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Heartbreaking

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Heartbreaking

 

Sometimes, even a glorious win cannot compare to the strength and durability of defeat and loss. Victory is frequently ephemeral, thrilling in the moment but quickly becoming a distant memory. When I think back on my favorite sports teams, their losses (especially the close ones) leave a lasting emotional impression. While crying in the moment relieves tension, the heartache lasts forever.

 

A similar circumstance happened in the spring of 1968. Adolph Rupp, the great basketball coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, did not have a successful decade in the 1960s. After winning four NCAA titles in the 1940s and 1950s, he experienced a prolonged dry spell. Oh,

He had some great teams, but he would never again succeed where it had once looked so simple.

 

In the early years of the decade, Rupp placed all of his hopes on the most flashy player he had ever coached (Cotton Nash). Nash played numerous incredible games and was revered as a hero by many Kentucky schoolboys. However, Ohio State, headed by legends like Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, eclipsed the Nash-led teams. Rupp came close to winning his fifth championship in 1966, but he was forced to settle for finishing second to Texas Western. Because Texas Western’s starting lineup had five black players and five white starters, Kentucky’s loss cemented Rupp’s reputation as a racist in the eyes of the media. Late in the 1960s,Coach Johnny Wooden and UCLA would start a remarkable run of victories that would overtake Kentucky and Rupp.

 

1967’s sophomore class gave Rupp one last opportunity to make amends. There were three well-groomed, appealing, and talented young men in there. Dan Issel, a 6-8 center who would go on to become Kentucky’s all-time top scorer, was among the group. Issel went on to have a successful career in the ABA and NBA. Mike Pratt, a 6-4 forward who was a dependable workhorse and a prolific scorer, was also a member of the club. Pratt was a renowned color commentator on the Kentucky radio network until his death earlier this year.

But playmaker Mike Casey was the one in charge of making things happen. Casey was a 6-4 guard who was capable of making plays and scoring points. Most people expected him to lead Kentucky out of the wilderness because he had guided his high school team (Shelby County) to a state championship.

 

The boy marvels (Casey, Issel, and Pratt) performed admirably in the first few months of the 1967–1968 campaign but fell off in January. Their lowest point was a 28-point defeat to Tennessee, their main rival. The Wildcats went on a winning streak of eleven games after the Tennessee disaster to win the SEC championship. Issel became a scoring machine during that run. Early on in the season, he had performed well. But by the end of the year, he was outstanding. As was to be expected, Casey finished the season with the most points, followed by Pratt.

 

Rupp’s chances seemed excellent going into the NCAA tournament because the regional would be held on the home court of Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Kentucky. However, the first game was supposed to be a titanic struggle. The team up against Kentucky was Marquette, led by the brash and confrontational Al McGuire. The Warriors (now known as the Golden Eagles) played with an aggressive, smash-mouth style that always caused problems for teams managed by Rupp. The hoopla surrounding the game was unfounded. Issel blasted off for 36 points as Kentucky scored over 100 points and won by 18 points.

Ohio State was the last remaining barrier standing between the Wildcats and the NCAA Final Four. Although Ohio State remained a strong team, it was not the powerhouse it was in the early 1960s when Lucas and Havlicek were such formidable opponents.

 

It was early in the second half when I started listening to the game on the radio in my car. I was going through some personal and professional issues at that point in my life. I won’t go into why, but that fact just made what was about to happen worse. “Kentucky is in peril,” the Kentucky announcer, Cawood Ledford, said as he welcomed me. They were playing horribly and were down by 10 points, while the Buckeyes were doing everything correctly. The Wildcats were engaged in a grueling contest. They scratched and clawed, picking up a few points here and there. It became necessary to move backward in order to move ahead in order to take two steps. Issel knocked in a shot to give Kentucky a lead as the clock wound down on the game. With three seconds left on the ensuing possession, an Ohio State throw was intercepted. As time ran out, the Buckeyes in-bounded the ball to Dave Sorenson, who sank a ten-footer. I was so devastated that I had already lost.

 

Issel, Casey, and Pratt enjoyed another successful year as juniors, but this time Marquette dominated them in an NCAA regional held in Wisconsin at the SDS’s headquarters (Students for a Democratic Society). This time, McGuire had his side motivated, and the crowd aided him by repeatedly chanting “Heil Hitler” at Rupp. Casey fractured his leg in a car accident after the 1968–1969 campaign; Issel and Pratt had to play without him in their final year. Throughout the 1969–1970 season, they excelled and frequently held the top spot in the nation. In the NCAA regional finals, they faced Jacksonville and a 7-0 Artis Gilmore, and they were unable to win. Looking back, the late Dave Sorenson robbed them of their one significant opportunity. It was heartbreaking, and that’s the only term that can adequately express it in my memory.

 

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