Unity Series to bring Kentucky and Southern together on the basketball court and off

·5 min read

The Unity Series will bring together the Kentucky and Southern basketball teams off the court as well as on.

In addition to Tuesday’s game in Rupp Arena, UK and Southern plan to come together Sunday in Cincinnati and visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

The Baton Rouge-based Southern team will come from northern Ohio. The Jaguars are scheduled to play Akron on Saturday.

The UK team will come from Lexington.

“You want your team to know and you want all kids — both Black and white — to know about history,” UK Coach John Calipari said Thursday. “And that these are things you should know about our past.”

Southern Coach Sean Woods, who of course played for Kentucky in the early 1990s, said the tour of the Freedom Center could help players gain “a respect for how people before us paved the way and did life-challenging things” to improve the world.

When Southern opened the season by playing at Louisville on Nov. 9, the team spent three hours touring the Muhammad Ali Center.

“That wowed them,” said Woods, who noted that players who are teenagers or in their early 20s can be unaware of events and people prior to their lifetimes. “Michael Jordan is almost irrelevant now to these young kids. You know Muhammad Ali is.”

Besides the tour of the Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Calipari helped launch the “Unity Series,” which will be five games over the next five seasons against teams from the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The game against Southern is the first.

“He just wants to give the SWAC an opportunity to play on a national stage against a national powerhouse,” Woods said.

Southern head coach Sean Woods, a former UK player, leads his team against the Wildcats on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.
Southern head coach Sean Woods, a former UK player, leads his team against the Wildcats on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.

UK also played an exhibition game early last month against Miles College, which is one of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

Calipari said the reason was “to bring light to those schools and what they do and their unique ability to train the future leaders. So, it’s a good thing.”

Woods, who will be a guest on Calipari’s weekly radio show Monday (6 p.m.), saluted the UK coach’s social awareness and willingness to combat systemic racism.

“Cal is a wizard,” the former UK player said. “I admire John Calipari for just being him. He’s always thinking outside the box, and I think that’s what separates him from a lot of guys.

“I think he saw something with this Black Lives movement and wanted to join it.”

Calipari also joined the McLendon Foundation in beginning the Minority Leadership Initiative, which is designed to help people begin careers in athletic administration.

Wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt, the UK coach also appeared in a video the UK players posted before the 2020-21 season. He also joined UK players in kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before Kentucky’s game at Florida last season.

“He gets it,” Woods said. “He gets the world.”

When asked what motivated him in these efforts, Calipari said, “Well, when you see something that you don’t feel is quite right, and you’re in a position to make a difference, it’s probably a sin if you don’t try.”

The UK coach likened his efforts to a young woman walking along a beach and throwing starfish stuck in the sand back into the ocean. An onlooker might question the action because she could return only a small percentage of the starfish to the water.

“And she says, ‘but it impacted that life,’” Calipari said.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center commemorates the thousands of slaves who escaped to freedom by crossing the Ohio River. It is near Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park.

Among those who attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the 158,000-square foot center in June 2002 were then First Lady Laura Bush, Oprah Winfrey and Muhammad Ali.

It opened in August 2004. About 180,000 visitors tour the Freedom Center each year.

Kentucky and Southern will not be the first teams to tour the Freedom Center.

In-town rivals Cincinnati and Xavier have done so more than once, said Chris Miller, the senior director of education and community engagement for the Freedom Center.

The Cincinnati Bengals have visited the Freedom Center several times, said Miller, who added that the Indianapolis Colts did so after Tony Dungy led the team to the Super Bowl championship in January 2007.

The Freedom Center seeks to give visitors “a meaningful experience that ties into modern day struggles,” Miller said.

A tour typically takes 90 minutes to two hours to complete, Miller said. Exhibits include a 21-by-30 foot, two-story log slave pen built in 1830.

Illness update

Calipari updated the team’s health by saying one player has contracted mononucleosis and another strep throat.

Probably only seven players “and, like, two managers” would participate in Thursday’s practice, the UK coach said. The illnesses came despite UK “sanitizing everything. The lodge. Bathrooms. Basketballs. And we’re sick.”

Calipari said Kentucky’s stretch of eight days between last Monday’s win over Central Michigan and next Tuesday’s contest versus Southern was fortuitously timed.

“We are so beat up and sick,” he said. “Thank goodness we’re not playing” until Tuesday.

Next game

Southern at No. 9 Kentucky

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

TV: SEC Network

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Southern at No. 9 Kentucky

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

TV: SEC Network

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