The rock of friendship
The rock on the basketball court brought them together. Now, through one of life's trials and hardships, it's helping them heal.
For decades, Bob and Dee Sidebotham and Walt and Freda Wilson lived, breathed and ate basketball. There were more important things in life, but basketball was what made them tick; what made the daily hassles of life seem just a little bit easier.
The Sidebothams had grown up basketball junkies. Despite moving seven times since the early 1960s because of Bob's job in the design engineer business, they've never stopped going to basketball games.
When the couple lived in Southern Illinois , they watched the local high school teams. In Memphis , Tenn. , it was the pro team, in Madison Ind., they followed Hanover College , and from 1973 to 1989 and again in 1998 to today, it was Wildcat basketball.
Few things remained constant over the five decades, but basketball was always there.
“There's nothing like Wildcat basketball,” Dee said, “nothing at all.”
That's why when the couple returned to Lexington in 1998, they rarely missed a Kentucky women's basketball game. The loved both the men's and women's team, but they quickly became a fixture at the women's games.
“We couldn't afford the men's back then so we started coming here,” Dee said.
Forming the bond
The Wilsons had been coming to games since about 1998, but the couples had never really crossed paths before. They sat literally right across from each other since the Bernadette Mattox regime, but besides the occasional hello, the couple shared little more than their passion for UK basketball.
Then something changed. During their meetings at the Victory Club – the booster club for women's basketball – they started becoming closer.
Dee and Walt were both directors and Bob and Freda would talk outside of the meetings.
“We would get to talking and (the Wilsons) would ask how you do, where do you live,” Dee said.
Turns out they lived right down the street from each other. A mile separated their houses on Preakness Drive and Hi Crest Drive, and only five feet of concrete aisle separated the Sidebothams' seats in Section F, Row, 10 and the Wilsons' seats in Section G, Row 10.
Since they lived so close and sat right next to each, the couples started carpooling to games together.
“One time I would drive, the next time Bob would drive,” Walt said.
And then the game chatter became more than just the occasional hello. From one play to the next, the four started talking about the Wildcats. Together, they watched Mickie DeMoss come and go, watched UK upset No. 1 Tennessee in Rupp Arena in 2006 and witnessed the hiring of current head coach Matthew Mitchell.
They share the same favorite player in former Wildcat Jenny Pfeiffer and the only games they've missed over that past nine years have been for health reasons.
Whether it was going out to eat together, traveling for road games together or just grabbing something to eat at the concession stand during halftime, the couples were inseparable friends. When Dee and Bob celebrated their 50th anniversary on Feb. 4, 2004, Freda and Walt were there to celebrate it with them.
“The bond was basketball,” Freda said.
And few things – not even their love for Wildcat basketball – were stronger.
Fighting through life's battles
Two years ago, Bob's health started to deteriorate.
After a relatively clean bill of health throughout his 70-plus years of life, an aneurism put Bob in the hospital for about a week. Following the surgery, Bob was put on an oxygen tank to help him breathe.
He would never get off of it.
Despite a successful aneurism surgery, Bob needed help breathing, leading doctors to believe that something else was wrong. After several tests and visits to the hospital, doctors determined he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pulmonary lung disease.
And if lung disease and the aneurism surgery weren't already enough, Bob had to undergo two more aneurism surgeries following the lung disease diagnosis.
“The poor guy really had it,” Dee said.
Yet, he never stopped coming to games. Whether it was up by the concourse with oxygen tanks next to him or in his usual seat just rows from the UK bench, Bob, with his wife and the Wilsons by his side, rarely missed a UK Hoops game.
There were obviously some that Bob and Dee couldn't make because of his deteriorating health, but whenever Bob's health would allow it, they would have Walt and Freda pick them up and head courtside for the UK Hoops games.
To some, they might just appear to be basketball games, but for Dee and Bob, it was a familiar activity in an unfamiliar time.
In early December, Bob's health took a turn for the worse. He was hospitalized at St. Joseph 's Hospital for much of the month where he was put under heavy oxygen.
