After Kentucky beat North Carolina Sunday night to book their ticket to the Final Four in Houston, rap star Jay-Z strutted his way over to the Wildcats locker room. Part owner of the Nets, Jay-Z sat in his luxury box at the Prudential Center and watched the complete effort by Kentucky en route to the program’s first national semifinals appearance since 1998. Sure, the Wildcats were excited to see the rapper, but they saved much of their enthusiasm for another fan.
That honor was reserved for Robert Wiggins, who was mobbed with hugs and handshakes from players and team management when he entered the changing area.
Sunday night’s Elite Eight win was Wildcats game No. 1,505 for the 81-year-old Wiggins, who first attended a Kentucky basketball game in 1944 when “Big Blue” took on a school called Illinois-Whiskey. Since then, it has been shot after shot of Kentucky basketball nearly non-stop for Wiggins, who attends nearly every home game and travels to away games when he can. He said that his wife goes to home games with him at Rupp Arena but that due to health reasons, “she can’t travel with me as much anymore.”
But through all the games, Wiggins doesn’t have to file too much through his memories to recall his favorite one.
“This one tonight, this one here, beating North Carolina,” Wiggins said with a smile as big as center Josh Harrellson’s wingspan. “Hopefully it gets us a national championship.”
Wiggins stands with his hands in his pocket just around a bend in the hallway that leads to the Kentucky locker room. He’s wearing a blue blazer and his necktie, also unsurprisingly blue, is a perfect Windsor knot. Grey dress pants show a perfectly ironed crease. Standing unassuming and with a glint of joy in his eyes, Wiggins is the ideal grandfather figure from a Norman Rockwell painting.
But on game day he cheers and lives Kentucky basketball; this despite a heart attack 13 years ago. No matter, Wiggins will jump and yell with rabid passion, as he did last Friday night when Kentucky won late over Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
“I had to take nitroglycerin in that game,” Wiggins told Metro New York. “Just to prevent anything from happening. It was a close game and I wanted them to win so badly.”
Wiggins makes a fist with his right hand and pounds it into his left hand.
“And I had to see it – I just had to – I just didn’t want anything to happen with my heart so I took the nitro-glycerin,” Wiggins said.
He’s seen a lot in the 67 years he has now been watching Kentucky basketball and on Saturday night, he will be in Houston to watch the Wildcats take on UConn with a shot at the national championship game on the line. Wiggins teases that he hope he’s doesn’t need the nitroglycerin for the next two games but the risk to Wiggins’ health doesn’t outweigh his heart’s passion for Kentucky basketball.
It is a passion that beats blue blood.
Wiggins has now sat in Rupp Arena for nearly seven decades and John Calipari represents the seventh head coach he’s seen pacing the sidelines. While fans in Memphis use Calipari as a curse word given the way he ditched the program and fans in New Jersey cringe when they recall his attempts at coaching in the NBA, Wiggins has nothing but good things to say about “the ball coach.”
He breaks into an “aww-shucks” sort of smile when asked about Calipari.
“He’s a great coach and a great person. He gives back so much,” Wiggins said. “The kids buy into what he says because of his passion. He does a lot for these young men.”
When talking about the future, Wiggins says that he hopes to live to see Kentucky win the national championship again, something that the storied program hasn’t done in 13 years. But the wins and losses don’t mean as much to a man who simply loves the game and the way it is played and lived in Kentucky.
“It’s just a way of life. There is only one Kentucky basketball,” Wiggins said. “I don’t have any passions other than this – just this team and the university. I love it so.”