Rupp's legacy is complicated

Jack Jackson

Special to The Register

A crescendo of voices is building, calling for the renaming of the house that Rupp built.

But, is it a "bridge too far" in wanting to rename one of college basketball's premier sports palaces?

A growing number of Black students, faculty, administrators and others in Big Blue Nation and beyond want Rupp Arena included in the number of other brick and motor edifices reminding Black Americans of a racist past.

Adoloph Rupp will always be regarded as one of the architects, indeed, a pillar of the very foundation of college basketball. Let's be real, the man is mentioned in the same conversations with Naismiths, Iba and Wooten.

Like him or not, Adolph Rupp was and is regarded as "royalty" in the annals of college basketball coaches.

Coach Rupp did more than anyone else to build Kentucky basketball into a culture within a culture, developing what has become something of a cult following of literally generations of fans.

And the ol' man has the victories and championships to back up his "strut" and what has been called a certain arrogance and exclusivity of anything other than Kentucky basketball.

When he and fellow legend Paul "Bear" Bryant clashed over which sport, football or basketball, would be "king" at UK, Rupp won out, sending the "Bear" back to Alabama and the Crimson Tide.

And, we all know how things turned out for Coach Bryant and the Alabama football program.

The Black Lives Matter Movement is steamrolling through an infrastructure of exclusion and racism of which all Americans are part of. This movement is being energized and fueled by younger generations of Americans of every ilk -- unmoved and not dazzled by tradition or power.

People like me and others, Black and white alike, have been so engrained into the "system" that we couldn't or didn't want to see the forest for the trees.

As Sam Cooke sung in the early '60s, "A change is gonna come," and we're sensing major change(s) all around us, making us look deeper into ourselves to be more sensitive to others in our midst.

Physically, Rupp Arena is the crown jewel of the Central Bank Center in downtown Lexington and known primarily as the home of UK's mens' and women's basketball programs. The building opened in 1976 and is a multipurpose site hosting numerous sporting events and concerts with a seating capacity of more than 20,000 for basketball games.

The venue continually "sells out" for home games of the mens' basketball team. The site is owned by Lexington's city/county government and is a key money maker for the entire region.

The question now becomes just how important or even relevant is Rupp's name and likeness on the building?

The man has drawn the ire of many African Americans, locally and beyond, because of his stance on race. Despite changes taking place all around Coach Rupp, including at the University of Kentucky, the publicly supported state institution which employed him, he rigidly refused to recruit, coach and play African American student/athletes.

Because he brought fame and fortune to UK, his racist views were tolerated, and he and his name has become hallowed.

Admittedly, Coach Rupp wasn't a "visionary" when it came to the issue of race.

He was a product of his era, and extremely knowledgeable about the game. He didn't see the value of African-American athletes, often questioning their ability to grasp the mental aspects of the game of basketball. He made his name and reputation coaching white youngsters against other white youngsters and coaches, all of whom served him well and he saw no reason(s) to change until he was literally forced to do.

Little did he know that his actions would be appraised by later generations and that he would be found wanting and judged.

As an early alumnus at nearby Eastern Kentucky State College, I recall the fervor surrounding a young man, a 7-footer named Thomas Payne, when he enrolled at UK to play basketball in 1969. Under pressure to get someone Black into Wildcat Blue, Payne was enrolled, but was totally unprepared for college, both academically and equipped with only marginal basketball skills.

His brief stint at Kentucky was abysmal and hardly representative of what was needed to "break trail" for future African Americans to follow at UK.

African-American student athletes have found great success at UK, as they've been welcomed into an environment of inclusion and given opportunities to maximize their abilities.

This wasn't the atmosphere Coach Rupp fostered, and who knows how many young and gifted student athletes withered and died on the vine for the lack of opportunities by his actions.

Adolph Rupp's name will always remind us of great Kentucky basketball, but unfortunately, his name and likeness will also remind us of a time of gross inequality, which is haunting this country yet today.

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