I am typing this from the “Business Center” of the Holiday Inn Conference Center in Nashville, so expectations should be muted . . . for both content and quality.
But I am happy, and compelled to type. And my travel mates are napping . . .so boredom is another factor.
Most of us flew-in today, taking early morning flights to make it just in time for tip-off. And we did make it . . . our 15th consecutive SEC Tournament trip.
The “we” is a group of friends, ranging in age from 40 to 47 . . . and in height from 6’1 to 6’7. I am the runt.
This will be a smaller group, but only in numbers (Age has added weight to those height figures). Six of this year . . . a dip from our usual 8.
It had been a party of 9 . . . and in our early years, “party” would be stating it mildly. But one attendee and dear friend passed away two years ago. . . a tragedy that reaffirmed our commitment to meet here each year, and also reminded us of so many great memories.
The memories were fodder for laughs today, as they are each year. And some of ‘em are just too good not to put to paper. So, I hope you don’t mind a stroll down memory lane. I assure you, most gators hoops fans will recall these times and relate to the anecdotes. These are off the cuff, so this column will be void of the usual statistics, dates and facts. Instead . . . memories and moments.
Here a few . . . and please feel free to comment and add your own! Let’s make this one a collaborative piece. Heck, maybe I can convince GatorCountry to give y’all a byline and VIP access!
“Let’s just go with a dap”: I don’t remember the year, and that will probably hold true for most of these, but it was sometime after Steve Spurrier had left for the NFL. Despite this, he seemingly very much remained a Gators fan. We ran into the ‘ole ball coach ‘in the lobby of our hotel as we headed to our game. There he was, ready to do the same – cheer on Florida Basketball. “Go Gators,” I said as I reached for a handshake with one of my coaching idols. Spurrier overtly grimmaced, much like he did on the sidelines following an interception. “Eh . . . let’s just go with a dap,” he suggested, pushing forward a relucatant fist. As a germaphobe myself, I respected the move . . . but his expression and delivery was perfect SOS. And his comment became an instant classic. He did ask to walk with us to the arena, surely aware of his popularity with rival teams . . .and maybe seeking some cover from our towering group. He was funny, in an awkward, Spurrier way. When we arrived, he went to his seat . . . right next to Jeremy Foley . . . and cheered on his Alma mater. I noted his seatmate only because wild speculation at the time suggested he left Florida because of some tiff with Jeremy. It didn’t seem that way. Regrdless, Florida won, I got a ‘dap’ and a hilarious Spurrier moment.
Call me . . . Pepper Sprayed: I am definitely not going to recall the year of this one, and probably not much else from the trip. It was surely during our “early years”, however. And the incident itself is memorable. It was post-victory, and we were celbrating at a bar in Atlanta. We had convinced the cover band to play, “Call Me Al”. Somehow our excitement manifested in us throwing one of our group members into the air . . . at increasingly higher heights. The inevitable happened. . . we launched him into the ceiling, or kinda thru it. This was not well received. And we ended up being hit with pepper spray. That last part, however, was not as fun as it sounds.
Humpy for the win!: Again, don’t ask me date or stats . . . but I will never forget the moment. I believe it was the opening round, and was definitely versus Alabama. Florida was struggling to push past the pesky tide, and the game vacilated between likely win and apparent defeat several times. And our nerves couldn’t have been more frayed. Ya see . . . the desire to see Florida win is ratcheted up significantly when an entire trip is wrapped around them doing so. And adding to that emotion are the 10,000 UK fans cheering AGAINST Florida . . . all of whom we see each night in the bars. I’ll be honest, they can be brutal. Anyway, the game was tied in the waning seconds when the ball found its way to freshman Lee Humphrey. He rose up on the baseline and drilled it. Game over. Trip saved! We saw the team in the hotel lobby shortly after the game. We were surely very loud coming in, and so we were greeted by a laughing and clapping David Lee. Yeah . . . he was cheering for US! Humphrey was down there too, wearing the biggest grin you’ll ever see on a kid. We shared high-fives and took a bunch of pictures. It was a blast.
