By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
Rupp Arena was packed with 24,000 jubilant fans celebrating UK’s first basketball national championship in 18 years.
As the 1996 championship banner began ascending to the rafters, the crowd roared at a fever pitch.
Those are the moments that best signify the essence of collegiate athletics — overcoming obstacles, triumph, celebration … and heartache.
Heartache because, oblivious to everyone, including my best friend cheering to my left, a pair of lonely tears slid down my cheek.
I was ecstatic for my beloved Cats, but grieving because I couldn’t share the special moment with my father.
I learned to love sports — and UK basketball — from my father.
Growing up in rural Kentucky, I grew to appreciate UK basketball delayed telecasts — it meant that my dad would be home from his second-shift job at General Electric and we could watch the game together.
During the weekends (especially during SEC play) we often huddled around the radio and listened to iconic UK play-by-play announcer Cawood Ledford describe the action.
But because of petty family dysfunction, my father and I didn’t even speak during the entire 1995-96 season — the 34-2 team (later dubbed the Untouchables) that many consider to be the greatest UK team ever.
For the better part of two years, a close-knit father and son had completely grown apart.
Although dysfunction has never completely been erased in my family, relations with my father were thankfully restored.
One could argue we made up for lost time.
As new head coach Orlando “Tubby” Smith made his first run through the postseason with the Cats, my dad and I were there. We followed the Cats as they claimed the 1998 SEC Tournament Championship in Atlanta.
I vividly remember sneaking away at Atlanta’s CNN Center to a pay phone and ordering first- and second-round NCAA tickets from a ticket broker (no cell phone, no Internet) the day of the SEC Championship, going with the hunch that the Cats would be back in the same city the following week.
Once the brackets were released later that night, I surprised my dad with the news I had secured the tickets. We returned to Atlanta to watch them dispatch South Carolina State and St. Louis.
We were slackers and didn’t make the trip to Florida to see third- and fourth-round wins over UCLA and Duke, but quickly decided to make the 16-hour long drive to San Antonio for the Final Four.
What a trip. We explored the Alamo, quarter-horse racing at Retama Park, the canoe ride on the River Walk and all the excitement of being a part of the Final Four.
That Monday night, the “Comeback Cats” claimed the NCAA Championship and I was in the Alamodome with my dad. We worked our way down from our perch in the rafters to the lower arena.
There we watched the “One Shining Moment” video and the trophy presentation arm-in-arm, sandwiched among thousands of fellow Cats fans.
There were other games and other moments after that, but none that could ever top it. Father and son bonding, celebrating and loving. It gets no better than that.
I was set to lead a Kentucky Kernel trip to Oxford, Miss., to cover the Cats’ big game against the Ole Miss Rebels last week.
Instead, I was in Norton Hospital in Louisville watching my father draw his final breaths.
His final hours were peaceful. His family surrounded him, and his two daughters lovingly stroked his hands.
He beat lung cancer more than 20 years ago but was unable to defeat a seven-month avalanche of medical maladies culminating with the osteomyelitis infection that had completely overtaken his body. He fought to the end, but it was a fight he could not win.
The Cats might defeat Auburn on Saturday, or they might come out flat and disappoint. Whatever the outcome, remember the big picture.
College athletics — yes, even UK basketball — are meant to be a fun diversion from the strains of day-to-day life. They are there to give enjoyment, a sense of belonging and community. They provide great discussions before and after class, at your place of employment and at family functions.
Fans want to win. I understand that, but the real winning comes from the relationships you build and the love you share.
As the Cats take on the Tigers on Saturday at 4 p.m., make sure you watch the game with someone you love.