Let me prove to you how Kentucky I am right off the bat.
This is how Kentucky I am….
I grew up on my grandparents’ farm in Marion, right in the center of the state. Rolling green tobacco fields, a wooden barn in the backyard and, of course, dirt. When I think of my childhood, I think of playing in the dirt. Rural Kentucky at its finest.
Actually, though, playing basketball is one of the first things I remember. I was maybe four years old and we were at my nana’s house. She had bent a wire coat hanger into the shape of a hoop and pinned it to the top of the bedroom door. My brothers and I would throw her rolled-up socks into it. She had those thick, fuzzy grandma socks, you know? Perfect for making a ball. We didn’t keep score and the hanger hoop wasn’t regulation height, but those games were my first connection to the sport and competing.
When you’re born in Kentucky, you love basketball. And when you love basketball in Kentucky, you have to pick a side. Here, it’s Lexington or Louisville. Wildcat blue or Cardinal red. There are no other colors.
For whatever reason, I tried to delay this choice for as long as I could.
For a while, I was a Tennessee Vols fan. I wanted to play like Candace Parker. In middle school, I would watch Kentucky vs. Tennessee games on TV and be rooting for number 3 in Tennessee orange. This didn’t make my dad very happy.
You probably know him as Anthony Epps, point guard for the Wildcats from 1994 to ’97. He led Kentucky to a national championship in ’96, the year after I was born. So most people would think I was literally born to wear blue. There’s even a picture of me in my dad’s arms on his Senior Night, wearing a Kentucky cheerleader uniform and blue and white clips in my hair.
The thing is, from the day I was born, all I heard was, “Ninety-six, man! Ninety-six!” When you win a national championship at Kentucky, people don’t forget. Growing up it was something that everybody talked about. Often. And I when I say often, I mean often. Like I heard all of the stories. Every single one of them.
“Anthony Epps! The Untouchables!” Strangers will still bring it up to him on the street. “The best college team of all time!”
To everybody in Kentucky, he’s Anthony Epps. But to me, he’s just my dad.
I’ve always been really proud of him, but for me that didn’t mean I had to automatically follow in his footsteps. My plan wasn’t to go to Kentucky, to be honest. I wanted to figure out my path for myself, wherever it led me. I even (unofficially) committed to play for Louisville when I was a sophomore in high school.
You don’t think about about tradition and heritage so much when you’re younger. I grew up playing playing middle school, high school and AAU basketball with one of my close friends, and our ultimate goal was to continue to play together in college if we could somehow make it happen. When we finally started getting offers from Division I schools, it was a dream come true. We both said yes to Louisville without even really thinking too much about it.
I talked to my dad and the rest of my family about the decision, and they supported me. And it’s funny … my dad, die-hard Kentucky alumnus that he is, probably gave me the most support out of anybody. I always appreciated that. I know it never ended up happening — I never went to Louisville — but deep down I think it probably would’ve broken his heart to have to root for me at a Cardinals game.
After a few weeks, I felt like I had done something wrong. I don’t know if I would call it destiny, or something else, but I started to have regrets.
There wasn’t one specific reason. Maybe after you play a certain number of games you realize that the best basketball memories aren’t the moments you made by yourself, but the ones that you made with the rest of your teammates.
Maybe it was because I really started listening more to my father, who was coaching me at Marion County High at the time, and who liked to emphasize the importance of being a good teammate and what his past teams had meant to him.
Maybe it came down to realizing that I really wanted to be a part of a legacy.
Men’s and women’s basketball are very similar games, but they’re also very different. When I got to high school, the expectations for me were already high. Marion County was not only where my father was the coach, but also where he had gone to school. And I was his oldest daughter.
All my life people have been asking me about playing in my father’s shadow. I never saw it as a negative thing. If anything, I felt the opposite. I watched my father strive to succeed while he was playing, and it inspired me to play the game the way he did.
And I liked the bar being set high for me. It motivated me to bring my best to the court every game. I told myself that by the end of high school, when people in Marion thought of the name Epps, they were going to be thinking of me first.
When the overwhelming excitement of getting offers to play college basketball had settled down, I started thinking more about what really mattered to me. I also spent more time talking with my family — and, for the first time, actually paying attention to the culture of Kentucky.
I guess I took it for granted for a long time, but it’s easy to see now how lucky I had been to grow up immersed in Kentucky basketball. Looking back, the random encounters my father had with fans on the street were so much more than just annoying interruptions. I was finding out what it meant to bleed Wildcat blue. I saw so many people who seemed to care about the team more than just about anything else in the world. I mean, if you didn’t grow up in Kentucky you probably can’t actually believe some of the interactions my dad had with people.
And people didn’t just want to reminisce. Kentucky basketball doesn’t stop. My dad’s discussions with fans always turned to the current state of the team. Those chats could last anywhere from a few minutes to long enough that phone numbers were exchanged so that the conversations could continue indefinitely.
To this day, my dad still texts with random Kentucky fans he met on the street.
For a long time I thought that was weird. But then I started to see how cool it was.
I finally came to a decision. I wanted to have a part in the story of Kentucky basketball. I wanted to make my family name matter to another generation of fans.
I picked Kentucky. You should’ve seen my dad’s face. Words can’t do that one justice.
I remember wearing the Kentucky uniform for the first time. It was an exhibition game at home against Eckerd College. I think I scored 10 points. It was one of the only times I ever felt really nervous. It was the first time I had ever played for something bigger than my family watching or the people on my team. It wasn’t just basketball to me anymore. I was playing for the legacy.
I made a promise to myself that night that I was going to treat this jersey, these colors, with respect. I was going to work as hard as I could, play basketball as well as I had been taught and do Kentucky proud.
Four years later and here we are. Now I’m preparing my emotions for my own Senior Night. I can’t say it was ever easy, but that’s not how any of us wanted it anyway. We have battled through so much together, and received so much love and support from this community. I really wouldn’t have had it any other way.
My years here have been special, way beyond basketball. This uniform means more to me than words can describe, and I’ll never forget the years I spent wearing it. I still don’t like to think about what it will be like when I put it on for the last time.
I’m very proud to be the second Epps to have competed at this school, and hopefully I have done my family proud. I hope they’re especially proud that I have eclipsed my father in both career points and rebounds, and that I am now the No. 1–ranked Epps in those categories. (Sorry Dad, the people deserve to know.)
It’s been a pleasure to wear the blue and white jersey with EPPS 25 on the back, just like my old dad. I hope we both did it the right way.