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Friday, October 10, 2008
No fan base embraces the Madness like Cat fans

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- A car pulled out of a metered parking space on Lexington Avenue, on the campus of the University of Kentucky, and Mike Allen sprang into action.

The Fairdale, Ky., resident jumped out from under the tent where he was holding a three-day basketball vigil. As he urgently ran off, tent mate Ray Thompson of Marion County, Ky., hustled over to place a chair in the vacant parking spot to hold it until Allen returned.

UK Fans
Thousands of Kentucky fans waited hours, some as many as days, to get a ticket to the Wildcats' Big Blue Madness event.
A few minutes later, Allen reappeared behind the wheel of a Dodge minivan -- with the UK license plate that reads "#1 Fan" on the front -- and took the spot.

For three days, this was the game Allen would play: moving the van from place to place, one step ahead of campus parking enforcement, while awaiting Kentucky Christmas -- ticket distribution for Big Blue Madness.

You might wonder why a grandfather from a blue-collar suburb of Louisville, some 90 miles away, would take three vacation days from work to sit in a tent to get tickets to a practice. Then you see Allen's Wildcat tattoo on his left arm. And you hear his plan for more tattoos: "I'm going to put Cat paws on my forearm, with the names of my grandchildren."

And you begin to understand.

"People say we're crazy," Allen said with a shrug. "But if you're a true-blue Kentucky fan, this is it."

This is it. Maybe even more than the thrill of March, or the heat of Southeastern Conference play, or the ferocity of nonconference rivalry games against Louisville and Indiana, this is it. The birth of a new basketball season -- when all things are possible, when there have been no defeats or disappointments -- might be the best time for Kentucky fans.

It's the only explanation for why 122 tents are clustered in a small city around Memorial Coliseum on a sunny September Thursday -- "Camp Keightley," according to one sign, honoring the beloved late equipment manager, Bill Keightley, whose tenure spanned from Rupp to Gillispie before he died suddenly at the Cincinnati Reds' season opener in April.

People say we're crazy. But if you're a true-blue Kentucky fan, this is it.

--Mike Allen

The impressive (or scary) thing: No more than 50 percent of the tent denizens are students. This isn't Krzyzewskiville, a collection of collegians killing time before a big Duke game. These are people of all ages from all across the state, lined up for days to see a practice.

Fans were allowed to start pitching tents only three days before tickets were distributed -- back in the 1990s, a guy named Wally Clark used to park his mobile home out front more than a month in advance to ensure he was first in line. The school reined that in, and now the tent people must wait for permission from the UK administration at the crack of dawn on that Wednesday to set up camp.

By the time the free tickets were distributed Saturday at first light, those in line numbered in the thousands. On the morning of Sept. 27, it took 40 minutes for Kentucky to dish out 23,000 tickets to those in line and those securing them online. For practice.

And Friday night will be the payoff for the vigil, when the 2008-09 Wildcats take the floor for the first time. For a border-to-border constituency that rarely has access to game tickets, and many who could not afford them anyway, this is the celebration for the common fan.

Kentucky was so anxious for this day to arrive that it actually moved up Madness by a week, from the nationwide opening Oct. 17 to Oct. 10. Coach Billy Gillispie utilized a loophole in the rules, which says a team can practice together for two hours once a week prior to the official start of the season, and made those two hours into Big Blue Madness.

The reason is recruiting-related: the Wildcats can get some blue-chippers in town without competition from anyone else's Madness. Of course, the primary target of this gambit was John Wall, the No. 1 point guard in the country, and he's not showing. (Wall's melodramatic recruitment looks like it could come down to the last two teams who played basketball in the 2007-08 season, Memphis and Kansas.)

Few fans follow recruiting more rabidly than Kentucky's -- but even they will be less consumed with who is in the stands than who is on the court Friday night.

"This is my chance to see what we got," Thompson said. "Elite Eight, Final Four, national championship."

It's been four seasons since Kentucky's last Elite Eight, and 11 since the last Final Four or national championship. There is little reason, on paper, to expect such accomplishments from this team -- the Cats were 18-13 in their first season under Gillispie, their worst record since the NCAA probation days of 1989-90. And they lost two guys who averaged 16 or more points per game, guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley.

Billy Gillispie
Kentucky fans hope Billy Gillispie is the coach to take the Wildcats back to their glory days.
But there always is a new group of players to appraise, and perhaps to overrate. In the heady days of preseason, there are no weaknesses and no worries.

"There's a lot more excitement for this team, as far as athletic ability," said Mark Robertson of Yosemite, Ky. "Gillispie has definitely infused the fans with excitement about the team."

Said Thompson: "I think coach Gillispie is going to put us back up there in contention. He's gonna be hanging banners."

That belief seems universal all the way around Camp Keightley. Right out front is Rick Brizendine, who runs a UK fan Web site and is celebrating his seventh straight year as the first guy in line for tickets.

Brizendine and his two sons -- Kyle, named for Kyle Macy, and Derrick, named for Derrick Hord -- arrived the night before they were allowed to pitch a tent. They stayed on the other side of the street until UK compliance director Sandy Bell came out and formally decreed the stampede underway.

The 45-year-old Brizendine, UK ankle tattoo on proud display, is from Owensboro, a good three hours to the west. Yet this is his 23rd straight year of lining up for tickets. His boys have now been in tow for 16 of those years. They're as excited now as ever.

"I went all the way to an AAU tournament in Orlando last year to be one of the first to meet [Gillispie]," Brizendine said. "I think he's the answer."

The Answer circulated through part of Camp Keightley during the vigil, meeting and greeting his endearingly insane fan base. They sure didn't have anything like this at his last stop, Texas A&M. Or anywhere else on planet Earth.

If you're not from here, it can be difficult to comprehend. That's why a mystified UK media relations staffer who is not from the state said to Ray Thompson: "I've got just one question: It's practice."

Thompson's response: "It's Kentucky basketball."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.