Urgency drains out, and in rushes, what, relief? After all, we’re talking about Kentucky, that Godzilla of the sport, with a following composed of a million would-be coaches carrying at least that many expectations. But as the Kentucky fans in the Alamodome roared over what for them was a rare gift — a title that was a genuine surprise won by a team irresistible to anyone who fancied basketball — no, that clearly wasn’t relief.
It was something vastly superior to relief.
And it epitomizes how, after 18 men’s Final Fours and five women’s Final Fours between 1981 and 2019, I still rank the 1998 men’s event No. 1 for enchantment.
Smith’s face had stayed “poker” alongside its intensity through a momentous eight days as starless Kentucky healed a 17-point deficit with 9:30 remaining in a South Region final against Duke, a 10-point deficit early in the second half of a Final Four donnybrook against Stanford and a 12-point deficit early in the second half of the final against Rick Majerus’s Utah. Smith’s face had grown known for its prevailing decency and occasional scowls. And the previous May, long before its bearer narrowly outwitted three great coaches to earn his memorable expression at the end of a Final Four, the good-hearted face had turned up behind a lectern in Lexington.
Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton, whose contributions to progress within sports abounded in his 88-year life, hired Smith on May 12, 1997, to replace the celebrated Rick Pitino after the latter departed to the Boston Celtics following a slew of masterpieces that yielded five final eights, three Final Fours, two final twos and one final one. In luring Smith from Georgia two years after Georgia lured Smith from Tulsa, both of which made rare Sweet 16 appearances under his guidance, Newton hired not only the first African American coach in the history of the Kentucky empire but also the first African American coach of any of the top-rung kingdoms east of UCLA, let alone in a former slave state.
As a sports columnist at the Lexington Herald-Leader, I wrote what you might call the white-privilege column. It began clunkily enough with, “Sports is a bridge,” and it extolled sports as the zone of life in which cultures mingle and merit reigns. It aimed to sing the kind of happy tune available to someone who had received precisely zero racist letters from readers.
As a general columnist, Merlene Davis, a colleague I long have admired deeply, wrote a column advising Smith to decline Newton’s offer. “Your mail would be hate-filled and truly evil,” she wrote, and it aimed to reflect the realism clear to an African American who had received considerably more than zero racist letters from readers. In a videotaped exit interview when she retired from the Herald-Leader in 2015 after 32 years, Davis specifically recalled the response to that column and paraphrased one anonymous letter that read: “I know where your daughter goes to school. It’s time she became a woman.”
For that and so many other reasons, Smith’s hiring loosed in the head of one sports columnist a haunted way to go about the job: with an unspoken, desperate wish that he would win and win and win, for Kentucky and for the broader country and for the black children who might see widened possibilities, the way the sixth of 17 children on a farm in Scotland, Md., saw things in 1965 when Maryland guard Billy Jones shattered the ACC barrier of traditional stupidity.
That child was Smith, and that’s a lot of hope to pile onto someone. But then Smith had a steadiness Newton had recognized and craved. He seemed to lack both the jerk chromosome and the self-promotion chromosome. He played no favorites with the media. He needed no praise. He gave no dazzling quotations. He glided along on his own goodness and his own unexpressed confidence. He ranted and bantered less than Pitino. Eventually, ahead of the championship game of that memorable season, Smith would say of Majerus, without melancholy or longing, “He is a much funnier guy than I am.”
Post-Pitino, it all seemed less symphonic. Kentucky fans had come to resemble Brazilian soccer fans in expecting not just victory but accompanying untold beauty. For a good while, Smith’s team lacked the intoxicating crescendos, runs and swishes Pitino’s teams had provided. Players seemed lodged between two approaches. In later years, they told of a late-season meeting in which they surmised they ought to try out Smith’s system for real.
In a Maui Invitational semifinal in late November, a rematch of the previous season’s national title game, the Arizona of Mike Bibby and Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson and Jason Terry mauled Kentucky, 89-74, and those of us in bad leis felt sure we had just watched a national champion. (And it turned out we had!) At home in late December, Smith’s Kentucky lost to Louisville, one of the great sins to blue humankind, made worse because that Louisville team would finish 12-20. On Feb. 1, Billy Donovan, a former Pitino assistant some thought Newton should have hired instead of Smith, brought his second Florida team to Lexington and won behind 24 points and further bedazzlement from eventual NBA employee Jason Williams.
Before Kentucky played Tennessee at home Feb. 11, my boss, sports editor Gene Abell, arrived at courtside to share a jewel he had just heard on the pregame show, an utterance that would gain immortality: a Kentucky fan calling in to say, “I haven’t given up on them yet.”
They were 21-3 at the time.
But three days later, they lost at home to Mississippi for the first time since 1927, and surely no one leaving Rupp Arena that day either to weep or watch the Nagano Olympics foresaw the coming whoosh.
