By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Often when I write these SEC Traditions stories, there’s a subject or a plan in mind.
And there are other times when I zig one way, and then zag in a different direction.
Cory Brandt forced me to zag this week. He reminded this old sportswriter, trained in the journalistic ethics of being fair and balanced, what it feels like to have the passion and undying loyalty of a true fan.
Perhaps by now you’ve seen the YouTube video of Cory, a huge University of Kentucky basketball fan and an even bigger fan of former UK star Tayshaun Prince.
Before we discuss the details of the video, let’s establish Cory’s Big Blue fan credentials:
First, he’s a 27-year old graphic designer who lives in Greenwood, Ind. About the time he entered the ninth grade, just after Kentucky finished a national championship run of two titles (1996, 1998) in three years, one of Cory’s cousins persuaded him to become a Kentucky fan.
“The best part,” says Cory, “is that my parents are University of Indiana season ticket holders. My brother is a Michigan fan. My wife loves Purdue.”
Like many Kentucky fans, Cory has loads of Big Blue sportswear and memorabilia. Every now and then, he stumbles on a rare ticket to see a home game in Rupp Arena.
Though Cory didn’t make it to the Final Four the past two years – “I had access to a ticket two years ago, but I didn’t go because I couldn’t stand to see them lose (which UK did in the semis to Connecticut),” he says – he was a lot more confident about the Wildcats’ chances last year.
So he made a deal with his pretty, then-pregnant wife Carrie.
“I asked her that if we had a boy and Kentucky won the national championship, that I could take the first name of the Final Four MVP and use it for our son’s middle name,” Cory says.
“And up until the final minutes, I thought it might be Doron,” says Cory, noting that Doron Lamb scored a game-high 22 points in UK’s title game victory over Kansas.
Last June 22, Cory and Carrie became the parents of a beautiful baby boy named Landon Anthony Brandt, named in honor of Final Four MVP Anthony Davis, who averaged 12 points, 15 rebounds and 5.5 blocked shots in Final Four wins over Louisville in the semifinal and in the championship game conquest of the Jayhawks.
Even before Cory told me that story, I didn’t have much doubt that Kentucky basketball lovers are the most rabid fans I’ve ever seen in any sport.
Even in those rare seasons that Kentucky, with its eight national championships and 45 SEC titles, doesn’t make a deep NCAA tourney run, the Big Blue faithful still pack Rupp. They always fill road arenas, because for many UK fans it’s their only chance to see the ‘Cats. Finding available home game tickets is just about impossible.
A couple of weeks ago when Kentucky played at Ole Miss, I just pulled into a parking lot next to Tad Smith Coliseum almost three hours before the game. Before I had a chance to open my door, there was a rap on my window.
“Do you have any tickets for sale?” said a desperate Kentucky fan, dressed in blue and white from head to toe.
It’s no secret that one reason the SEC basketball tournament sells a healthy amount of tickets is many Kentucky fans who can’t get tickets to home games can get tickets to the league tourney, especially when it is held in the spacious Georgia Dome.
Usually as the Wildcats advance through the SEC tourney – they’ve won 27 of ’em – you see more and more blue in the arena until the crowd for the championship game is 95 percent Kentucky fans.
Media folks like me refer to it as “The Blue Mist” spreading over the tourney site.
One of my favorite SEC tourney memories involving the intensity and passion of Kentucky fans was at Rupp on March 12, 1993. In the final few minutes of the last game of the Friday night session, the Wildcats were well on their way to a 101-40 (yes, a 61-point margin, you read that correctly) over Tennessee.
It was the last game of Tennessee star Allan Houston’s career in which he finished as the SEC’s second all-time leading scorer. But on this night, Houston had the worst game of his life to that point, missing his first 14 shots before hitting one, a three-pointer, with 4:53 left in the game.
For Kentucky basketball fans, their love affair with the players doesn’t stop when he graduates or moves on to the NBA.
For instance, since Cory lives just south of Indianapolis, it’s a short drive to downtown Indy where the NBA’s Indiana Pacers play in Conseco Fieldhouse. Every year, he tries to attend Pacers’ games when they play an opponent that has at least one former UK star.
This season, there are 21 former UK players on the rosters of 16 NBA teams, so Cory stays busy getting to as many Pacers’ games as possible. When get autographs from Wildcats in the pros, Cory’s successful calling card is wearing a Kentucky blue basketball T-shirt.
“Back in November when the Hornets played the Pacers, Anthony Davis didn’t dress out (for the Hornets) because he was hurt,” Cory says. “He didn’t come out to the bench until the lights went down for the starting lineup introductions. But he saw my Kentucky T-shirt and stopped to sign a Fathead of himself. He didn’t sign for any other fan.”
Cory’s favorite Wildcat of all-time is Prince, who I wrote about a week ago here in SEC Traditions.
“It’s not just for the way he plays, he’s always calm and cool,” Cory says of his love of Prince. “It’s also because he’s a great role model. He stayed at Kentucky for all four years. Even when things didn’t go well for him in Detroit the last couple of seasons after he was on a NBA championship team and won an Olympic gold medal, he never aired his differences publicly.”
