Kentucky's Big Blue Madness features rappelling coach and large Rupp Arena crowd

Hayes Gardner
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky women’s basketball coach Kyra Elzy rappelled from the Rupp Arena ceiling. Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari addressed a frenzied crowd from a podium. And the Kentucky basketball seasons ceremoniously began once again in front of fans at Big Blue Madness.

“Can I just say — boy, have I missed that roar,” Calipari said, opening his stump speech.

Nearly two years after the UK men's promising 2019-20 campaign was ended by the pandemic and a year after their horrid 2020-21 season was played in front of only 3,075 fans per game, thousands poured into Rupp to watch a basketball practice on Friday evening. Nearly 20,000 tickets were issued, and although not every seat was filled, it is believed to be the largest indoor gathering in the state of Kentucky since the pandemic began.

Big Blue Madness is a decades-long tradition that was forced to be sans fans last year. But this season’s event was kicked off with the “Big Blue carpet” as the UK women’s and men’s basketball team entered Rupp Arena surrounded by spectators.

“This team is so much fun. You’re going to love their personality,” Elzy said of the women’s team.

Once in Rupp, players, including Rhyne Howard, UK’s national player of the year candidate, were introduced on a stage surrounded by fireworks and jets of smoke. Elzy then made the grandest entrance of all, rappelling from the catwalk, more than 80 feet above the court, to land on the ground and address the crowd.

The UK men’s team then entered, with redshirt sophomore Dontaie Allen, from Pendleton County, dancing to “Grove Street Party” — UK football’s unofficial hype song.

Allen and several others participated in a 3-point contest, and sharpshooter CJ Fredrick defeated freshman TyTy Washington in the final. Frederick, a former Covington Catholic star and 2018 Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year, transferred from Iowa, where he connected on 46.6% of his 3s over a two-year career.

Among those spectating were recruits, including Reed Sheppard, the son of former UK great Jeff Sheppard, and many former players. Darius Miller, Jodie Meeks, Wayne Turner, Jack “Goose” Givens, and Dominique Hawkins — who Calipari called, “one of my favorites” — served as judges for the dunk contest.

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For Meeks, who had a 10-year NBA career and won a title with the Toronto Raptors in 2019, it was his first time in Lexington since his playing days. He’s now retired and living in Atlanta.

“Last year, I wanted to (return to Lexington), but obviously with everything going on with the pandemic, I wasn’t able to, comfortably, so this year I wanted to show some love and come back home, quote-unquote,” he said. “It’s a great place to be, especially when you’ve done well here, and I wanted to see the new talent coming in.”

In the dunk contest, Kareem Watkins, a 5-foot-8 sophomore walk on, earned a perfect score for after completing a slam off the backboard, and freshman Daimion Collins, who dunked over West Virginia transfer Oscar Tshiebwe, also received one perfect total. But it was junior Jacob Toppin who won the contest with two dazzling dunks.

Kentucky's women basketball coach Kyra Elzy rappelled from the rafters at the start of the Big Blue Madness Friday evening in Rupp Arena. Oct. 15, 2021

The dunk contest essentially continued with a Blue-White exhibition (Blue won 36-23 in about six minutes of play) that was short on defense and long on relaxed play. Sahvir Wheeler, a Georgia point guard transfer who suffered an injury last week, took part in it, throwing a half-court alley-oop to Toppin.

The most poignant moment of the night came when Calipari spoke of Terrence Clarke, the former UK player who died earlier this year in a car accident. Clarke’s family was present, and they were gifted custom shoes with Clarke’s likeness from the UK team.

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Prior to Friday, the largest crowd Rupp Arena had seen since the pandemic's onset in March 2020 came in September, when nearly 14,000 watched an Eric Church concert. The most-attended Yum Center event in that time frame was last weekend’s Lil Baby concert.

Vaccinations were not required, but masks were; the vast majority of fans wore them on the concourse, but many removed them in their seats.

Cases of the coronavirus have slightly declined in Kentucky over the past two months, but Fayette County is still in the “red,” like the bulk of the state, meaning that there is an incidence rate (average COVID cases per 100,000) above 25. Fayette County’s incidence rate was 28.2 as of Friday, down from nearly 50 earlier this month.

Kentucky players react as fan Jake Wallace almost hits the half-court shot contest to win $100,000 at Big Blue Madness Friday evening in Rupp Arena. Oct. 15, 2021

For fans of UK, which ESPN currently has projected as the No. 9 team in the country and CBS ranks at No. 13, it was the first look at the 2021-22 squad. As Calipari addressed the crowd during his speech, he invoked UK’s history (“The winningest program in college basketball, he noted) and the fans’ passion (“You people are crazy. You’re nuts,” he said), but did not bring attention to last year’s disappointing season.

With key returning players and an influx of transfers and talented freshmen, Wildcat fans have reason to believe that following last season's 9-16 campaign, UK's success, as well as the fanbase, will be back.

For almost every scholarship UK player — with a notable exception in junior Keion Brooks — Big Blue Madness was their first time playing in front of a true Rupp Arena environment. Last year, only 15% of the arena was full, but that certainly wasn’t the case Friday night.

“For the younger guys, it might be a culture shock a little bit because of so many fans,” said Meeks, the former Wildcat, “but they better get used to it — that’s every home game.”

Hayes Gardner can be reached at hgardner@gannett.com; Twitter: @HayesGardner.