Vaught's Views: Fans show 'love' for UK seniors

April 13, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

HARRODSBURG - After spending four years playing basketball for Kentucky, Gerald Fitch has learned he still doesn't fully appreciate the Wildcats' tradition.

He got another Big Blue lesson here Monday night when UK's five seniors started a 19-game barnstorming tour by beating a team of 13 46th District seniors 111-71 in front of a capacity crowd at Harrodsburg High School.

"This is a different feeling, especially since you are through playing ball for Kentucky," said Fitch, UK's leading scorer last season when the Cats finished 27-5. "You are still noticing the love for Kentucky basketball from fans. Even though I've been here four years, I am still learning different stuff about Kentucky from being around these fans."

It's a mutual love affair. Even though Fitch, Erik Daniels, Cliff Hawkins, Antwain Barbour and Matt Heissenbuttel never made it to a Final Four, Kentucky fans still obviously adore them, based on the way $15 T-shirts, $10 pictures and $15 posters were sold and the lines that formed for autographs after the game ended.


Hawkins said the players are busy trying to prepare for professional careers now, but they understood what playing these games across the state would mean to UK fans.

"This is a fun experience and a chance to meet a lot of people. Fans send us a lot of mail, and we don't get the chance to get back to everybody," Hawkins said. "Something like this gives you a chance to take time out and show people you appreciate them for appreciating what you do and what you love.

"It takes a total commitment to do something like this. We all made that commitment to each other to do this and to make sure we have fun doing it."

They joked with the 46th District players and interacted with fans

The players seemed to do that here. They joked with the 46th District seniors and interacted with fans. They didn't mind when officials brought youngsters out of the stands to take shots.

"The players playing against us want an opportunity to show us up and being able to say they did that to us," Fitch said. "But it is all for fun. For the fans, it is being able to watch us up close, get autographs and just be around us."

Losing coach Don Irvine had only one regret.

"I wish the game could have been a little more competitive early just to see what the UK players could have done," the Burgin coach said. "But I understand it's for fun, and the fans were here to see the UK seniors have fun."

Obviously the UK players didn't have the same tenacity in this game that Tubby Smith demands from them. Instead, they showcased dunks, outside shooting, fancy passing and trick dribbling to entertain the fans.

"The fans have seen us play all year and know what we can do," Barbour said. "This is about having fun, meeting the fans and signing autographs. It's a way for us to say thanks to the fans for all they've done for us.

"I've never seen anything like this before. I never went to any of these type games as a kid. But this is about the fans, especially the ones who can't get tickets to come to Rupp Arena. This is a way for those fans to see us and for us to thank them for their support."

Most of the fans seem to have forgotten that Kentucky was upset by Alabama-Birmingham in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. No one even seemed to pay a lot of attention when Harrodsburg senior Mark Dunn tried to have a little fun late in the first half when he held up a sign that said, "I Luv UAB," when he was waiting to go back in the game.

None of the seniors wanted to talk about the NCAA loss

None of the Kentucky seniors wanted to talk about the NCAA loss, their experiences at last week's NBA predraft camp or next year's Kentucky team. Daniels refused to answer any questions .

However, that obvious hurt over going out so early in the NCAA after going into the tourney as the No. 1 overall seed did not stop the Cats from entertaining the fans.

"These games are just to entertain fans," Hawkins said. "We do a lot of working out on our own before these games. This is just to have fun and excite the crowd with a couple of dunks or special things.

"I hope a lot of kids got to watch, get their autographs and maybe got to meet one of their favorite players. I know the autographs mean a lot to people. It's something they can cherish and keep around."

That's why so many fans were willing not only to wait in line for autographs, but even to pay for those signatures.

"This is just the type of fans that Kentucky basketball has," Fitch said. "This is a way for us to show our appreciation to those fans. Even though they didn't get a chance to be around us the way they wanted, they still showed us their love and appreciation as fans for four years and now we can give them some love back."

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