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Never mind the shooting, passing, dribbling, rebounding, defending and other routine components of a preseason exhibition game. Basketball history will be made in Kentucky’s exhibition game Friday night.
That’s because Joel Utley will begin his 61st season as the radio play-by-play announcer for Kentucky Wesleyan College men’s basketball.
That’s believed to be a record, eclipsing the 60 years that Max Falkenstein called Kansas games on the radio. A No. 60 hangs in the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse in his honor.
“I just never thought about that,” Utley said of the record he will set this season. “I know it sounds crazy. But I just love what I do. That’s all. How many years it has been or how many more it may be, I’m just grateful.”
That the record will be set in Rupp Arena is not lost on Utley.
“The opportunity to play at Rupp Arena is — gosh — every kid in Kentucky would love to play there,” he said. “And every broadcaster would love the opportunity to broadcast — even if it’s one game — from Rupp Arena.”
It will actually be the second time Utley will call a game played in Rupp Arena. During Tubby Smith’s time as coach, UK played Kentucky Wesleyan in an exhibition game.
“It’s a storied cathedral of college basketball,” Utley said. “And just me in that building on the same court as the stars and outstanding coaches that UK has had over time, it’s a memorable experience. Hallowed ground, brother.”
Kentucky Wesleyan Coach Drew Cooper saluted Utley. “He is Kentucky Wesleyan basketball,” Cooper said.
Utley, who turned 82 on Sept. 4, calls the Kentucky Wesleyan games on Owensboro’s WBIO (94.7 FM). He grew up in Madisonville.
What drew him to broadcasting was listening to St. Louis Cardinals games on the radio with his father.
“Those word pictures coming alive, and you hear the crowd, oh my goodness, it just captivated me,” he said.
His parents bought him a baseball board game. He took it to the front yard, sat under a maple tree and announced the “action” displayed on the board.
“I would broadcast every pitch of every game,” he said. “Just absolutely loved it. Still do.”
When the time for college came, Utley attended Murray State. Then he transferred to UK after his freshman year. While in Lexington, he worked at Lexington radio station WVLK for Claude Sullivan, who called UK games.
Utley did not work on the UK broadcasts. Sullivan worked solo. Utley recalled working high school games, including one featuring future NBA player Jeff Mullins.
One assignment called for Utley to interview Adolph Rupp at the airport as the iconic Kentucky coach prepared to leave on a trip.
A picture capturing the moment appeared in one of the Lexington newspapers.
“I sent it to my father,” Utley said. “I think he took that newspaper all over Madisonville and showed people me interviewing Adolph Rupp.”
Utley left UK to live in Owensboro. Because of the urging of then-Kentucky Wesleyan coach Bob Daniels, he returned to classwork and graduated from Kentucky Wesleyan in 1974.
Utley first called a Kentucky Wesleyan game in December of 1961. He did not expect to still be calling the Panthers’ games 60 years later. Roy Pickerill, the school’s sports information director emeritus, said Friday will mark Utley’s 1,704th game.
Of the future he foresaw in 1961, Utley said, “You just know — in time — you’re going to move on. I was going to be doing St. Louis Cardinals baseball games.
“But I fell in love with Owensboro.”
Utley set 26 years as a goal. Twenty-five was almost a cliche, he figured.
Meanwhile, Kentucky Wesleyan became a Division II dynasty. Utley has called 12 Division II national championship games. The Panthers have won eight: 1966, 1968, 1969, 1973, 1987, 1990, 1999 and 2001.
Utley estimated that he missed “nine or 10 games” in his first 60 years on the job. He noted the death of a sister-in-law and later back surgery as two reasons for the absences.
Utley is not sure how much longer he will call Kentucky Wesleyan games. Except for calling basketball games, he’s retired.
“I enjoy the summers,” he said, “and look forward to basketball in the winter.”
The end may — or may not — be near.
“The winning and the camaraderie and closeness of our program,” he said, then paused momentarily before adding, “it’s home.”
Kentucky Wesleyan at No. 10 Kentucky
What: Preseason exhibition game
Where: Rupp Arena
When: 7 p.m.
TV: SEC Network