By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky basketball is a tradition that is often passed down from generation to generation. Parents enjoy UK basketball with their children — and then their grandchildren. Those grandchildren eventually start the cycle again.
That’s why a new “children’s” book — “The Unforgettable Fairy Tale” by Temple Stites with illustrations by Chris Hohl — could make a perfect Christmas gift. Actually, I’m not sure it is a children’s book because I think I may have enjoyed it more than my grandchildren.
“When my older son was little, I would dress him in blue and we would watch Cats games together for however long he could pay attention. He would cheer when I would and groan when I would, but he understandably just didn't get the game yet,” said States. “At that age, he was more interested in knights and dragons.
“I realized it wasn't just the actual games that I loved, but the stories and the culture, and I wanted to share that passion with him. The Cats are a lifelong story for so many of us, with good times, bad times, triumphs, defeats, heroes, villains, and most importantly, community.”
As you might have guessed from the title, the book is about UK’s “The Unforgettables” and their epic loss to Duke in the 1992 NCAA Tournament. The players — Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey, Richie Farmer, Jamal Washburn and SeanWoods — were beloved by UK fans along with UK coach Rick Pitino at the time.
Christian Laettner broke many Big Blue hearts with his last-second shot that eliminated UK in overtime in the East Region and likely cost the Cats a national title in their first year back off probation caused by Eddie Sutton’s regime.
“The Unforgettables were both the most painful and uplifting chapter since I have been connected to this (UK basketball) story. I wanted to find a way to share that amazing moment in history with my son,” Stites said. “So I took out the hoops, and put it into my son's language: knights.”
It worked. The book is a quick, easy read with illustrations my grandsons really liked. Even better, it has a lot of subtle references to UK basketball history from that era that adults will like. One that especially amused me was a reference to John Calipari from the 1992 NCAA Tournament when UK beat his UMass team the game before it played Duke.
“What came out seems to be a children's book for Cats' fans of every age to enjoy and help remember an amazing part of our story. I tried to fill it with little inside winks and nods for adults, who will hopefully use it as a starting point to share their own personal memories with their kids or grandkids,” Stites said. “Or to enjoy it themselves. As they read my words and look at Chris' amazing illustrations, I hope it will be fun for them to fill in their own thoughts about the characters and events that inspired the book.
“The feedback I've gotten as people start to discover the book has been incredibly fulfilling and I've really enjoyed interacting with readers. I've traded stories with a Cat fan who watched that game while holding his 2-day-old daughter in the hospital. This fall as a teacher that 25-year-old woman read my book to her first class of kindergarteners.”
Wait. The stories get better.
“One wonderful lady was going to give copies to her boys' teachers as Christmas presents, but her boys decided to bring them in early to help cheer everybody up after the stupid Florida (football) game (this season). They loved it,” Stites said.
Stites’ oldest son is 11 — and a big UK fan. “We play basketball together all the time, often while talking about Cats past and present,” Stites, who lives in Massachusetts now, said.
His younger son is 6 and is starting to get the UK basketball bug as well.
Stites’ mother was captain of The Blue Marlins, UK's synchronized swimming team at the time.
“I was raised on blue. But I really fell in love with it during the Rex Chapman, Ed Davender, Master Blaster (Richard Madison), Swoop (Cedric) Jenkins, Eric Manuel years in the 1980s. Hooked ever since,” Stites said.
He was in college in Ohio in 1992 when Duke beat UK in Philadelphia in what many still consider the best college basketball game ever. He remembers jumping on/punching/screaming at a couch in his dorm common room.
“Right after the game, it hurt. Like every other UK fan, I was heartbroken. But I also realized what an amazing thing I had seen. In spite of the outcome, that team had given us back something that we had been missing for quite a few years,” Stites said.
He put almost six years into finishing this book. He admits he took time off, but he also wanted it to be the right story.
“I’ve never written anything else, but drawing as I went filled up a number of sketch books and loose papers here and there. My wife — who I met in 1992 just a few months before The Game — was a constant sounding board and supportive force. Without her help it would still be in the sketchbooks,” Stites said.
To make it a successful children’s book, it had to have the right illustrations. His knights had to be eye-catching for kids — and they are.
“Chris is an illustrator who my wife Lucie found online. We were looking for someone who could work with the light/gloom/glow that is so important to the story. His work blew us away,” Stites said. “I draw a bit myself and had sketched out most of the book. But once we saw what Chris could do, I knew the story deserved the glowing artwork he put together for us.
“I art directed it over about a year. Chris was amazing to work with and I am indebted to him. I get excited every time I look at the cover.”
The book can be found at Joseph Beth Booksellers in Lexington and Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville. Kentucky fans can also go online at www.theunforgettablefairytale.com to order. The books sells for $18.95 but is one a family can keep — and cherish — for a long time and pass down from generation to generation.
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