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Tale of a celebration 14 years in the making

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Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics) Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics
In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team's postseason run, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK's journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.

NEW ORLEANS - Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is standing in an elevator. He's shaking his head in disbelief. He's smiling. He's laughing.

He's soaking it all in.

It's 1:30 a.m. in New Orleans and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist appears to be headed upstairs to his room. He's just been through a gauntlet of emotions.

He's played the biggest game on his life, celebrated a national championship with his teammates, cut down the nets, hugged family and friends, talked with the press, rushed to a hotel to receive another national championship trophy, and then bussed back to the team hotel to a screaming, beaming mob of fans.

He should be exhausted. He should be ready for bed. So this writer, watching the joy on his face but confused by the thought that Kidd-Gilchrist, by being in the elevator and headed to his floor, could be going to bed soon, asks, "You're not going to bed already, are you, Michael?"

"Hell no," Kidd-Gilchrist says, laughing uncontrollably.

Hell no, indeed. There's more partying to do - more celebrating No. 8.

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The players' wake-up call isn't until 10 a.m., but Kidd-Gilchrist can't sleep. He couldn't wait to go to bed the night before and, subconsciously, he couldn't wait to wake up Monday morning, the day of UK's national title showdown with Kansas.

Anthony Davis, who has been whisked around New Orleans all week to receive national player of the award trophies, is understandably tired and wants to take advantage of all the sleep he can get.

Kidd-Gilchrist isn't going to let him though. He's too excited to go, too ready to seize his chance at glory, too ready to just sit around and wait.

The party won't happen for another 15 hours or so, but Kidd-Gilchrist is up, "screaming, playing music, saying, 'We finally here.' "

The celebration has already begun.

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UK's celebration began on the floor immediately following a 67-59 win over Kansas in the national title game. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK's celebration began on the floor immediately following a 67-59 win over Kansas in the national title game. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's just before midnight and Kentucky has won the national championship. It's the program's eighth national title and first since 1998.

It's John Calipari's first of his decorated coaching career.

The postgame celebration is nothing out of the ordinary of what you would expect. Nets are cut down, coaches embrace and the players, donning gray hats that say "NO-1 GREATER," dance for all the world to see. Confetti flies everywhere.

Darius Miller, a senior who was in the NIT his freshman season and never thought he'd be in the national title game at that point, is celebrating arguably the most satisfying career of any player in the Kentucky's tradition-rich history.

He's just become the second-ever player to win the Kentucky high school state championship, Kentucky Mr. Basketball and now a college national championship. Naturally, every photographer - hundreds of them - wants a picture of the senior leader, so he poses for them, peeking his eyes through the small clear, glass part of the NCAA national championship trophy.

"All the hard work that we put in this year, the sacrifices that people have made on this team means a lot, especially with these guys," Miller says. "We've grown as brothers. We've had a lot of fun with this. I can't really put into words how this feels."

After the players watch Calipari take a snip of his first national championship net and gaze at their "One Shining Moment" tribute, Miller gives up the trophy to Terrence Jones. Just a year earlier Jones had walked off a Final Four court in a completely different fashion, stunned and saddened.

He would eventually reinvigorate himself, return to Kentucky with a goal of experiencing a moment a like this. Once he gets the trophy, he yells to reporters, "I'm not letting go of this."

Eventually, Jones gives up the trophy near the stands in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to take a few pictures with fans.

"It would have took too long to get up there holding that big trophy," Jones says, smiling.

He dashes into the stands with the rest of his teammates to be with his friends and family and to celebrate with the fans that have lived and died with their every move this season.

The Wildcats, carrying the burden of a 14-year title drought, know the fans, by Kentucky standards, have waited far too long for a championship. They know how much this means to them, how much they've wanted it.

"I know it means a lot to them," Miller says. "It's a big accomplishment for all of us here. We're proud to be a part of something like this."

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With a police escort leading the way, Kentucky is sped through the city of New Orleans, where, from sunup to sundown, fans swarmed the streets on Monday.

Now, cars are stopped for two buses to quickly get to the Hilton New Orleans Riverside hotel for the presentation of the National Association of Basketball Coaches national championship trophy.

The players enter through a backroom to hundreds of screaming fans. Cameras are flashing, flip cams are recording and the cheerleaders are launched in the air as the band blares in the background.

The team takes the stage, accepts the award and then touches the crystal ball trophy. Miller, just a few moments before, thanks the fans personally.