That whoosh tore through four remaining regular season games, including one at Florida, then three conference tournament games en route to that title, then the first three NCAA tournament games. Along the way, Kentucky became a delicious team, a team’s team, a team with leading scorers averaging 13.7, 12.0, 11.5, 9.3, 9.2, 8.8, 5.2 and 4.4, with Jeff Sheppard’s 13.7 the lowest for a Kentucky leading scorer in 50 years, a signal of ball-sharing splendor. Next came Duke, of course, and Duke and Kentucky had some sort of history, and clearly Duke, the top seed in the region, would end Smith’s first season, at a level regarded in Lexington as merely okay.
True enough, Duke led by 18 in the first half and by 71-54 with 9:30 left before Kentucky began the unimaginable and Duke ran out of timeouts and Smith coolly, sternly refrained from calling any of his own, letting the game roll on and depriving counterpart Mike Krzyzewski of a chance to regroup. Kentucky won; Krzyzewski did his gracious postgame thing and stopped among Kentucky’s players behind the interview curtains to praise them privately and also praised their “amazing camaraderie” and said, “And they have a tough coach.”
So Kentucky and its Final Four debutant of a coach rolled into San Antonio with a giddiness rather than a heaviness. They somehow carried a freshness even though this was the school’s third straight Final Four appearance. Unlike Kentucky’s great 1996 champion, which you could respect but not really hug, this bunch had the trappings of an upstart with bench players hopping-happy over pivotal plays and bench-long hand-holding at pivotal moments. It brimmed with college players of accrued cleverness and skill, yet if you can recite these names, you’re either a Kentucky fan or a hoops nut: Turner; Sheppard; Scott Padgett; Allen Edwards; Heshimu Evans; big man Nazr Mohammed, who had redefined himself through the hard human act of weight loss; Jamaal Magloire; and Cameron Mills.
The whole thing felt uncommonly alive, even before their coach said this: “I’ve never been to the Final Four in a coaching position, except to sit in those seats way up there where everybody looks so small. And now I get to be down there, so I’m going to be waving to all my coaching peers up there and saying, ‘Hey, fellas, you can get here, too, someday.’ It’s almost a surreal type of atmosphere to me because you’re pretty much living a dream.”
The person who said that was coaching a program seeking to hoard its seventh national title. That Final Four had the North Carolina of Antawn Jamison and the sublime Vince Carter. It had Stanford turning up for the first time since 1942, with Arthur Lee and Kris Weems and Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen. And it had Majerus, the author of the best single-game coaching job in tournament history: In the West Region final, he hurled a triangle-and-two at tournament favorite Arizona, which arrived averaging more than 91 points and departed on the 51 side of a 76-51 upset.
First, Kentucky and Mike Montgomery’s Stanford had their great scrap. The lead changed nine times after halftime. Smith kept playing the long game with his lineups and called some delicious plays out of timeouts. One involved Sheppard curling from the corner to the top around a massive multi-man screen, and that play worked in various forms three times late, contributing to Sheppard’s 27 points. There came a great, late blocked shot from Magloire. After an overtime session, Kentucky had 86 to Stanford’s 85.
In the next day’s news conference, Smith set his season record for introspection. He told of the family farm on the western shore of the Chesapeake and brought to the Final Four a parlance of “tobacco fields and tomato fields,” of “plowing fields and pulling weeds,” of “hogs and chickens and cows.” He said his father, Guffrie Sr., might give him three rows to weed and his younger siblings one, then punish him if he helped the meeker others because, well, Do your job and only your job.
That’s a basketball concept, of course, as Smith’s objectively lovable team kept showing.
He said it had been “good to be accepted without one negative thing this year, other than losing some games at home, and even then I wanted to call my own call-in show and say, ‘Hey, you bum.’ ” He said he hadn’t disliked Kentucky in the 1960s any more than any other exclusive program, though he recalled watching Texas Western’s all-black starting lineup famously beat all-white Kentucky at Cole Field House in College Park. And as for Jones breaking the ACC color barrier at Maryland: “I followed them very closely because of that reason, being black and being a minority. Maryland was kind of a model for us and giving us the feeling that we could make it and get into schools.”
Smith’s Wildcats outlasted Utah, partly through his tinkering with lineups and tiring the Utes. Mills, the former walk-on and son of a Kentucky player, hit two considerable second-half three-point shots. Smith marveled in disbelief, “Did we really just win the national championship?” Players sobbed happiness. In a stadium hallway Smith planted a kiss on the considerable bald head of his indispensable, off-the-bench energy guy, Evans. In the clear view that often comes from fresh eyes, Tom Shatel of the Omaha World-Herald said it just right: “Tubby gave Kentucky a human face.”
Yet just before all that, Smith had that fleeting expression after Turner’s clinching dunk. Maybe Smith already realized how hard national championships are to win, how foolhardy it is to wish for them. Maybe he understood that someday he might see another side of it, as in 2003, when his mighty team sprang from 6-3 to 32-3 only to lose point guard Keith Bogans to a crucial injury in the Sweet 16 before succumbing in the final eight to one of the best players ever, Marquette’s Dwyane Wade.
But in that Final Four dreamscape in San Antonio, as Smith beheld what had happened and what he had steered so masterfully, his good-hearted face registered, in just a flash, one of the best possibilities in sports: wonder.