The Strap: Big Blue Heavyweight Champion of the World

Director's Commentary: I originally posted this back in July, but I'm re-posting it today because I've been working on something else, and I kinda forgot to do the other belts, which I'll do in the coming days/weeks. Hear me now.

Yesterday I was reading Grantland’s Pitching Championship Belt articles by Bill Barnwell when I came up with an idea: a Universitiy of Kentucky Basketball Championship Belt (hierarchy because the Intercontinental Championship, to me, was the most elegant of championships: understated yet somehow still bold, like Bill Curry in a Tommy Bahama shirt). I totally already know what you’re thinking: God, he’s handsome. And his ideas are so good, and he knows all about history and he reads books and he has the musculature of a young Apollo Creed. I wish I was him. I wish I was Eric Kaufman. But yeah, no, he’s totally ripping off Grantland here. It’s actually a little embarrassing that he can’t come up with his own content so he expects me to read this Great Value nonsense.

Well, first, you’re a bit long-winded. Second, you nailed the Apollo Creed thing. Third, it’s summer, so I mean it’s this or baseball because you clearly don’t want to read any of my World Cup posts (I could show you the numbers—I get it, okay?) (1).

Here’s how (and why) this works: UK, unlike any other school, has a tradition that spans from the Great Depression (Basil Hayden) to the greatest depression medication (Basil Hayden). UK, unlike any other school, has a Big Blue Nation that debates these things every single day. We’re like the Yankees. Ruth or DiMaggio (Ruth)? Mantle or Gehrig (Mantle, but the Iron Horse bends a knee to no man)? Except with us it’s: Issel or Mashburn? Davis or Wall? King Rex or Prince Sheray? Impossible questions all, but today we answer them anyway, and to do that we’ll need some criteria, which leads me to the next section, titled

THE CRITERIA

1.     To be considered for the Big Blue Heavyweight Championship, the Wildcat has to be the best player of his decade because let's be honest, this isn't Louisville--if we start nitpicking too much we'll have a hundred players to consider, and I'll lose you halfway through the post.

2.       This is more of a non-criterion: duration of college stay will not affect the Wildcat’s eligibility. For instance: Wa11, John; Davis, Anthony. Get it?

3.       Comparing between eras is already a fool’s errand, especially considering the significant improvements in health and performance training over the past decade, so don’t give me heights and weights and how Pat Riley would’ve had a hard time guarding Julius Randle. You know who else he would’ve had a hard time guarding? Antwain Barbour. Additionally, I will use stats where I think they’re applicable, but all lengths (and, more importantly, strengths) of schedule were not created equal. I will rely just as heavily on the eye test and common sense because this isn’t Sports Science, I’m not Nate Silver, and you’re not here for a Calculus exam.

4.       Just relax. I had to make some difficult exclusions. 

THE STRAPS

Obviously, the Big Strap will go to the Big Blue Heavyweight Champion of the World, and will be henceforth eponymous to that champ until someone supplants him, hopefully live on ESPN hosted by Lindsay Czarniak and Sara Walsh. And Kenny Mayne. With Larry Biel and Roy Firestone hosting the after show. Next, the Intercontinental Championship will go not to the next best player (because that’s not how fake wrestling fake works), but to the best second best player on a given team (because that is how fake wrestling fake works). Other titles, like the Tag Team Champs, the Bluegrass Belt and the Keightley-Ledford Championship of Big Blue Badassery will be explained at the time of their “tournament” except for the Tag Team Champs because if you can’t figure that one out, then just ring your call button and Tommy will come back there and hit you on the head with a tack hammer because you are a (redacted: I don't like that word).

 Enough weighing in. Let’s rassle.

BIG BLUE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP OF THE WORLD

Let’s trek methodically through the decades, crowning a champion from each, starting in the 1940s. Yes, I understand Kentucky basketball predates World War II, and with all due respect to the aforementioned Basil Hayden, who I'm confident will come into play for later straps, I think it’s important to draw a line somewhere, and I’m choosing to draw it below with 1940s BBHCOTW, Ralph Beard.

'40s: Ralph Beard

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John Wa11 with 2 rings and an Olympic gold medal. That’s what I (hyperbolically) think of when I think of Ralph Beard, who died in 2007, along with some small part of all of us because Gillispie. Some (dilettante Louisville fans with no idea what they’re talking about because they’re Louisville fans which means they’re innately history-averse because they have no history) will remember Beard for his role in Kentucky’s point-shaving scandal (basically Kentucky was so good in '48 and '49 they shaved points and still won national titles). People with a clue will remember Ralph Beard as the best player on Rupp’s Fabulous Five, the team that started the dynasty which has become our birthright. People with another clue will recall Bob Cousy, Celtics Hall of Famer, who extolled Beard’s “lightning-quick” athleticism, his dogged determination, bottomless well of stamina, and declared Beard would’ve been a Hall of Famer were it not for his lifetime ban from the NBA. Other than the Baron himself, perhaps no Wildcat is more directly responsible for the legacy of winning that has defined us as a state and a collective Big Blue Nation.

