A three-peat is one of the most prestigious honors for a sports team to accomplish, and only a select few have done it.  Michael Jordan did it twice with the Chicago Bulls, Kobe and Shaq did it with the Lakers, and I assume some teams in those other sports that nobody watches like baseball and hockey have also done it. But in the world of college basketball, one has to go back to John Wooden’s dynasty at UCLA to find a team that won three straight championships. From 1967 to 1973 the Bruins claimed back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back national titles. That was 50 years ago.  No team in college basketball has earned a three-peat since then. But our own University of Kentucky Wildcats were possibly one coaching decision away from earning that mark from 1996-1998. 

Rick Pitino’s decision to not play Derek Anderson in the 1997 championship game remains one of the most discussed “what if’s” in the history of UK basketball. Sandwiched between a 1996 championship banner, and a 1998 championship banner, the runner-up banner in Rupp Arena for the 1997 season serves as a constant reminder to the Big Blue Nation of what might have been (cue the Diamond Rio song). But should have Derek Anderson played against Arizona in ’97?  We recently talked to former Cat Cameron Mills, a teammate of Andersons, who brought some very interesting perspective to this long-standing debate.  

Let’s first go back to January 1997.  Kentucky was ranked #3 in the country, and were cruising through the season with the “Dynamic-Duo”, the “Thunder and Lightning” combination of Ron Mercer and Derek Anderson.  Arguably, the best 1-2 punch in the modern era of Kentucky basketball, Mercer and Anderson were magical. That’s why it was such a devastating blow when during a January 21st game against Auburn, Derek tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Fans hoped and prayed for good news, but the verdict came that the superstar fifth-year Senior would miss 4-6 months. Any hope of a return for a run in March seemed impossible.

The injury to Anderson did open the door for a seldom used kid from Lexington (Mills), and the team never missed a beat. From late January to March Mills said, “we were on fire. Going into March we were playing some of the best basketball we had played all season and we were wearing people out.”

But as the NCAA Tournament approached, word began to spread like wildfire that Derek’s rehab was going much better than anticipated, and that MAYBE there was hope that the other half of the Dynamic Duo could return just in time. After crushing Montana in the opening round by 38 points, the Cats struggled against Iowa in the 2nd round and eked out a 6-point victory.  After such a close-call, the pleas and prayers from the Bluegrass for Anderson to play could be heard from the heavens. Then the news came:  On Monday, March 17th, 3 days before Kentucky would face Saint Joseph’s in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, Derek Anderson returned to practice.

Now put yourself in the shoes of Rick Pitino for a second (just not 15 seconds). He was facing the ultimate debate that many of us have faced in our own lives; short-term gain versus long-term risk. You’ve got the entire fanbase breathing down your neck to play the kid. You also have an extremely strong intrinsic desire to win. As Cameron Mills said in our interview, “Coach Pitino was after banners, he wanted to win championships.” But as Mills also pointed out, there was a huge risk to playing Anderson: “Coach Pitino had this very fair fear that if I put him in this game and he gets injured, even if he sprains an ankle, I now am a pariah because it looks like I’ve sacrificed the future of a player for a championship.”

With all the controversy and scandals that Rick dealt with in the later part of his career, it seems somewhat shocking that his decision was that he was not going to play Derek Anderson.  After 3 days of practicing with the team before their Sweet 16 matchup, Pitino said, “Derek has proven his point. He’s practiced three times with us, and it is obvious that he’s ready to play.  We’ll continue to get him ready for the NBA camp in Phoenix April 4, but we will not risk his pro career by playing him in the NCAA Tournament.”

Despite this devastating news, the Cats continued to roll. They beat Saint Joseph’s by 15 on Thursday, then cruised to another double-digit victory against 2-seeded Utah on Saturday (72-59).  They were now in the Final Four, but so were two other 1-seeds (Minnesota and North Carolina), along with the surprise of the tournament, Arizona.

As Pitino continued to shoot down the possibility of an Anderson return, it didn’t stop the speculation as he continued to practice with the team. Anderson recalled three doctors watching him practice with the team prior to the Final Four, where Derek said “I was wind-mill dunking, practicing hard, scoring.” Cameron Mills confirmed this, saying “his knee looked great and he was doing full-bore stuff in practice.”  Thus, the media frenzy that is normally insane at the Final Four anyway, went into hyperdrive on the will he/won’t he status of UK’s star player. Pitino and the players were asked about it constantly, and even the coach himself acknowledged that Derek’s knee was fine and that doctors had cleared him to return.

Anderson stood steadfast by his coach’s decision, saying that “Even if it was my decision, if I went out and got hurt again, how many people would blame Coach for playing me? I don’t want him to have that on his shoulders.” 

But there was one quote in particular from Derek that made people wonder that if UK were to beat Minnesota and advance to the championship game, perhaps he would be used in some capacity for that game, to which Anderson stated: “it’s the championship game, no holds barred. But whatever he does as a coach, I’ll accept.”

