This month will mark the beginning of my 43rd year in covering the storied University of Kentucky basketball program as a sportswriter.
Yes, you read it right. It will be 43 years when 2018-19 campaign ends during the March Madness. It’s been that long and my press row colleagues at Rupp Arena are sure getting younger every year. Hard to believe, huh?
During the mid-1970s, I began covering the Kentucky Wildcats hoops when I was a college student at UK, writing for the campus daily newspaper, Kentucky Kernel. And Joe B. Hall was the head coach at the time. Star players like Jack Givens and Rick Robey were leading the Wildcats and they eventually helped Kentucky win a national championship in 1978.
After the Kernel days, I moved on to The Cats’ Pause, a weekly where I worked at least 20 hours a week during my post-graduate days while working on my MBA degree. After two years, I continued writing a weekly column for Cats’ Pause for another 10 years or so.
Anyhow, during my sportswriting career, I didn’t really have a favorite Kentucky Wildcat player. Don’t ask me why because I don’t know. Over the years, many of them have been nice and cooperative, and we even became friends, but I just didn’t have a favorite one as a journalist.
However, I do have one favorite Wildcat of all time. Growing up in a small town in Kentucky, he was my hero. My parents and I saw him play several times at Memorial Coliseum during the pre-Rupp Arena days. His name is legendary Dan Issel (pictured), who is still the school’s all-time leading scorer for the men’s program with 2,138 points. The 6-8 blond center, who averaged 33.9 points during his senior year of 1969-70, was fun to watch. He also could hit his downtown jumpers. His teammates, Mike Casey and Mike Pratt, were also popular.
Over 25 years later, I finally got to meet the former ABA and NBA star at his father-in-law’s house off Harrodsburg Road in Lexington for a lengthy interview. He was gracious and honest with his comments. I had a great time and I think he did, too. That interview appeared in my third and 1998 book, titled “Cats Up Close: Champions of Kentucky Basketball.”
One of my favorite Rupp stories involved Issel and his girlfriend. Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp didn’t really like the girls to be around his players much. In the summer of 1969, when Issel informed the 67-year-old Baron that he was getting married. Throughout his coaching career, Rupp had tried to enforce his unwritten policy of not allowing his players get married.
“Do you have to?” said an irritated Rupp, looking at Issel.
“No, sir, I don’t have to,” Issel responded.
“Well, we haven’t had anybody around here get married that didn’t have to for a long, long time.”
“Well, we don’t have to.”
“You know when you marry this girl, basketball won’t be No. 1 anymore.”
“Well, Coach Rupp, with this girl basketball hasn’t been No. 1 and I still think I have done okay and that’s why we are going to get married because she’s No. 1,” said Issel, thinking he had a good answer for his coach.
“Well, I don’t like it. I am going to tell you right now. I don’t like it because basketball won’t be first.”
Issel’s girlfriend was the former Cheri Hughes, the UK cheerleader from Lexington. She cheered for the varsity Wildcats during Issel’s sophomore and junior years.
As a wedding gift, Rupp and his wife, Esther, gave the new couple a sterling silver set. “It was probably the nicest wedding present that we got,” laughed Issel.
Even during his All-American days at UK, Issel -- who was inducted into Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1993 -- said he was never comfortable with Rupp, a strict disciplinarian who was overbearing.
“I think that’s kind of the way coach Rupp wanted it,” Issel said in the book. “While you were at the University of Kentucky playing for coach Rupp, he left no doubt who was the coach and who was the player. There are players who need a kick in the seat to be motivated, and there are players who need a pat on the back to be motivated.
“Coach Rupp’s philosophy was to kick everybody in the seat and if they weren’t strong enough to take it, he didn’t want them on his basketball team. You had to be tough to play for coach Rupp. You couldn’t be sensitive or be thin-skinned. That wouldn’t work. So, he was intimidating until the day I graduated.”
As you know, many players have come and go at Kentucky. But Issel is still my favorite Wildcat. Just like many UK fans. They love him, too.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.