Hours before the doors to Rupp Arena opened Tuesday, the line started to form.
It pretty quickly wrapped around the corner of the building, growing steadily as the afternoon wore on. It snaked all the way down High Street — spanning the entire length of the outside of the arena — before working its way down a set of stairs and back around the other end.
The hundreds of people who formed that line — most of them dressed in blue — stood in the hot August sun and visited with one another. Most of the talk was about — what else? — Kentucky basketball.
There was reminiscing over favorite teams and players of the past. There was excitement over the Wildcats that will take the Rupp court this season. There were strangers talking to strangers, with UK basketball as the common thread.
On this afternoon, however, the Cats weren’t the main reason many of those had joined the congregation.
“The bottom line is to support the benefit,” said Roger Long, who sat in a chair at the very front of the line.
Long estimated that he had arrived at that spot around noon, five hours before the Rupp doors were scheduled to open and six and a half hours before an open practice featuring the Kentucky Wildcats was set to begin.
The reason for the event — thrown together over a matter of 48 hours — was to raise money for victims of the flooding that has devastated communities in Eastern Kentucky.
Long, who traveled to Lexington from Campton, said he has two sisters in Jackson in Breathitt County, one of the hardest hit by the flooding.
“They were blessed. They didn’t lose their homes,” he said, before adding that many around them had. Homes flooded and destroyed. Roads washed away. Lives lost.
Long was touched that Kentucky’s young players had stepped up and approached UK Coach John Calipari with the idea to help the flood relief efforts with the open practice and corresponding telethon Tuesday night.
“It’s just a good thing what they’re doing for the flood victims,” said his wife, Janet Long, who sat next to him in line.
When the doors opened at 5 p.m., the crowd flowed in. The UK cheerleaders greeted them, and stationed at the entrances to Rupp were volunteers holding white buckets for the American Red Cross. Fans walked by, dropped donations into the buckets, and headed for their seats.
Once the show started, the Wildcats took center court and addressed the crowd.
CJ Fredrick, who teammates credited with getting the ball rolling on the open practice and flood relief efforts, spoke first, thanking the fans for being there. UK veterans Lance Ware and Jacob Toppin did the same. And reigning national player of the year Oscar Tshiebwe also got the microphone.
“These people in Eastern Kentucky — they need our help,” he said. “That’s why we’re here. To help them.”
Kentucky flood relief efforts
As of Tuesday, 37 deaths had been confirmed as a result of the flooding, with rescue and recovery efforts still underway.
The reason for the festivities in Rupp Arena — and the corresponding telethon on WLEX-18 — was to raise money for the flood relief efforts that will continue in the region for a long time to come. Several local businesses announced donations during the telethon, and Joe and Kelly Craft said they would match up to $1 million in donations.
By the time the telethon ended at 8 p.m., the announced total of money raised surpassed $2.4 million.
Before taking the practice court, Kentucky’s players manned the telephones and took calls for donations. Those who spoke to the Rupp crowd — and the UK fans watching at home — implored them to give to the cause.
T-shirts with the players’ likenesses are being sold to raise money, and the entire team signed basketballs as part of the fundraising effort. Calipari has mentioned multiple times this week that — in this new era of name, image and likeness — Kentucky’s players could have taken a cut of any profits from such ventures, but they’re donating everything to flood relief instead.
There were also a couple of big announcements regarding the 2022-23 schedule.
Gonzaga Coach Mark Few joined the telethon — and was shown on the Rupp Arena big screen — to announce that the Zags will play Kentucky in Spokane on Nov. 20, a marquee matchup that should feature two top-five teams. Few also agreed to bring his team to Rupp for a road game during the 2023-24 season.
Earlier in the night, UK point guard Sahvir Wheeler announced that the team’s annual Blue-White Scrimmage will be played in Eastern Kentucky, with Pikeville as a possible location for that game.
Before the doors opened, standing a few dozen people from the front of the line, Jasmine McClanahan held her 9-month-old son, Jett, and talked about making the two-and-a-half-hour drive from Crown City in southeastern Ohio to see the Cats and be a part of this event.
She’s an Ohio native but a UK graduate, recalling proudly that the Wildcats went to three Final Fours during her four years in school. She, too, was struck by the fact that it was the Kentucky players who initiated the push to have Tuesday night’s open practice.
“I think it’s a great thing that the kids are doing,” McClanahan said. “I think that’s awesome. 18- to 21-year-old kids deciding to do something like this for people? That just tells you that it’s a lot bigger than basketball.”
McClanahan had peeled away from the line to find some shade for young Jett while her husband, Caleb, held their spot in the sun. Caleb was quick to point out that he was a Duke fan, drawing double-takes from a couple of others in the line who overheard. Jasmine was just as quick to point out that she had accompanied him to an open practice at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham a couple of years ago, so he owed her one.
She also nodded down at their son, Jett, proud that this would be his first in-person college basketball experience.
“He’s going to Rupp Arena before Cameron,” she said.
Cats on the court
Those who made the trip to Rupp on Tuesday night got a sneak peek at a Wildcats team that is expected to contend for the program’s ninth national championship this season.
“I think this is going to be a special team,” said Roger Long from his spot at the front of the line. “I think Oscar is going to make this team — he’s bringing them together. He’s a good fella, and the rest of them are going to follow his leadership. I think this is going to be a special, special team. I sure do.”
Tshiebwe, to be expected, was a favorite among those standing in line. There were No. 34 jerseys and Oscar T-shirts. McClanahan said she followed him on social media and enjoyed seeing him at so many community events.
“He’s awesome,” said Janet Long. “He’s just a good person. He’s got a good heart — an excellent heart.”
There were plenty of highlights on the court.
In one sequence, Toppin hit an impossible-to-defend fadeaway jumper over Tshiebwe, then Fredrick knocked down a three-pointer, then Tshiebwe threw down a dunk on the other end.
Toppin and Daimion Collins connected on windmill jams within about 90 seconds of each other. Wheeler zipped around the court. Newcomers Cason Wallace and Chris Livingston showed flashes of their five-star talent.
Calipari said he didn’t think his players had enough legs left to go through a dunk contest, joking that there was so little defense played in the scrimmage that fans had already seen enough dunks anyway.
Those fans oohed and aahed along with the action, but the real reason for showing up was never lost.
With about an hour to go before the event began — the sun baking the Rupp sidewalks and the heat index well into the 90s — Alan Phillips arranged for a delivery of two big bags filled with cold, bottled water to be passed out to those in line.
Phillips took a bottle himself and sat down, explaining — in between thank yous from his fellow fans — that he was originally from Connecticut, but his wife grew up in Kentucky and her family was filled with lifelong UK basketball fans. When he moved to the commonwealth — he now lives in Crab Orchard — he was instantly hooked by the Wildcats.
He said he’d cheered them on for more than two decades, but this would be the first time he would step foot in Rupp Arena. Phillips joined the chorus of fans saying how proud they were of Kentucky’s players for stepping up to organize this event, and he voiced admiration for Calipari’s efforts on and off the court.
He also looked up and down the line of people who had shown up early. Yes, they were getting a glimpse of the team they loved. But, he said, they were primarily there to help the people of Eastern Kentucky in their time of need. And that’s what mattered most.
“It shows that people care. That they truly care. It shows what the people of Kentucky are all about.”
This story was originally published August 2, 2022 8:34 PM.