Derek Willis Thank You to Big Blue Nation
EDITOR’S NOTE: Derek Willis is a 6-foot-9 senior forward at the University of Kentucky. A native of Bullitt County – just south of Louisville – he grew up in a family of Wildcats fans. After two seasons of almost no playing time at UK, Willis has scored 465 points, grabbed 281 rebounds, buried 91 3-pointers and blocked 51 shots the last two years. This week, as he prepared for the final postseason run of his career, he sat down with SEC Country’s Kyle Tucker to craft a letter to Cats fans about what it has meant to be from this state and represent so many of its people while wearing a Kentucky uniform.
Dear Big Blue Nation,
Over the last four years, you’ve given me something that is difficult to describe, but I’m going to try because I want you to understand what a gift it is. I want you to know what it feels like when the crowd at Rupp Arena roars and you realize it’s … for you.
It’s euphoric. I would describe it as your second heartbeat, in a weird way. Well, for me it is. When you dive on the floor, come up with a block or make some big play, you can feel the energy of the arena kind of encompass you, and it just makes you play that much harder. I’ll never forget that feeling, like when you have your first little girlfriend and you’re going to meet her and you get butterflies in your stomach.
I cannot thank you enough for that feeling. It saved my family full of Kentucky fans from ever having to root for their rival. Did you know I once dreamed of playing for the University of Louisville? Yeah, sorry about that. But after I got to know you, the BBN, everything changed.
I can remember visiting Rupp Arena the day Anthony Davis blocked John Henson’s shot to beat North Carolina in 2011, and that might’ve been the loudest sound I’ve ever heard. I knew then that’s what I wanted for my college experience: to go somewhere people cared that much. Turns out, the only place like that is Kentucky.
Even if you’ve visited, though, you still can’t fully grasp what it is to be a basketball player here until your first Big Blue Madness campout. Mine was in the fall of 2013, and that’s when it hit me exactly how much this matters to the fans. Hundreds (thousands?) of you sleep in tents for days just to get a few pictures and autographs and free tickets to watch us practice.
We had to have golf-cart escorts to get to class, because the Wildcat Lodge was surrounded. That was the first big, “Oh, my God, these people are really out here doing this,” moment. It was just crazy to me. I remember leaning out my window, FaceTiming my dad or one of my friends back home, showing them all the people. It was like a dream.
But then the doubt crept in. The year I signed with Kentucky, Coach Cal also brought in six McDonald’s All-Americans. Before my sophomore year, he signed four more. While that made our team really, really good – we were NCAA runners-up my first season and went 38-1 my second – it made my role very, very small.
For the first time in my basketball career, I lost confidence. I began to see myself differently, started to wonder if I belonged on this big of a stage. After my sophomore year, I thought maybe I could scratch out 10 minutes a game by the end of my career.
Back then, you believed in me more than I believed in myself. You erupted every time I touched the ball, as if you could will me into the rotation. I heard you. And I heard my dad, who always swore I could make it at Kentucky but never let me wallow. “Stick it out. Push through it,” he told me. “I’m not helping you if I’m sitting here telling you the world owes you something.”
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Kentucky senior Derek Willis (Photo: University of Kentucky, Illustration: Kelli Cooke/SEC Country)
So I kept struggling, stayed ready, and finally, about halfway through my junior season, I got my chance and broke through. I gave you real reasons to cheer, and did you ever. As proud as I am to have become an important part of this team the last two seasons, it sometimes feels like you are even prouder.
I know there’s a special bond between Kentucky fans and homegrown players. I understand that some of you can’t connect the same way with a McDonald’s All-American from New York or Virginia or wherever else. I get the pride you feel in seeing someone a little less heralded and maybe a little more like yourself out there wearing that uniform.
“That’s a Kentucky boy,” you say. “That’s someone who has lived life just like I’ve lived.”
As my career comes to a close, I want you know that pride runs both ways. I’m so grateful to have been able to represent you and I cherish our connection. I feel it not just in the roar of game days but also in the quiet moments out in the community when you stop me and make me feel loved.
I’ve always tried to return the favor, but after Senior Night, I think I’ll forever be in your debt. It would’ve been an unforgettable night even if I hadn’t dropped down on one knee and asked my girl, Keely, to marry me before my final home game. That twist turned into the best moment of my life.
After all the joy you’ve given me through the years, I couldn’t imagine a better time or place to propose. And you didn’t let me down. She finally got to feel that thing you have to experience to understand: 24,000 people wrapping their arms around you all at once.
Some might say that’s a fairytale ending, but I know better. This is Kentucky basketball and only one ending will do. I came here to win our ninth national championship, and I’ll do everything I can to deliver. Even that might not be enough to say thank you. But thank you.
Derek Willis, UK Class of 2017
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