Rick Pitino and members of the '96 NCAA champs celebrate their 20th reunion on a boat in Miami (photo by Dick Gabriel)

Rick Pitino and members of the ’96 NCAA champs celebrate their 20th reunion on a boat in Miami (photo by Dick Gabriel)

MIAMI — It was a weekend full of joy, and the happy residue that often comes with it. Belly laughs, ear-to-ear smiles, hugs, back-slapping, story-telling and candid moments.  That’s what happens when friends who are tighter than brothers gather to relive one of the greatest moments in their collective lives.

They were all together for the first time since they won the 1996 NCAA basketball championship, bringing enough joy to the Big Blue Nation that night in New Jersey to fill the swamps surrounding the Meadowlands.

That Kentucky team had carried the big trophy back to Lexington for the first time in 18 years, the sixth title in school history. And now, two decades later, they had re-assembled to talk about it – in Miami.

Most of them had made it to Lexington three years ago, when John Calipari had seen to it that they received customized championship rings, baubles a bit gaudier than the standard rings issued by the NCAA to all of its champions.  To a man, they talked of how they appreciated Calipari’s gesture.  But this party at the Fontainebleau Hotel officially marked the 20th anniversary of Kentucky 76, Syracuse 67.

Pitino, Jeff Sheppard and Allen Edwards share a laugh

Pitino, Jeff Sheppard and Allen Edwards share a laugh

On both Friday and Saturday nights they gathered first on a boat, for cocktails and stories; then it was on to a restaurant for more laughter and memories.  On the first night their coach, Rick Pitino, gave the green light to a video crew, working on a documentary about the reunion, to join them on the boat owned in part by one of the ’96 champs, Ron Mercer.

Cameras captured the arrival of the players, ushered aboard by their beaming coach, who had a handshake and a hug for each.  After a few minutes of conversation among individuals they all gravitated toward Pitino, who shared his memories of how he had recruited them and why he believes they’re the best team in modern history.

The former UK coach, who’s also won a championship at Louisville, explained that none of his teams, before or after ’96, could have challenged this bunch. Nor, he believes, could any other NCAA champion in the modern era.

He was preaching to a tall, tall choir.

In a separate interview prior to the trip, Pitino had told me that one of the key moves he made that season was settling on Anthony Epps as the starting point guard.  He had tinkered with Tony Delk and Derek Anderson at the point, but both were better suited for the shooting guard role.  Epps had the right skills and mind-set to carry the keys to the Cadillac.

Members of the '96 team (L-R) Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Wayne Turner, Anthony Epps, Ron Mercer and Walter McCarty

Members of the ’96 team (L-R) Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Wayne Turner, Anthony Epps, Ron Mercer and Walter McCarty

And on that boat Friday night, the Wildcats applauded the move, with 20 years of additional gusto.  Standing in the middle of the group, Walter McCarty allowed as how, if it weren’t for Epps, there was no way – “no WAY!” – the Wildcats would have successfully capitalized on all their talents and lived the moment so many dream about.

For it was Epps who took joy in finding the right man in the right spot at the right time and delivering the basketball. He knew how to keep them happy, these future professionals, many of whom went on to untold riches in the NBA.

“Anthony had the line,” Anderson said:  “ ‘I didn’t make millions – I made millionaires.’ “

They loved him for it. And he loved hearing it.

“Coming from those guys, where they’ve been in the NBA, the biggest we can get in this game,” Epps later said, “to hear them say that , it was very gratifying to know that I meant something to those guys.”

Some had paid homage to Epps before, individually, during that season and beyond.  But this was a moment among moments.  “When you hear a collection of them say it, it’s a little different,” Epps said. “And even hearing it from coach P, it means a lot.”

He’s still and always will be “Coach P,” the man had brought them together all those years ago, making them suffer through conditioning and individual instruction sessions, determined that the other guys always would wear out before the Wildcats did.

As players, they were so competitive that the five-on-five competition in practice became their outlet, equal parts artistic, brutal and emotional.  On some days, they begged Pitino to let them play just ONE more game – first to five buckets is the winner, whoever might have been on the second unit that day KNOWING they could beat the first team, because they’d done it before. Or maybe the first team wanted revenge. Whatever – just ONE more game.

And while they may have hated him at times and feared him always, now, 20 years later, they gushed with appreciation, heaping credit on Pitino for somehow diagramming their roadmap to success, which had brought them to a happy weekend in south Florida, their smiles as bright as the sun.

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