With coach Tubby Smith dressed as Don King and his players costumed as professional wrestlers, the defending NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats kicked off their season at the stroke of midnight Saturday.
It was a merger of the theatrical athletics of big time college basketball and the athletic theater of professional wrestling, as an announcer intoned "Let's get ready to repeat," and the players entered Memorial Coliseum in costumes befitting their chosen pro wrestling identities. They gathered in a mock wrestling ring erected at center court as the crowd roared.
Senior Heshimu Evans, who dubbed himself "The Bronx Bomber," wore a New York Yankees jersey and hat and toted a baseball bat. Freshman Desmond "The Hit Man" Allison took the floor in full 1920s gangster regalia.
Smith wore sunglasses and a Don King-style fright wig for a grand entrance that began his second season as coach of the Wildcats.
"I didn't enjoy my hairdo, but they forced me to do it," he told the crowd.
The players left the floor and returned in practice gear for an informal slam dunk contest, with Smith doing play-by-play, and then a blue-and-white scrimmage.
Before the festivities began, Smith denied any responsibility for the night's wrestling theme.
"Obviously it's an entertainment for our players," he added. "Last year I realized how entertaining it was when Cameron (Mills) and Scott (Padgett) and a couple of other guys showed up at a wrestling match right before the SEC tournament."
Smith said the pro wrestling fan in his family was his mother.
"She'd be throwing shoes at the TV," Smith recalled. "Get off, you no good joker. Get off him! You better not hurt him."'
The NBA lockout gave a number of recent Kentucky standouts a chance to atend the party, including Derek Anderson of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ron Mercer of the Boston Celtics and Nazr Mohammed of the Philadelphia 76ers. Also on hand were former pro Kenny Walker and two members of last season's championship squad, Allen Edwards and Jeff Sheppard.
Kentucky's Midnight Madness tradition dates to 1982 and then-coach Joe B. Hall, but the original idea for staging a practice as early as possible is credited to former Maryland coach and current Georgia State coach Charles "Lefty" Driesell. Driesell used to run his Maryland team through drills starting at the stroke of midnight while he coached the Terrapins in the mid-70s. He is now one win shy of his 700th victory and held one for the Panthers tonight.
Now, the late night tradition has become as much pep rally as practice. Last year, the NCAA moved the first day of practice from Oct. 15 to the Saturday closest to Oct. 15, allowing schools to hold their celebrations on Friday night.
Smith said the practice serves little purpose basketball-wise, although it does put young players in front of a large, loud crowd.
"There's nothing we can evaluate from a coaching standpoint," Smith said. "Obviously, you watch to see how your players respond to the crowd, especially young players that have never been exposed to this. That'll be interesting to see how they handle it for the first time."
The stroke of midnight gave basketball-mad Kentuckians the first glimpse of their beloved Wildcats since last spring, when the "Comeback 'Cats" exited the floor of San Antonio's Alamodome as national champions following a 78-69 victory over Utah.
Gone are several mainstays of that team, which led Kentucky to its third straight national title game and second championship in three years.
Mohammed left for the NBA after his junior season and Edwards and Sheppard graduated, as did Mills, the bench sparkplug who now is a full-time evangelist.
Returning starters Padgett and Wayne Turner are joined by forward Evans, center Jamaal Magloire, forward Myron Anthony and guard Saul Smith, the coach's son.
Other returnees include center Michael Bradley, guard Ryan Hogan and walk-on guard Steve Masiello.
Five freshmen are to make their debut as Wildcats before the Kentucky faithful: guard-forward prospects Tayshaun Prince and Allison; forward Souleymane Camara, a 6-foot-11 recruit from Senegal; and Todd Tackett and J.P. Blevins, two in-state guards.
Kentucky distributed Midnight Madness tickets in advance; all 7,000 available to the general public were grabbed in about 45 minutes.
Many schools, especially bigger ones, have made "Midnight Madness" a staple of their programs. Last season, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski offered a special treat for the "Cameron Crazies," who gathered on the court with the team for a group picture that was inserted in the media guide.
Some schools had celebrities on hand, while some offered cash and prizes At St. John's, New Jersey Nets forward Jayson Williams led a team of former Redmen and Red Storm stars against a team of New York City legends, which featured Kay Gee, a member of the rap group Naughty by Nature.
Also on the bench helping Williams "coach" was former Red Storm guard Felipe Lopez, actress Linda Fiorentino and rap star Mase. In addition, the current Red Storm team, led by first-year coach Mike Jarvis, participated in a three-point shooting contest against the women's squad.
La Salle had contests offering $25,000 and an automobile as part of its Midnight Madness, which also featured the Philadelphia 76ers' "Street Team." Xavier had a tailgate party before its women's soccer game, then moved the festivities indoors before both the men's and women's teams participated in scrimmages.
Kentucky begins defense of its title Nov. 17 against Eastern Kentucky. The season tips off a week earlier with the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York as Wake Forest plays Illinois and Temple faces Georgetown. The Final Four will be held in St. Petersburg, Fla. on March 27 and 29, 1999.
© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved