Oh man, the fans are down on John Calipari.
They’re sick of the one-and-dons. They’re furious over the embarrassing first-round NCAA Tournament loss to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s. They’re ready to take up their pitchforks and start marching on the Joe Craft Center demanding the immediate removal of the Kentucky basketball coach.
I guess that’s why last Thursday at the Kroger at Marketplace Circle in Georgetown, the line to get Calipari’s autograph “only” stretched the entire length of the superstore and beyond.
And I guess that’s why Calipari “only” had to take the scheduled 90-minute session into another 45 minutes of OT to make sure every last signature request for every last poster, T-shirt, bourbon bottle, book, photo, banner — you name it—was accommodated.
“Our fans are engaged,” Calipari said afterward.
You can be forgiven if you wondered what the turnout might be for this particular weeklong UK basketball out-and-about tour, one that is helping support continuing relief for those affected by the tornadoes in western Kentucky last year, but one that also came after that shockingly early March Madness exit, which followed the 9-16 COVID catastrophe the season before.
To go by social media, or the radio airwaves, or your neighbor down the street, Calipari was lucky if he had a single friend left in the entire Commonwealth.
Then at the tour’s first stop in Louisville on Tuesday, the on-site demand was such that Calipari stuck around another hour just to meet and greet all the faithful. Similar scenarios have played out at the various other Kroger locations in London on Wednesday, Georgetown on Thursday with stops set for Somerset on Friday and Morehead on Saturday.
Did the coach have to go through any sort of special training to prevent an acute case of carpal tunnel?
“The value of your autograph is based on how many are out there,” Calipari said Thursday. “And that’s why I said, ‘My autograph isn’t worth anything. I don’t know why you’re waiting in line.’”
BBN waited in line anyway.
“We appreciate you coach,” more than one Big Blue fan told Calipari after acquiring his John Hancock or sitting for a picture. Oh both. Young children or babies made for the cutest shots, of course, but there were plenty of longtime fans on hand who wanted to meet the coach or pose with the players on hand — CJ Fredrick, Jacob Toppin and Sahvir Wheeler.
“It just shows the support that BBN shows,” Toppin said. “It’s amazing, not just today but every other day we’ve had this week.”
So what’s the craziest request you’ve received from a fan?
“Last year I signed a toaster,” Toppin said.
Not a poster — a toaster.
This is Kentucky basketball, after all. And Kentucky basketball is still Kentucky basketball. Season after season. Good or not-so-good. Or good with a bad ending.
“It’s been two years since I’ve been able to get out because of COVID, so it’s been great to get out,” Calipari said. “And just the enthusiasm for basketball. You kind of forget that’s what this state is about.”
Just as it’s easy to forget that not everyone is on Twitter, or Facebook, or filling up the call-in show hotline to air their festival of hoops grievances. There is a whole wide world out there of fans who just love their basketball and just love their Cats.
“This line is unreal,” Fredrick said. “This is just another way we can get out in the community and show our fans that we love them and appreciate them.”
That’s not to say everyone who showed up at these stops this week is over the moon with the basketball program right now — Calipari isn’t either — but they still want to be part of it, to get a piece of it, to be involved in it.
“The great thing is that when you are winning they’re engaged,” Calipari said. “The other side is, when you lose they’re engaged. Part of being in this seat is having to deal with that and not let it affect you.”
I added: “This isn’t about one season.”
It’s about Kentucky basketball.