Riley Welch was a walk-on with the Kentucky Basketball program for the past two seasons; the most painful two-year stretch in the program’s history.
Welch arrived on campus in 2019 as a transfer from College of the Desert, the son of a coach hoping to learn the craft from John Calipari by spending two years as a reserve player on the end of UK’s bench. However, things did not go as he, or anyone, could’ve imagined.
In Welch’s first season in 2019-20, Kentucky was ready for a tournament run when COVID shut down the sport and the planet. Then this past 2020-21 season, one ruled by COVID restrictions and isolation, Kentucky had the worst record in school history and missed the tournament for only the second time under Calipari. But those on-court struggles pale in comparison to the off-court tragedies in the loss of Ben Jordan and Terrence Clarke, Welch’s former teammates and beloved members of the UK program, gone four months apart.
After taking some time to grieve and reflect on two difficult years and the unexpected loss of two brothers, Welch reached out to UK beat writer Kyle Tucker over at The Athletic and asked him to help turn his thoughts into words for “an open letter about life, loss and basketball.”
“I have been trying for days to find the words to describe what I’m feeling,” Welch writes in the letter, published through Tucker for The Athletic. “This has been the toughest year of my life, and I know I’m not alone. A lot of people in our basketball program have felt the weight of it. Many of us experienced failure for the first time. And then the death of a friend for the first time. I was already thinking of writing something about the struggle of this year before Terrence died, but now there is no doubt I need to get some heavy things off my chest. Things I hope you’ll remember.”
Welch goes on to share memories of Jordan, who he considered a best friend, and Clarke, a teammate he saw not long before a car accident took Clarke’s life–and how he learned they each had passed. Welch writes of how his coaches were there for him and his teammates in those moments of tragedy too.
Give it a read this morning when you get a chance, if you’re able, and take some of Welch’s words to heart:
“My hope is that our fans learned to love us even at our lowest, and that when Rupp Arena is finally allowed to be full again next season, 20,000 people will wrap their arms around that team and squeeze.”