Commentary

23,313 pack Rupp Arena ... for practice

Originally Published: October 12, 2007
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- For six months, the state of Kentucky has gone Perez Hilton on Billy Gillispie.

It has driven by his new house (12,000 square feet, as reported in the Lexington Herald-Leader -- picture included).

Billy Gillispie
AP Photo/James The honeymoon is over at Kentucky. It ended when Kentucky was stunned by Gardner-Webb in Rupp Arena.

It has gossiped about his love life (he's a bachelor, and the current gubernatorial candidates have garnered less interest than whom the coach is dating).

It has checked into his background (there was a one-hour documentary on the coach -- "Billy Gillispie: Fast and Furious" -- on statewide TV during the summer).

It has ruminated about his conditioning program. (Tougher than Tubby's? Tough as Rick's?)

It has speculated on his style of play. (Faster than Tubby's? Fast as Rick's?)

Friday night in packed Rupp Arena, Gillispie curiosity finally gave way to Gillispie reality. The euphoria was palpable -- even before the new coach of the Wildcats entered the building.

There were 23,313 people in the house for practice. Allen Iverson would not understand.

There were middle-aged men in blue wigs. For practice.

There were college boys in body paint. For practice.

"I've been waiting for this for about 10 years," said blue-bodied Jay Lawless, referring to the time since Tubby Smith took over.

"There's one banner up there," pointed out his friend, Amy Thompson, aiming her index finger at the 1998 championship Smith won.

"Won with Pitino's players," Lawless shot back.

There was an 8-year-old girl named Courtney Taylor who rode 80 miles with her family from Latonia, Ky., to be here in a full, homemade Wildcats uniform -- head included. For practice.

"We were ready weeks ago, months ago," said Courtney's mom, Kim. "When they introduce Coach Gillispie, the rafters are going to be shaking."

Patrick Patterson
AP Photo/James CrispFreshman Patrick Patterson impressed the Kentucky faithful in front of a packed Rupp Arena for the Big Blue Madness.

She was correct.

Amid shooting flames and exploding fireworks, they dropped ceiling-to-floor white curtains and there he stood at center court: Billy Clyde Gillispie. The throng roared at the sight of his face and sound of his name. A decent percentage of them -- Jay Lawless included -- would have cheered lustily had the announcement simply been, "Ladies and gentlemen, not Tubby Smith!"

Change is always exhilarating in sports -- especially before anyone has played a game. And Midnight Madness is always exhilarating at a place that treats the opening of basketball practice with the same fervor Alabama has for its spring football game.

"I bet we could get 50,000 people," Gillispie said earlier Friday. "And I might be selling it short."

He might be. Fans camped out for days just to get Big Blue Madness tickets, with as many as 250 tents popping up on campus before distribution day. And even with reserved seats, fans were lining up outside Rupp 2 hours before the event began Friday night.

So combine a new coach with a new season, and put it on the heels of a 10-year marriage that steadily went sour, and you have the atmosphere here.

"It's been a lot of excitement," senior guard Ramel Bradley said. "That's how it is when you have a change. The grass is always greener on the other side. Now we got the grass. So we'll see what it's like."

What it has been like so far is a bunch of hard work. Gillispie put the players through a two-week boot camp of twice-a-day conditioning workouts -- one early in the morning, the second in the afternoon.

Guard Jodie Meeks said trash cans became vomitoriums for some players. In the end, it became a bonding experience -- players prevailing over the tyranny of the strength-and-conditioning coaches.

Kentucky Fans
AP Photo/James CrispBilly Gillispie is a beloved coach at Kentucky. He has yet to win (or lose) a game there.

"It was definitely tough, but we needed that coming in," Meeks said. "It was more about coming together as a team."

Said Gillispie: "When they complete boot camp, they have a victory before the season even starts."

How many more victories follow is, of course, the key.

One thing that remains unanswered about Gillispie is style of play. He never has been a guy who could be pigeonholed as playing a certain way, and he's not going to allow that now. In fact, he has kept the entire plan vague enough that the roster doesn't even include positions for any of the players.

"I just want guys who can play," he said.

He has a few but not a ton, and many of them are young. Other than seniors Bradley and Joe Crawford, Gillispie has a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. The interior game will be the biggest question mark, with freshman Patrick Patterson and infrequently used sophomore Perry Stevenson -- both generously listed at 6-foot-9 -- likely having to hold down the fort.

Given the youth, Gillispie should have that rarest of commodities at Kentucky: a grace period. At least a short one. Nobody will be talking national title about this team. Or even Final Four. Around here, that counts as lowered expectations.

Still, Gillispie isn't coming out poor-mouthing.

"Every team today is going to have that [a national title] as a goal," he said. "I think they should have that as a goal.

"We're going to try to win it. We're going to try to win every game. Believe me, we're not afraid to swing and miss. We're going to miss, but we're definitely going to swing."

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