University of Kentucky men’s basketball truly is a statewide pursuit. The Big Blue’s grip on hearts, minds and imaginations extends to nearly every corner of the commonwealth.
That is no more true in northeastern Kentucky than in the deep, dark hills of Harlan County, or the Jackson Purchase in the southwestern corner of the state. But people who were born, lived, worked, coached or played here drew mention time and again in Jamie H. Vaught’s “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey,” published by Acclaim Press in February.
Some competed against Kentucky (Fleming County’s Lake Kelly). Some helped off the floor by minding the media machine that accompanies the Cats (Ashland’s Jim Host, Paintsville’s Russell Rice, Mississippi native with Paintsville roots Scott Stricklin). Some actually donned the blue and white uniforms (Paintsville’s John Pelphrey and Landon Slone).
Former Morehead State player Brian Miller is mentioned for siring and raising a Wildcat, Darius Miller. Rowan County’s Kelly Wells drew mention for coaching the younger Miller in high school at Mason County, and ex-Eagles coach Tommy Gaither is in the book for mentoring the elder Miller in Morehead.
Only Rice and Stricklin among the aforementioned had chapters of “Chasing the Cats” dedicated to their exploits. But all played some part in Kentucky’s storied history, which draws deeply from every part of its home state.
“UK basketball is a tradition-rich phenomenon that is filled with fascinating stories and tidbits,” Vaught said. “From every corner in the state, UK hoops is something like a very popular hobby that the Big Blue Nation will talk about every day.”
Its current leader can relate to the lifestyle, too, of so many of those discussed, Vaught said.
It’s well-known that Kentucky coach John Calipari hails from Pittsburgh, known as “the Paris of Appalachia.” But stomping the sidelines dressed in Armani, it can be easy to forget Calipari referenced his mother’s family roots in West Virginia eating dandelion soup in his introductory press conference in Lexington in 2009.
“Because of his upbringing, coach Cal understands the people of Kentucky very well,” Vaught said. “He grew up in the mountain city of Pittsburgh. I have been to Pittsburgh several times and I have always felt at home there when visiting. So he and the Kentuckians have a lot in common.”
Each of the 18 chapters of “Chasing the Cats” contains anecdotes of and interviews from a Kentucky player, coach, staffer or a relative, beginning with Adolph Rupp’s grandson Chip and concluding with Cal.
Sprinkled throughout are anecdotes about Kentucky coaches from Rupp to Calipari. It fits the style of Vaught’s previous four books, he said, which are out of print but available on Amazon and eBay.
“I’d like the readers to enjoy reading about their favorite players or personalities,” he said, “and understand partial history of UK basketball.”
The book also makes an effort to dig beyond what’s already part of Cat catechism. One catchy example is when former UK radio broadcaster Ralph Hacker asserts that the Pulitzer won by the Herald-Leader in 1986 for its reporting on corruption in Kentucky’s program in the Eddie Sutton era was won “with untrue reporting.”
Vaught leaves it at that in the book, but provided an interesting interpretation of his profession in an interview.
“For every story or article, you have to remember there are two sides or perspectives,” he said. “It could be a positive or a negative. (Hacker) certainly didn’t agree with the newspaper’s viewpoint and many people didn’t, either.”
Vaught, a native of Science Hill in Pulaski County, resides in Middlesboro, where he teaches at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College. Vaught has been severely hard of hearing since birth, he said, but has nevertheless made a career of journalism and writing.
“It’s difficult to believe that I’ve been writing for about 45 years,” Vaught said. “Man, that sounds like I’m an old guy. That is OK. Fortunately, I still love writing about sports and it has been a great ride and I’m still enjoying it. I’m blessed.”
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