Friday, December 21, 2012

Kentuckian of the Year: Darius Miller

As I explained in the last entry, this was an amazing year for basketball in the Commonwealth.  But even against the spectacular performances of so many, a national championship for the Kentucky Wildcats stands out.  National titles are rare, even in Kentucky.  They've played the NCAA tournament every year since 1939, and this was only the eighth time the title has come back to Lexington.  And that banner, with the big "2012" on it, will hang in the rafters for generations.  I don't know much about what happened in Kentucky in 1951, but I do know UK won the title that year.  And sixty years from now, I think Kentuckians will know that UK won it all in 2012.

But how did they win it?  As we've already mentioned, a lot of the credit has to go to John Calipari and Anthony Davis.  In my opinion, they were the coach and player of the year, and they were everything we could have wanted when they arrived in Lexington.  But why were they in Lexington at all?  Calipari is from Pittsburgh, and he coached at UMass and Memphis.  Anthony Davis is from Chicago.  Michal Kidd-Gilcrist and Doron Lamb are from the New York area.  Terrence Jones and Kyle Wiltjer are from Portland, Oregon.  How did they all end up in Lexington, Kentucky?  We are not a rich state, or a powerful state, or a highly-populated state.  And yet the University of Kentucky Wildcats have won 2,097 basketball games -- more than any other team in the NCAA.

It is an extraordinary record, and one that cannot be assigned to any one person.  Other schools have had great coaches -- no other school has won the NCAA tournament with five different coaches.  Other schools have great traditions -- no other school has won for so long and on such a massive scale as UK.  The difference, in my opinion, is the UK fan base.  Kentucky and Lithuania are the only two places on earth where basketball is more popular than the local variant of football, and Kentucky basketball fans are, in my opinion, the best fans in the country.  It was exciting watching the Cats win game after game last season.  But it was downright moving to see the throngs of Kentuckians who followed them everywhere, and who reveled in their success.

And we deserved every bit of that joy. Don't forget, it was us -- the UK fans -- who insisted that we could do better than Tubby Smith, even when the experts insisted otherwise.  It was us -- the UK fans -- who demanded that Billy Gillispie be replaced after two disastrous seasons.  It was us -- the UK fans -- who clamored for John Calipari, despite almost universal hostility from the local and national media.  And we were right -- the best days of UK basketball were not in the past, and John Calipari was the man to lead us forward.

Given this history, it would be tempting to name some generic figure like "the UK fan" as the Kentuckian of the Year.  But we don't have to -- because not all UK fans were in the stands.  Darius Miller is one of us, except he is really, really good at basketball.  He came to UK from Mason County, where he won the state title.  Then he had to go through the train wreck of Gillispie's last season and reports that new coach Calipari would cut most of Gillispie's players.  Through it all, Miller did exactly what every Kentuckian would want his son to do:  he stayed loyal, he worked harder, and he kept getting better.  I can only imagine the agonies of a relatively unknown kid from a small town trying to fit in on team after team of potential lottery picks.  But Miller never quit, never stopped trying, never walked away.  And he was the one who set the record for most games ever played by a UK Wildcat.  And he was the one who hit a big three-pointer late in the national semi-finals to give UK control of the Louisville game.  And he was the one who carried the net and the trophy when the Cats returned to a tumultuous reception at Rupp Arena.

It's hard to imagine anyone who has better exhibited the spirit, the determination, the effort, and the class on which Kentuckians pride themselves.  And so, with great happiness, we name Darius Miller as the 2012 Kentuckian of the Year.