be advanced only by passing it. Dribbling came later.

How Basketball Evolved

Rupp came to Lexington after coaching an Illinois high school team. Over the years, Rupp has been credited with the evolution of basketball in Kentucky. But the truth is that a lot of tiny mountain schools plus three large schools in Louisville (Male High, Manual and St. Xavier) made the game popular.

So did the two organizations in Louisville, Young Men’s Christian Association and Young Men’s Hebrew Association. Both of those organizations plus The Brown Hotel’s ballroom played host to early University of Louisville games. And Uncle Ed Diddle, who had played in the first football game he ever saw for Centre College’s famed Praying Colonels who toppled then mighty Harvard, started coaching crowd-pleasing basketball teams at what is now Western Kentucky University.

With just one referee for a game, the sport was rough. But it was nothing like it is now, when athletes are so much faster and stronger.

LeBron Alone At Top

Did you see Sunday’s game in which  Miami’s LeBron James, the sport’s greatest player, made the New York Knicks look like they were standing still? He would either swish ridiculously long-range shots or, being the strongest player in the world, drive for an uncontested layup. When he goes for the basket it’s like the parting of the Red Sea.

There isn’t time or space for an argument about whether James or Michael Jordan is the greatest player the sport has known. You can make your pick.

James, as he proved in London while leading our country to the Olympic Gold Medal, is the world’s greatest now.

The game as it is now played is not for the timid. Just compare Kentucky’s loss at Arkansas and Louisville’s impressive victory at Syracuse. Kentucky’s players are so physically weak that they can’t compete with big-body opponents.

Also, Rick Pitino’s coat-tossing got his players fired up. John Calipari had no answer to toughen up his Wildcats against a so-so Arkansas.

Pitino also has the game’s most improved big man,  6-foot-11 sophomore Gorgui Dieng. The native of Senegal is one of many tall Africans now making big waves in American basketball.

The crowd that turned out for the Louisville-at-Syracuse game was a stupendous 31,173. The stadium serves two sports, basketball and football.

Attention, Papa John: Any chance of a covered,  air-cooled and heated Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium?

Cards’ Beginning

In its infancy, Louisville played mainly small Kentucky teams in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with the likes of Western, Eastern, Morehead and Murray plus Kentucky Wesleyan. The latter, in Winchester, had the biggest gym and a lighted (but not electric) scoreboard.

The Cards leaped into national prominence while playing at the Jefferson Country Armory. It was the site of a lot of great basketball, including not only UofL games, but Ohio Valley Conference games and – get this – home of the Southeastern Conference Tournament and UK-Notre Dame games. Also, many exciting boys high school state tournaments were held there.