LeRoy Neiman Left His Mark on UK Basketball and My Mom
In December, 1977, artist LeRoy Neiman, who died last night at age 91, was commissioned to create a painting depicting UK basketball. At the time, I was a senior, in my final of three seasons broadcast home football and basketball games. Of course, our audience had to be tiny; not every game was on TV back then and Cawood Ledford, naturally, had a huge following.
At Rupp Arena, creating sketches during a game, Neiman sat next to my broadcast partner, Mike, and me. He was gracious enough to consent to a halftime interview, which Mike conducted. My mother was a big fan of Neiman, so after the interview I broke protocol and asked him for an autograph, for her.
He didn’t do it right away; I thought he might have forgotten or decided against it. Instead, Neiman waited until I had put my headset on and resumed calling the game so he could make a quick sketch of yours truly- which he did on a UK stat sheet.
I was stunned; LeRoy Neiman had just sketched my profile (it was incredibly simple but still bore his trademark characteristics) and then signed, “To Kathleen Gabriel – your son on radio.” And, instead of a blank sheet of paper, he had done it on a stat sheet of the 1977-78 team destined to win the national championship.
I put it someplace safe so I could get it home free of wrinkles, smudges or stains, and quickly got it to a store where I had it matted and framed. It made for one hell of a Christmas present.
Some people who saw it doubted the authenticity (why in the hell would I try to scam my own mother?), but they came around when I was able to show them the photo someone took of Mike interviewing Neiman, with me sitting next to them, grinning like a fool (I was probably so happy that I had so much hair at the time).
So, RIP, LeRoy Neiman. Your work was interesting; I know a lot of people in the mainstream art world scoffed at him for selling out (Burger King paid Neiman a ton of money to create tray liners for the restaurant chain during the ’76 Olympics) but millions enjoyed your work – including my mom.
The autographed UK stat sheet wasn’t worth much to anyone else, but to her – it was priceless.