Which brings us to THAT video mentioned in the fourth graph of this story, the video that was on ESPN and every other sports network news show, one that has more than a half million you tube hits.
On Christmas, one of Cory’s cousins, a Pacers’ season ticket holder, knew of Cory’s love of Prince, who had played for just over a decade for the Detroit Pistons. So as a present, the cousin gave his two tickets for the Jan. 30 Pistons at Pacers game to Cory.
“I knew the tickets were in the end zone next to where the teams come out,” Cory says. “I was so excited that I kept the tickets in a safe at home.”
Game day arrived. Cory and wife got off work early, and with little Landon arrived at Canseco 90 minutes before tipoff.
Cory didn’t think anything of it when Prince was absent in pregame warmups. There wasn’t any conversation in the stands why Prince wasn’t with the rest of the team.
But when the Pistons ran on the floor five minutes before the 7 p.m. tipoff, Cory leaned over the rail to find Prince, who never made it to the court with his teammates.
“I checked ESPN on my phone to see if there was any news, and there was nothing,” Cory says. “Then, I called a friend sitting upstairs in a suite. He tells me Tayshaun had been traded (to the Memphis Grizzlies).”
With TV cameras unknowingly aimed at him the whole time while he was leaning over the rail of the exit searching for Prince and when was checking his phone and making the call to learn the bad news, Cory pulled off the Prince Pistons No. 22 jersey.
He stood there disgusted, wearing a blue Kentucky T-shirt over a white Kentucky T-shirt.
“I took off the Pistons jersey, because I’m a Tayshaun Prince fan, not a Pistons fan,” Cory says. “It was so frustrating, because I knew he was like in the building just a few feet from me. But he couldn’t come out, because he had been traded.”
It would be easy for Cory, wife and son to leave the game. But again his Kentucky loyalty kicked in, because he stayed to watch former UK star Brandon Knight play 28 minutes in a 98-79 Pistons’ loss.
By 2 p.m. the next day, Cory’s phone was blowing up with texts. Had he seen the video? It was ESPN’s “Around the Horn.” It was everywhere.
“At first, it was embarrassing,” Cory, says. “Then, I kind of got used to it.
With Prince’s life turned upside down, having to move for the first time in his NBA career and quickly acclimating to a new team and city, it was a few days before he saw the video of Cory.
“When I saw his Kentucky shirt,” Prince says, “it told me what kind of diehard fan he is, so I wasn’t surprised one bit (at Cory’s reaction). To have that type of loyalty means a lot. What he appreciates about me on and off the floor goes a long way.
“I know what happened was as big a culture shock for me as it was for him. One minute, he’s waiting for me to run out of that tunnel and the next minute I’m getting traded.”
A few days later on Super Bowl Sunday, Cory got a call from Nikki Boertman, a photographer for my employer, The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis. Boertman had seen Cory’s jersey-stripping clip, and empathized.
“I’m a fan and I really felt for him as a fan,” Boertman says. “I wanted to do something for him.”
Boertman, with the help of Commercial Appeal publisher George Cogswell and the Grizzlies, arranged for Cory, Carrie and Landon to be Cogswell’s guests at Sunday’s Grizzlies’ home game against Minnesota in FedExForum.
What Cory didn’t know was Prince had agreed to meet on the court with Cory before the game, present him with a new personally autographed No. 21 Grizzlies’ Prince jersey.
Prince looked forward to the meeting, because he remembered what it was like to be a fan. Being raised in Compton, Calif., Prince’s main man was Lakers’ star Magic Johnson.
“I had Magic’s purple and gold (Converse Weapons) shoes,” Prince says. “When I finally met him at the end of my senior year of high school when I played at the Eddie Jones Classic (in Los Angeles) at The Forum, I was so nervous I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at him the whole time.”
So 90 minutes before tipoff on Sunday, Boertman and myself had Cory stand in front of a camera, with his back to the tunnel leading from the Grizzlies’ dressing room. We began interviewing him a second time so Prince could sneak up behind him.
Which Prince did, with a smile, smoothly sliding his arm around a stunned Cory’s shoulder.
“They’ve played it (Corey’s video) on TV so much,” Prince told Cory, “that I’ve been getting calls from my family and friends telling me, `You see that guy in Indiana? He’s looking down the tunnel for you waiting to come out.’
“That’s part of the business, man. I know what you felt at that time believe me. But things happen for reason. That’s why you’re here today and that’s why I’m here today. We’re going to keep it moving. You touched a lot of people in my family, and I thank you.
“We’re still Go Blue now.”
Cory was introduced to the crowd at halftime as “the newest Grizzly fan.” Prince made sure it was a perfect day, because he scored 18 points in a 105-88 Grizzlies’ victory. On the occasion of Cory’s had his first-ever meeting with his favorite player, the newest Grizzlies’ star made all eight of his shots, including a corner three-pointer just a few steps away from Cory’s baseline front row seat.
“I was hoping to meet Tayshaun, and it was so gratifying just to be here,” Cory says. “But I was speechless (when they met). It’s unbelievable that something this great can happen for no reason.”