“WE’VE GOT BILLY, YOU’VE GOT TUBBY!”: It wasn’t too long into Tubby Smith’s tenure at UK before Cats fans became very disenchanted. Hell, they couldn’t stand him. Simultaneously, they had “Billy Envy”. They wanted our coach, and we knew it. So, one night at the bar . . . one PACKED with UK fans . . . the 9 of us loudly began a very unpopular chant. “We’ve got Billy! You’ve got Tubby! <clap, clap, clap-clap-clap>. There was a chorus of boo’s and attempts at counter-chants. But we were united and loud. We persisted. And then came the beer bottles! Still we chanted, dodging budweisers like George W. ducked flying shoes. In fairness, many of the UK fans laughed and some even bought us drinks. We’ve partied with these folks for 15 years now, and see many of the same ones each season . Truth be told, they are fun. But thankfully, they dont have great aim.
“SHOOOOOT IT”: I could probably look up the year, but I fear if I log off this page . . . I’ll lose everything I’ve written. And I’m at least 12 minutes into this thing. Anyway, it was the year that yielded out first SECt title – earned with a finals victory over Kentucky. “Catlanta”, as they liked to call it was lousy with Blue and White . . . and all of ‘em HATED Matt Walsh. Walsh began that finals game very aggrssively, shooting some very, very deep shots. And I think he maybe missed the first couple. And so, that Cats fans began mocking him, yelling “Shoooot it!” each time he touched the ball. Amazingly, and soon to their regret. . . Walsh olbliged. He began raining in bucket after bucket. And DEEP ones! And as Florida began to stretch a lead, not only did the Cats fans abandon their chant . . . but we adopted it. “Shoooot it” we’d yell . . . . openly mocking the Kentucky contingent, and reveling when Walsh shot and scored. I don’t remember how many points he totaled. It was a lot. And we won – our first title and in such fun fashion. Catlanta? Pfffft! Matt-lanta!
Jo nearly tackles Billy: I’ve always liked the little moments. . . the moments behind the moment. And one of my favorites occurred when Florida and the 04s squeaked by South Carolina to win the title. The game winning sequence itself was fantastic, with Joakim Noah sealing the victory with a block in the final seconds . . . and in doing-so, earned not only revege but an all-too expected SECt title. And perhaps it was the weight of those expectations that yielded the moment that followed. As the buzzer sounded, and maybe even an instant before. . . Noah sprinted, FULL SPRINTED off the court, to Donovan and bear-hugged him with the enthusiasm of a little kid. It was moment of such emotion . . . one I won’t forget. It remains one of my favorite memories.
The worst of times, the best of times: This is another ‘moment behind the moment’ memory, but the initial one here was not triumphant. Florida was facing Auburn in the opeing round of the SECt and desperately needed a win to keep tourney hoops alive. Gone were most of the title-team heros, leaving behind only Walter Hodge. Florida trailed by three in the waning seconds. The hesitant Gators not only seemed to sense the moment, but many appeared to be shrinking from it. The ball moved like a hot potato, until it stopped in the hands of freshman, Erving Walker, who was poised outside the arc.
Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . . CLANG. Game over. The errant freshman leaned over and began crying, badly. His teammates, at least most of them, walked off dejectedly. But Walter Hodge, the senior with two title rings, instantly moved toward his broken point guard. He propped up Erv and walked him off the court, an arm slung over his shoulder. It was a moment I gained immaesurable respect for a kid I had previously consider role player, and also the instant I knew I’d love Erving Walker.
Well, my crew has arisen. So I have to cut this short. I am sure I will regret ending this column here, and not including countless other memories. But We are here in Nashville, and it is time to go make some more!
Besides – its y’alls turn to chime in.
Thanks for reading, Gators fans! Maybe next year some of you reading will join us! Look for the group of tall, old guys. I’m the “short one”.
I dedicate this column to my dear friend, and forever Gators – Big Kev. We miss ya, buddy!