So, there it was, the first inkling from the player that he was in fact willing to play in the championship game if Coach Pitino would allow it.  In a twist of fate that would be too unbelievable for a Hollywood script, during the semi-final game Minnesota’s coach Clem Haskins became irate after his team was whistled for a charging call in the second half. At that moment, Anderson perked up, knowing that the Gophers coach was about to get T’d up. And sure enough, a technical foul was called. Derek was up off the bench before Pitino could even call his name to go shoot the technical foul shots. And because this was too crazy for Hollywood, he swished them both. The Kentucky crowd went bonkers. Was this a sign that their beloved Cat would return for Monday night’s championship game?

It would have been the absolute perfect ending to the chapter of Derek Anderson’s college career.  At the age of 12, he was basically living on his own in the streets of Louisville. His mother was gone for days at a time, and the father was not in the picture. He focused everything he had on basketball. Spending long nights in the gym when his mom wasn’t at home. He had already suffered an ACL injury while playing at Ohio State.  It would be the ultimate redemption story:  A Kentucky kid with a tough upbringing, a fifth-year Senior recovering from 2 ACL injuries. It was thought his career was over but he comes back to lead his home state school by playing in one final game; the national championship game against the Arizona Wildcats.

But if you’re a Kentucky fan reading this, you know that isn’t how the story ended.  Arizona became the first school in the history of the NCAA Tournament to defeat three number-one seeds on their way to a national championship, and Derek Anderson never played.

Even though Kentucky was still the favorite on paper going into that final game, in hindsight the OTHER Wildcats were an absolute matchup nightmare. While Kentucky was able to press most teams into submission throughout the tournament, Arizona had one of the quickest backcourts in the country. UK also only had 9 scholarship players, and two of those were former walk-ons.

Miles Simon scored 30 points en route to being voted the Final Four MOP. Simon was able to match Kentucky’s quickness and time and time again rushed past multiple defenders to hit floaters in the lane. Mike Bibby, the freshman point guard who everyone thought would wilt under the pressure of this game, finished with 19 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists. Bibby and Simon created mismatches the entire game and forced switches where they were guarded by slower players. Four UK players fouled out trying to contain Arizona’s own dynamic duo, including Mercer, Scott Padgett, Wayne Turner, and Jared Prickett.

Despite all of that, Kentucky still almost won the damn game. They took Arizona to overtime but were doomed by shooting 9-17 from the foul line (with the infamous performance of Nazr Mohammed going 0-for-6). Arizona didn’t score a single field goal in OT, but made 10 of 14 free throws to put the game away. After the game Rick Pitino attempted to comfort Nazr by telling him, “You haven’t hit free throws all year; what made you think you were going to hit them tonight?” (Like Nazr’s free throws, I think that attempt at consoling his player missed the mark).

All of this leads us back to the question:  Should Coach Pitino have played Derek Anderson? It depends on who you ask and when you ask them. In our interview with Cameron Mills, we asked him: If it were Coach Mills, would you have put him in the game? To which Cameron said, “Yes, I would have played him. BUT I would have played him based on 26 years looking back knowing that his knee was absolutely OK.”  There is certainly evidence to back that claim. The following year in Anderson’s rookie season in the NBA, he played in 66 games and averaged 28 minutes per game. In all likelihood, his knee would have been fine against Arizona.

But would Derek have risked putting his career at stake?  Absolutely. It’s something he has been asked about many times, and in a recent interview he said “Even to this day, I would have played. I’d have taken the risk of not playing a few years in the NBA.” There is no grudge against Coach Pitino though, “If I was Coach Pitino, I wouldn’t have played (me). I wouldn’t have given that option.”

Derek Anderson wanted to play. The doctors said he could play. Coach Pitino said he could play (but wasn’t going to). His former teammate now says he would have been fine to play. Does that mean not playing him was a mistake and cost Kentucky Basketball a monumental three-peat? Not so fast my friend. It certainly seems logical that adding the SEC’s leading scorer and the team’s leader in steals, 3-point shooting, and free-throw shooting back to the fold would have pushed the Cats to a win in a game they almost nearly won anyway. So let’s say they did win the title in ’97. The long-standing thought amongst UK fans is that the loss in ’97 motivated the returning players to work even harder in ’98 to avenge the Arizona loss. Many fans believe that if we had beat Arizona, we wouldn’t have won it all the following year. But that’s just fan-speak that makes us feel better, right? Cameron Mills disagrees, “In some level it’s fact that we won in ’98 because we lost in ’97.”  So maybe we don’t get that three-peat after all?

There are also many fans who admire the courage Rick Pitino showed in sitting Anderson, despite everyone telling him he could do otherwise. He protected the safety of his player so that he would have a better chance at a long NBA career that would make him comfortable for the rest of his life. And he did just that. Derek played 13 seasons in the NBA although many of those years were plagued with injuries. DA also won a championship ring with the Miami Heat in 2006.

As Cameron Mills concluded, you could sense that he himself was conflicted on whether his brother should have played in that game. Despite saying he would have played him, Mills pointed out that “you can say a knee is ready, but if he goes in that game and gets injured, (Pitino) will never live it down.” Not to mention the potential for millions of dollars lost in NBA contracts.

Short-term gain vs. long-term risk; a debate that is never easily settled.