Great sports memories are often defined by buzzer-beating buckets, last-second touchdowns, or walk-off home runs.
My most recent involved a bald guy standing in a mostly empty room.
Andy Kennedy was officially named the seventh head men’s basketball coach in UAB history on Monday, which for me would be exciting under any circumstance. I mean, the guy is the all-time winningest coach in Ole Miss history, averaging more than 21 victories per season.
But in a time of the COVID-19 pandemic – where many of us are worried and frightened while trying to maintain a semblance of routine – it was also a respite.
“I want to give you my heartfelt sentiments to all that have been directly affected in an adverse way during this troubling and confusing time,” Kennedy said during the live stream his “social distance” news conference. “But I know this, I know that Birmingham is strong. I know the UAB community is strong. I know the state of Alabama is strong and together this too, we shall overcome.”
Just as binge-watching a feel-good movie on Netflix can provide a break from an increasingly unsettling reality, so can sports. And when sports is dormant as it is now, looking forward to the day when it springs back into action is uplifting.
“In 1977, when Gene Bartow left Westwood in Los Angeles at UCLA – the pinnacle of college basketball – to come to the Southside of Birmingham to start UAB athletics, he did so with a vision to create a nationally relevant basketball program,” Kennedy said. “In year three, 1981 – led by two Birmingham natives – Coach Bartow led the Blazers to the Sweet 16. In 1982, they doubled down and advanced all the way to Elite 8, awakening the college basketball world that Southside of Birmingham is serious about college basketball.
“It is now my charge, my mission to bring us back to our rightful place on the college basketball landscape. With your help, that will become our new reality.”
Sure, all of that is boilerplate stuff, but it’s stuff I wanted and needed to hear. As much as I love UAB football’s Lazarus act, men’s basketball is the flagship sports program at my alma mater.
I want to see it come back to life, too.
“Things that stuck out to me when I asked him, ‘Why UAB and why now?’ he said, ‘It would be my personal mission to put UAB basketball back to where it once was,’” UAB director of athletics Mark Ingram said. “’I want to win a championship – not just this year – but every year. I want UAB basketball to be a Top 20 program.’”
I always looked up to Coach Bartow. He was a great mentor and a great man, and when I was a young sports writer for the school newspaper, the Kaleidoscope, he made me feel like I mattered.
And since Kennedy became one of “Gene’s boys” after spending a year with Jim Valvano at N.C. State, how could I not be thrilled by the hire – and hopeful that Kennedy will continue what Bartow started?
Mike Anderson has come the closest to date; in four years at UAB he guided the team to three NCAA Tournament berths, including a Sweet 16 appearance.
Since Anderson left following the 2005-06 season, however, the Blazers have waltzed in the Big Dance only twice, and in the last few years fans have stayed away from Bartow Arena in droves.
Maybe soon – or as soon as we can all settle into a new normal – that will change.
Perhaps a brighter roundball future is dependent on a guy plucked from the Blazers’ glorious past.
“It is now my charge, with your help, for us to create more special memories,” Kennedy said. “With your help, we can fulfill Coach Bartow’s vision for this program. Because I know together we will win as one.”
Another basketball season is still a long way away, and no one knows when we’ll get through this current crisis.
But for a few minutes on Monday, Andy Kennedy helped me remember how exciting sports can be.