"On behalf of me and my team, I just want to thank you all for all the support you've shown throughout the whole year," Miller says at the podium, a nylon net hanging around his neck. "It took a lot of hard work to get this trophy and it's finally paid off. You all enjoy it as much as we do."

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Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics
The support is staggering when the team arrives at the team hotel at 1 a.m.

As if the Beatles have come to town, fans pack every corner of the ground level at the Astor Crowne Plaza on the corner of Canal and Bourbon. Like rock stars, the players are escorted in between ropes so they don't get mobbed by the fans.

They make their way to the stairs and, with their own recording equipment, turn around to capture the moment for themselves.

The fans look up at them as heroes. But the heroes have never seen anything like this.

After a brutally exhausting three-week ride through the NCAA Tournament, the players are likely drained and hungry. A team meal awaits them upstairs to refuel, but they stand a few more minutes to watch the fans watch them back.

Miller, for all the fans to see, snaps a picture of and marvel in its greatness, raises the national championship trophy high in the air.

"Go Big Blue!" chants erupt. The party is just getting started.

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Kidd-Gilchrist only went to his room for a minute to drop some stuff off. Within minutes he's back on the second with his teammates, hugging his mom, Cindy Richardson, and smiling the entire time.

Anthony Davis, with his parents by his side, is signing autographs for the lucky fans that have been allowed the chance to soak in the championship with the team. Inside, the rest of Davis' teammates, the coaches and UK support staff is enjoying a late-night meal.

Like kings and queens, they gobble up the food from the buffet line and watch the replay of their national championship victory.

It's the first time they've seen the game on TV. It certainly won't be the last.

"Anytime I'm down and disappointed, that tape's going on," Calipari says.

After Coach Cal finishes his food, he chats with his family, laughs with the people who have stuck by his side through thick and thin, and hugs his wife, Ellen, son, Brad, and daughter Erin.

The players relax and hang with their families for a while before journeying down a hallway to their left and on to a balcony that oversees the iconic Bourbon Street.

With thousands of blue-clad fans waiting 50 feet below, the players fling beads in typical New Orleans fashion. Only this is no normal, wild night on Bourbon Street.

It's the celebration of a national championship. Hundreds of beads fly to the outstretched arms below. The players laugh when someone catches a set of beads or does something to grab their attention (no worries, it was a PG-rated celebration below).

Chants of "C-A-T-S Cats, Cats, Cats" echo down the streets of Bourbon and past the corner of Iberville until, at 2:45 a.m., the man himself, the one who just three years earlier took the job under arduous circumstances, opens a double door and comes out in the same white button up and blue tie he wore hours earlier during the game.

The only difference now is his tie is loosened up. It's OK to finally let loose and celebrate. Just a little bit.

Calipari grabs a handful of beads from UK compliance director Sandy Bell and walks to the left corner of the balcony, twirls them on his finger and fires them down below. He runs out, goes back for more, and moves his way down the balcony.

The crowd erupts in a different chant.

"Thank you, Cal! Thank you, Cal!" they yell.

Coach Cal, though, says this isn't about him, his reputation, his vindication, his way of doing things. He says it's about his players and the fans. The fans thank him from the blacktop of Bourbon, but Calipari is grateful to do it for them.

"The fans, the Big Blue Nation, all the people of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, we did this for them," Calipari says.

It's 2:45 in the morning. As Calipari said in the postgame news conference, he doesn't feel any different than he did when he woke up Monday morning. He'll go to mass Tuesday morning and eat breakfast with the team before flying back to Lexington to another national championship celebration at Rupp Arena that only Kentucky basketball can produce.

By Wednesday or Thursday, he'll be back in his normal routine and go "go about (his) business of coaching young people and not have the drama" of getting the so-called monkey off his back. On Friday, he'll go recruit, and at some point he hopes to visit his other daughter, Megan, who's sick in Massachusetts and didn't make the trip.

It doesn't feel any different for him, so he's ready to go to bed.

"I'm old," Calipari says. "I'm tired."

So he leaves the balcony and meets with longtime friend Howard Garfinkel, founder of the Five Star Basketball Camp. He takes a few more pictures - he's posed for hundreds in a few hours - shakes a few more hands - one of thousands - before finally calling it a night.

He jets to the elevator, up to his hotel room, and by 3:15 a.m., he's getting ready for bed.

Just an hour and a half earlier, Kidd-Gilchrist, at least for a second, looked to be doing the same. Instead, he's still on the balcony with rest of his teammates, family and friends, tossing beads, smiling, laughing, soaking it in.

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