50s: Cotton Nash

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Okay, I’m cheating. Cotton Nash didn’t come to UK until 1961, but because of Dan Issel, Cotton Nash, without my interceding, would’ve been relegated the purgatory of Honorable Mention, and that’s just not fair. Yes, UK won two titles in the '50s. Yes, Bill Spivey and Vernon Hatton are UK HOFers. But Cotton Nash was better. As in 600(ish) total points better. As in 3X (consecutive) All-American better. As in this guy scored 1770 points in 78 games, which is the equivalent of about two seasons now including NCAA Tourney games—he’s still the fastest Wildcat to ever reach 1000 points. Get it? Cotton Nash.

'60s: Dan Issel

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Let’s be honest: you knew he was gonna be here. At the very least he’s the profile on the heads side of a UK coin (as opposed to a face on the “UK Mt. Rushmore” because this isn’t Bleacher Report and you’re not a jerk).

Look, this guy, this Dan Issel, he’s the flipping scoring-leader. He last played in 1970. It’s 2014. He was the single-game scoring leader until—OMG Jodie just hit another three--2009. He last played in 1970. While at UK he set 23 (!) school records. And (EMERGING THEME ALERT) this isn’t Louisville. School records mean something here. Remember a little while ago when I was all OMG Cotton Nash scored 1770 points in 78 games, that’s so amazing, blah blah bleh. Well, in 5 more career games Issel scored 2138. If you’re wondering, that’s an average of about 60 per game to separate him from Cotton Nash. It would be another 15ish years until someone came sniffing around his scoring record (Kenny Walker), and it took Sky 132 games (versus, remember, Issel’s 83) to do it. In fact, only 3 players in the Top 10 of UK’s All-Time Scoring List got there in under 100 games (Issel, Mashburn, who took 98, and the aforementioned Nash), and only two others saw the north side of 2000. Basically, if you’re trying to make a case against Issel, you better bring it.

'70s: Jack Givens

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In the 1978 National Championship game, Goose brought home our fifth banner by scoring 41 points against a school of brosephs in North Carolina called Duke. Let me say the same thing with different words: We have 8 championships instead of 7, Duke has 4 championships instead of 5, because Jack MFing Givens. Need more? Me neither, but here’s more. Jack Givens is third on our all-time scoring list, behind only Issel and Walker. He was the second Wildcat (of only three ever) to reach 2000 points. He’s one of our own, from right here in the Bosom of the Bluegrass, and I’ve never read anything ever that definitively states he wasn’t born from the Spirit of the Bluegrass, like Anakin Skywalker with the Holy Midichlorians, Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit (don’t you dare, it’s a joke) and Chane Behanan and Kevin Ware with the Holy Jurich. Remember them—Behanan and Ware--two of the key narratives of their (laughable) third national championship team? Yeah, neither do UL fans. We, however, the Big Blue Nation which treasures our history and values the importance it plays in our present and future, will never forget Jack Givens. Because thanks to him Duke is 4 instead of 5. Because thanks to Jack “Goose” Givens we’re 8 instead of 7.

'80s: Rex Chapman

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This wasn’t easy because Sam Bowie and Kenny Walker, both of whom are forever safely ensconced in the court of Big Blue Royalty, yield to no one, but Rex, like John Wa11, Jamal Mashburn, Anthony Davis and maybe no one else in our well-documented history, transcends. In only two years Rex scored over 1000 points, and the argument could be made (and not easily refuted) that Issel’s record is Issel’s record because Rex, who played at UK at a time when leaving early for the NBA was something only morons and Moses Malone and Michael Jordan did, wasn’t in Lexington long enough to shatter it. Conversely, an argument could be made that Rex’s transcendence is due—at least partially—to the James Dean Principle.

What’s the James Dean Principle, handsome? Did you just make that up?

Good question. Yes, I did just make it up, but I stand by it. The James Dean Principle states that the unexpected/premature departure of a wunderkind lends itself to an unrealistic extrapolation of said wunderkind’s future value. Think about it like this: imagine if Will Ferrell had dropped off the face of the earth (God forbid) after Step Brothers. He would have rattled off, this would've been his run: SNL, Old School, Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Semi-Pro, and then, after settling the whole Pan-Pam debate, just been gone. If you assume the same upward trajectory of hilarity, ignoring the inevitable dip of the bell curve/regression to the mean, then we start to assign him a filmography free of Land of the Lost, and a bunch of voiceover roles that only your nephew/niece saw. Or, if that’s too clumsy of a comparison, just think Kurt Cobain. Your job here is to decide whether Rex Chapman would’ve flamed out Smelling Like Teen Spirit or rebounded because (NSFW Audio)

 

'90s: Jamal Mashburn

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Frankly, it’s weird to choose a player from a decade which saw two titles return home to the Bluegrass, neither of which he was apart, but I don’t expect much pushback here. Mashburn is simply the most important player of modern Kentucky basketball history, and that’s not a position I take lightly. An argument could be made for Meeks and Patterson, who kept us afloat when we could’ve gone full Hoosierian. Another argument could be made for John Wa11, whose commitment, then effervescent on-court play, planted firmly the flagpost that declared Kentucky was back, and back to reclaim nothing less than our birthright: Owner, Chairman and CEO of College Basketball. But Mashburn was better—at least, he was more important. Better is what we’re here to establish. With a championship belt.

