LEXINGTON — Kentucky’s basketball program has sent a lot of great starting lineups on the court, but the one Monday night was something special.
There was Tayshaun Prince, who has won an NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons, and Rajon Rondo, a NBA winner with the Boston Celtics. John Wall, the first pick in the 2010 NBA draft, and DeMarcus Cousins, the fifth pick in the 2010 draft, joined them in the starting lineup. So did Jodie Meeks — remember that remarkable shooting performance he put on at Tennessee during his junior season before he left for the NBA — of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The 23,000 or so blue-clad fans who came to Rupp Arena to watch the former UK¿stars play an exhibition game against the Dominican Republic national team coached by UK’s John Calipari loved every minute of watching those former stars along with Nazr Mohammed, who played on¿UK’s 1996 and 1998 national championship teams; Keith Bogans, an All-American who led UK¿to a 16-0 Southeastern Conference record in 2003 and Elite Eight berth; and Eric Bledsoe, who just finished his rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers after helping Wall and Cousins get UK¿to the Elite Eight in 2010.
Nobody really cared who won — the Dominicans did 106-88 thanks to a strong finish. Instead, this game was a chance to welcome back the UK stars and think about the great memories they created.
There were plenty of flashbacks, too. Prince opened the game bombing 3-pointers. Rondo looked as quick as ever. Wall was still Wall. Cousins banged and interacted with fans. Meeks might be an even better shooter now, as hard as that is to believe. Bogans is as competitive as ever — he protested calls in an exhibition game.
Perhaps my favorite play was when Bogans lobbed the ball to Wall on the fast break. Since the UK¿stars had really not practiced together, the toss was slightly off but Wall soared into the air and slammed the ball. It brought Rondo, Cousins and Meeks leaping off the bench and cheering just as loud as the UK fans.
Or maybe it came when Cousins, who had 28 points and 14 rebounds, felt he was fouled by Sacramento teammate Francisco Garcia, a former Louisville standout, and responded by grabbing Garcia and swinging him around to draw a foul. The two also exchanged some playful words during the game.
“We were playing the whole game. That is me and DeMarcus,” said Garcia, who had 30 points and blocked five shots. “It was never serious. You could see he was working hard. Every time he was making jump shots ... at end of season we would tell him he needed to work on that. You could tell he has been working on that a lot and soon he will be an all-star (in the NBA).”
This game felt like an NBA affair. The crowd was much more lively and former UK¿coach Joe B. Hall, who coached the UK¿Pros, knew why.
“Just look at the blue up there in those stands. This was a different crowd. This was people that do not have season tickets,” Hall said. “I think it was geat we had such enthusiasm for the Kentucky group. The crowd was awesome. It was a great night for Kentucky basketball.”
Everyone at the game got a free Papa John’s pizza thanks to Papa John’s founder John Schnatter. Another lucky fan won $3,000 along with Papa John’s pizza for a year and lifetime oil changes at Paul Miller Ford. There was a VIP¿reception before and after the game. The music during game breaks was much livelier and T-shirts seemed to be flying into the crowd almost non-stop. WKYT-TV news anchor Amber Philpot went into the crowd four times to give a fan a chance to answer a question and win prizes for everyone in his or her row — the kind of extra UK¿never does at a home game.
Calipari said one of his assistant coaches, former NBA head coach Del¿Harris, was stunned the reaction in pregame introductions when the crowd of 23,509 roared its approval for the former Cats, Calipari,¿Hall and even former Louisville coach Denny Crum,¿Hall’s co-coach in the game.
“It was like a NBA environment,” Calipari said. “Del Harris had never seen anything like this. When they introduced coach Crum, that was such a positive. When they introduced (Hall), the place went bonkers. It just shows what our fans are all about. I¿just hope they all enjoyed themselves.
“We all think this is normal. This is not normal. It’s an exhibition game on August 15 and was packed and on TV and we were going at each other. There are going to be people mad tomorrow that our team lost. They’ll be at the water cooler (saying) ‘I can’t believe we lost that game.’”
Hall joked he might be “hung in effigy” for losing the game.
“It was really a great time. I wish we had played better, but we played hard and without much coaching they did a good job,”¿Hall said. “I was impressed with several players. They really tried hard. They got fired up, but baskets would just not fall. It was a futile effort with the experience of practicing and not having an offense to go to stymied them at the last.”
The Pros did want to win. They understood any time they put on the blue, UK¿fans expected them to win.
“This is a special place. Not too many universities get the following we have. There is not more than three or four that could put on game like this and sell out and then have a second game (tonight in Louisville),” Mohammed said. “It was special to get on the floor again. Hopefully we can do it again. It would be nice. Our fans follow Kentucky basketball and follow us. To get a chance to play in front of them is special.”