It appeared things were getting better when doctors moved him to St. Joseph 's East for long-term rehabilitation on Christmas Eve.
“We really don't know why he ended up getting moved,” Dee said. “That gave us hope that things were getting better.”
Bob Sidebotham died on Christmas Day. He was 75.
After a two-year long battle with lung disease, Dee's husband was gone. Married for 54 years, the couple was about to celebrate their 55th anniversary on Feb. 6.
“We didn't make it but we were close,” Dee said.
For the first time in five-plus decades, Dee was by herself. She tried to return to a normal life, but for the last 50-plus years, everything normal she did was with her husband at her side. Without him, nothing seemed the same. Not even UK Hoops.
So Dee stayed away. For the first time in years, Dee's seat remained vacant at the UK Hoops games. She had missed games on and off during the season as her husband battled lung disease, but there was an obvious void in Memorial Coliseum.
Dee didn't return to games after Christmas Day. She missed the IUPUI game on Dec. 30 and the North Carolina A&T game on Jan. 1.
It was only two games and just a few weeks since her husband's death, but Walt and Freda Wilson decided it was time to act – Dee was coming back to the games whether she wanted to or not.
Time to heal
The Wilsons knew returning to the place the Sidebothams loved so much would be extremely weighing on Dee, but they knew it would begin the healing process.
After her husband's death, the Wilsons told her she was welcome to come back to the games as soon as she was ready. They never set a date, leaving the decision solely up to her.
Or at least it seemed that way.
Following a Thursday night road game against at Tennessee, the Wilsons decided it was time for her return to Memorial Coliseum.
“We had been in touch every day and I told her ‘Dee, Sunday we've got a ballgame, and Bob would not want you to sit home and grieve over him,' ” Freda said. “And I said ‘He knows that you love the ballgames and that is what he would want you to do, so we're going to pick you up.' ”
On Jan. 11, with the blessing of Dee's sons, Bob and Ed, the Wilsons decided to bring Dee to the Arkansas game at Memorial Coliseum.
Dee reluctantly agreed. Returning to the same place her husband and her had attended together hundreds of times seemed at the time like it would only be pouring salt into an already gaping heart wound.
“When you've been doing that with the same person for so many years,” Dee said as her voice cracked in between tears, “the first time back is hard.”
Dee thought about calling and telling them to turn around, but it wouldn't have mattered.
“She said I'm not coming so expect a telephone call,” Walt said. “I said I won't answer the telephone.”
‘They're my rock'
Dee never called, and as they said they would, the Wilsons showed up in Dee's driveway and picked her up for the game.
They took her to the game, and together, for the first time in nearly a decade, the three walked into the 59-year-old coliseum without Bob.
Little could comfort Dee from being reminded that Bob was no longer there, but with every hug she got, the healing process got a little bit faster.
“We knew it would be difficult but the longer she postponed it the more difficult it would be,” Walt said.
There were plenty of tears and plenty of times where Dee almost lost it during the game. Friends from sections G and F came by the dozens to shed tears, give hugs and share memories.
Every time Dee thinks about the first game back, she can hardly get a word out of her mouth without choking up.
“He should have been there,” she said just a week after she returned to Memorial for the first time.
Dee made it through the whole game and she hasn't missed one since. She's watched UK defeat the likes of South Carolina and lose to nationally ranked Vanderbilt on Sunday, but the wins and losses don't matter. It's the return to normalcy; the return to the passion she's had ever since she was a girl in high school playing ball.
The one person she shared that passion with most of her life is no longer there and his seat will remain empty for the rest of the season, but Dee isn't alone.
Five feet to her left, across the cold concrete sit Walt and Freda. They've cheered together for nearly a decade, lived and died for UK Hoops and now, together, they're fighting through one of life's toughest hardships with the help of the Wildcats.
Their friendship started with UK basketball, and even with the loss of a friend and loved one, the ball and the friendship keep rolling.
“They've been right there through the whole thing with me,” Dee said. “They're my rock.”