Mashburn committed to play for a Kentucky team which was not only doomed to struggle his freshman year, but also, because of probation, was ineligible to play postseason basketball. Yet Mashburn came anyway, donning a high-top flattop before Nerlens Noel was even born. Mashburn’s sophomore season, which started with a trip to My-T-Sharp (that'll be eight dollars), saw Number 24 become a bona fide star, culminating in the Lord Voldemort (He Who Shall Not Be Named—because I’ve been told to spell out some of my references) of basketball games. But that was only the appetizer for next season’s entrée: the hanging of a banner, the first of my lifetime (that I was old enough to remember). It wasn’t the banner we ultimately wanted, but like the Brandon Knight Banner in 2011, it carried far more significance than a singular Final Four. It was a warning, war drums in the distance. The Wildcats were coming.

If you still need to be convinced of the indelible mark Mashburn left on Kentucky Basketball, consider this: in a Big Blue World where the jerseys of Delk, Turner, Bogans and Prince still haven’t found their way to our vaunted rafters, Mashburn watched his ascend before he ever left the building:

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'00s: John Wa11

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I’m loopholing here because he committed in 2009, which technically separates him from Anthony Davis (yeah, he’s next, spoiler alert). Tubby had his share of greats in this decade, most notably Prince and Bogans, both of whom were so great in Blue that it took the transcendence of John Wa11 and Coach Cal to nudge them out of consideration, but as was the case with Mashburn above, I don’t expect to field many complaints about the inclusion of Wa11. I love Prince and Bogans, especially Bogans, my contemporary at UK, whom I sort of knew personally, and whom I really liked off the court. But John Wa11.

Look, there isn’t much our Big Blue Tradition hasn’t provided us with over the last 100 years, but that, the things you just watched, we’d never had that. Other than Mashburn, Kentucky has never had a more perfect player play a more perfect season at a more perfect time. If Coach Cal gave us our swagger back then John Wa11 was his vessel. His season was a simultaneous expression of his explosive ability, the tenor of the Calipari Era, and our unique passion for this program.

'10s: Anthony Davis

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Stars become legends over long periods of time because, like the oak needs photosynthesis, and other science words, to grow from an acorn, a star can only grow into a legend with the right amount of time and recollection. Look, I don’t know how densely packed that time must be with recollections of said star’s achievements. That’s a little too Gladwellian for me. Maybe someday when I’m smarter I’ll take a shot at quantifying it. But here’s what I do know: Once in high school I intercepted an overthrown ball by reading the quarterback’s eyes and running to the spot. We’d done it a million times in practice that week. To hear me tell the story now (except to you, dear Power K readers, who get nothing but my honesty), I was basically Charles Woodson doing this

My point is Anthony Davis has only been gone a couple years, but in my lifetime there have only been two Wildcats who were legends before they left the building: Davis and Mashburn. That’ll happen when, in your only season of college basketball, you break every single-season school and conference record for blocked shots. You are named SEC Player of the Year. You are named National Defensive Player of the Year. You’re a consensus first-team All American. You are the AP, Naismith, Rupp, John R. Wooden and probably several other organizations’ National Player of the Year. You won a national title. No Wildcat—not Mashburn, not Issel, not anyone—has accomplished all of these things in a career, and AD did it in a season. Again, this ain’t Louisville. These things mean something here. Our Big Blue History is as deep as the hollows it permeates, and even though his time here was brief, Anthony Davis is already a monumental (literally—he’s monument-worthy) figure in it. Imagine what we’ll be saying about him in 20 years.

HONORABLE MENTION: It wasn’t easy to narrow it down to just these few guys. A program like ours was built on legends, guys like Alex Groza, Bill Spivey, Vernon Hatton, Louie Dampier, Sam Bowie, Kenny Walker, Tony Delk, Tayshaun Prince, and Keith Bogans. Since I didn’t consider them for the Big Strap, I mention them here with honor.

Okay, so here’s how we’re going to do this. There can be only one Big Blue Heavyweight Champion of the World, and while I made a case for the candidates it’s ultimately your job to crown one. On the right sidebar (probably next to Ralph Beard) you’ll see a poll. Vote. 

 

Footnotes

1.       I love soccer, and I will continue to write about it. If you don’t like that, please visit the CONTACT page of this website to find the email address for the complaints department.

2. (REDACTED: GRAMMAR)

3.       I’ve come around to what I believe is the correct way of thinking, which is that retard is an altogether offensive word--so offensive, in fact, that I'm a little astonished it's taken people like me this long to realize it. So, stop using it. Hear me now.