CRAWFORD | Derby Festival Classic isn't what it once was, but still may find its niche
While the crowds are smaller and, in some years, the names aren't as big as they once were in the Kentucky Derby Festival All-Star game, it may still find its niche in the landscape of higher-exposure events.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- There was a time when the Derby Festival Classic was one of the most-respected All-Star games in the nation. Its list of alumni is impressive, and includes Moses Malone, Dominique Wilkins and Anfernee Hardaway, in addition to many of the best recruits headed for the local Big Three, guys like Darrell Griffith, Pervis Ellison, Rex Chapman, Jamal Mashburn, and Isiah Thomas
But recently, and this isn't news to anyone, the game has been eclipsed by the All-Star games with more shoe company support and corporate tie-ins. Friday night's edition took place opposite the more glitzy Jordan Brand Classic game at the Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and televised on ESPN2.
Two University of Kentucky signees -- De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, were named the MVPs of their respective teams in that game, which included four UK signees and one from the University of Louisville.
Meanwhile in Louisville, before a crowd of 4,017 in Freedom Hall, the local ties were a pair of walk-ons -- U of L-bound Tyler Sharpe (0 points, 3 rebounds) and UK's Brad Calipari (9 points, 4 rebounds) -- and a pair of IU signees, Curtis Jones (25 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) and De'Ron Davis, who sat out with a wrist injury.
UK recruits, since John Calipari became coach, have become a thing of the past in this game. I don't blame the guys. They want to play on national television in the highest-exposure events. Playing in Louisville in front of a bunch of their future fans isn't a high priority. It's a question of prestige.
Louisville signee V.J. King made the same decision this year.
If you're an organizer of the Derby Festival Classic, what can you do? I've written these columns before. I've proposed a bunch of changes that were easier to say than to do.
The pecking order of All-Star games has been drawn, and despite being in a basketball hotbed and being the oldest continuous All-Star game, the one in Louisville just isn't in it.
I looked around Freedom Hall Friday night wondering about the fate of the game. Fans still filled the sideline seats in the old arena (they can't play it in the KFC Yum! Center, per an NCAA rule that blocks them from playing on U of L's home court.) But it lacked buzz. Maybe that's unavoidable in a year when U of L and IU can't send big numbers into the game.
Talking about the game's glory days doesn't really do any good. Those days are gone. Things have changed, and they aren't changing back.
At some point Friday, I decided that the story might not be how few fans came, but how many showed up. In a game that featured just a few players with ties to U of L, UK or IU, they still had 4,000 people or so. And the people who showed up had a good time -- even if the dunk contest never got off the launch pad. People in the crowd were begging U of L's Donovan Mitchell, who was sitting courtside, to throw down a few.
It was a local production, with the Central High Marching band, and dance teams from area schools and dance academies performing.
And maybe the deal with this game is that it's just a local event. Maybe it moves to a smaller venue. Alex Bozich, publisher of InsidetheHall.com, who was sitting next to me, suggested Knights Hall or some other facility where the atmosphere might be better.
Jody Demling, on my other side, publisher of CardinalAuthority.com, said he has suggested making the game pit an All-Star team made up of Kentucky and Indiana high school players against the best national recruits the game could manage. That makes sense. It gives the game a guaranteed local tie.
This game is not the slick production that some of these other All-Star games are, and minus an infusion of shoe company money, or some NBA star with local ties lending his name and credibility to the game, it's not going to be.
But that doesn't mean it can't be fun.
Like everything from time to time, this game needs a new angle, a new gimmick, or something the Calipari family can tell you about -- a tweak. It's not going to draw the elite recruits who want to be on national TV.
But it can still draw good players. In years when their recruiting classes are larger, it can still draw top IU and U of L recruits.
If it can't get the biggest names, its focus is going to have to be putting on a great show. There's a market for it, even if it isn't what it used to be.
THE GAME: The White team beat the Maroon team 144-132 in Friday night's game. Mustapha Heron, bound for Auburn, was the best player on the court, finishing with 32 points and 11 rebounds. Jones went 11 of 24 from the field for his 25 points, and Eron Gordon went 13-24 to finishing with a team-high 29 points and 10 rebounds.
Brad Calipari's points came on a trio of three-pointers, including a key three late that sent his team's lead from 5 to 8 and paved the way for the White to pull away.
Notre Dame signee Temple Gibbs won the three-point shooting contest. Xavier-bound Quentin Goodin won the slam dunk contest.
Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.