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PEOPLE and PLACES: Championship-caliber dedication

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Wildcat fan's labor of love produces one-of-a-kind treasure

By Peter W. Zubaty, Sports Editor

Fandom can take on many forms, and many levels of severity. For decades, fans have been finding new and elaborate ways to express devotion to their favorite teams.

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Few could match the path taken by Darleene Wimsett, who this year completed an 18-year labor of love and dedication to her favorite team, the Kentucky Wildcats.

“I never dreamt it was going to take me this many years,” said Wimsett, who since 1994 has been working on a 9x9-foot quilt honoring the history of University of Kentucky men’s basketball, hand-stitching the names and dates of the dozens of past Wildcats to don the uniform, as well as their coaches, since 1903.

“I never thought I would have something this great a magnitude,” she said when discussing the time invested in the project, tens of thousands of hours spent constructing the colorful Wildcat graphics that serve to draw the eyes into the quilt and the names of past players, which read like a trip down memory lane for basketball fans who are historically inclined. They’re all on there, from obscure names such as Chris Gettlefinger and Todd Zeigler to stars such as Pat Riley and Anthony Davis. She’s even been able to track down a few Wildcat notables for personal autographs, including current coach John Calipari, meetings that have been big thrills for Wimsett.

“Everybody has just been overwhelmed when they see it,” she said. “I really, honestly don’t know what got me to do this.”

Wimsett, 61, is a Bardstown resident who hails from a small Ohio River hamlet in Henderson County called Scuffletown Bottoms. Although she’s never had the pleasure of attending a game, she is True Blue through and through, right down to her fingers.

“I’ve had blue nail-polish so long, when I went to take it off, my fingernails were still blue,” she said.

The quilt’s genesis came about when she and some of her fellow co-workers in the lunchroom at Bardstown City Schools were taking a break and got to talking about making a quilt for a local show. Wimsett found her centerpiece in the form of a map of Kentucky she spotted at her other job at the Nelson County Jail, where she works part-time. Over time, she added other images to help personalize the quilt, such as hand-embroidered Wildcat mascot logos, as well as uniforms and shoes featuring names and numbers of some of her favorite players.

The process was painstaking, she said. Wimsett would regularly work on the quilt for hours daily — often well past midnight — at times to the neglect of her family, she confesses.

Each name and date takes about 45 minutes to complete, she said, a process complicated over time by her failing eyesight, carpal tunnel in her wrist, and a stitching thumb that just doesn’t work like it used to since part of the end was lopped off years ago in an unfortunate run-in with a meat slicer.

“I loved every minute of it,” Wimsett said. ”It’s just from the heart.”

Scott Padgett — whose signature also adorns the quilt — is Wimsett’s all-time favorite player. Fittingly, his name was the first to be stitched onto the quilt. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of the stars of this year’s championship-winning Wildcats, was the last. Putting an end to a project that can go on forever wasn’t easy, but a special season such as the one just completed seemed like as good a time as any, she said.

The next phase of the quilt’s life is at hand. After several years of seeking out legal permission to sell the quilt, the University of Kentucky agreed to allow it.

During Monday’s NCAA title game, Wimsett posted the quilt on the Internet auction site eBay with a hefty opening bid of $150,000, a figure she came up with after estimating the time she’s put into the quilt. As of Saturday, no bids had been placed on the quilt, but nearly 4,000 people had viewed the auction page. Wimsett knows it might take some time to find the right buyer for a one-of-a-kind item such as the quilt.

“If I can’t get what I want out of it, I’ll just keep it,” she said. “I hope whoever does buy it puts it up somewhere and displays it.”

She confessed it was a strange feeling to have her creation out there in cyberspace for all to see. Overall, however, it’s been an exciting process from start to finish, including Thursday when a reporter from ESPN contacted her about the quilt, conducting a half-hour interview.

Wimsett isn’t sure what she’ll do with the spare time she’ll have now that she’s no longer working on the quilt, but it’s a safe bet she’ll still be glued to the TV set for every Kentucky game next season as the Wildcats seek to defend their eighth NCAA title.

“I heard on TV that Ashley Judd was the biggest Kentucky fan,” she said with a smile. “I don’t agree with that.”