By Jerry Brewer, The Seattle Times –
It’s a gag gift, Dad says, with a heavy emphasis on “gag.”
Two Christmases ago, he and Mom bought me a University of Kentucky golf shirt. Ordinarily, for University of Louisville fans as rabid as those in my family, this would be the most useless and detestable purchase they could imagine. But Dad wanted to make a point, in jest.
“Go ahead and wear it, son,” he said that day. “You know you’re a closet UK fan.”
“Here you go again,” I replied.
The entire family laughed. The joke has always been that, because I’m such an even-tempered Kentuckian, I must be hiding my secret allegiance.
How could I grow up a Louisville fan who resisted bashing Kentucky at every opportunity? How could I move to Louisville for a stint as a sports columnist at The Courier-Journal and write columns about both teams without letting personal biases take control? And how could I move to Seattle and not care anymore, other than showing pride whenever any basketball team allows my home state to grab the spotlight?
It must be because I’m a UK fan. Unless you’re a UK fan. And then it must be because I’m a UofL fan.
That’s my home, where when it comes to basketball, even love is conditional.
The most amazing thing is happening this week, a true lifetime event, with Louisville and Kentucky meeting in the Final Four for the first time. And in New Orleans, of all crazy party places. It’s the best and worst thing ever to happen to the commonwealth of Kentucky.
For once, our love of basketball, which is unrivaled — look up the NCAA men’s tournament television ratings by market — will receive its full respect. And our unhealthy, sometimes ugly obsession with red and blue will be scrutinized like never before.
Understand this: What you are about to experience, you have never witnessed before in sports. This is more heated than if North Carolina and Duke met in the Final Four. The only thing comparable would be if Alabama and Auburn met in college football’s national-championship game.
In a state that gets mocked (unfairly if you ask me), in a state of low incomes and low rankings for education and low self-esteem, college basketball is our favorite diversion and our identity, along with bourbon and horses. So, we’re a little crazy. And that’s all on display this week.
Be forewarned: There are levels of crazy that extend far beyond spending $50 on a gag gift. The news this week has been hilarious — and troubling. Two men, ages 69 and 72, were arrested Tuesday for fighting at a Georgetown, Ky., dialysis clinic. One of the men, Lexington, Ky.-based television station WKYT reported, was still hooked up to his machine when the scrum began.
And then there is the Craigslist ad, supposedly from a UK fan living in North Carolina, that begins, “I am a UK fan wanting to go to the Final Four in N’Oleans. I have put up my wife as collateral.”
In reaction, Courier-Journal sports columnist Eric Crawford defends us, offering, “I can assure you that this fan is an exception. None that I talked with would offer his wife in exchange for a ticket, at least not one in the upper arena.”
I have a friend who considers Kentucky “the land of the three-legged dogs.” He came for a visit once, and when I took him on a sightseeing tour, the first thing he saw was a man walking a three-legged dog. I tried to make some jokes about his state, but they didn’t work. The three-legged dog always trumps my best effort.
Still, I’m so proud to be from the Bluegrass state. My first website played off my last name and the state’s nickname: BrewGrassState.com. College basketball provides an opportunity to celebrate Kentucky, which is why I can’t hate any of our teams. Contrary to my family’s jokes, I was as passionate about Louisville as anyone while growing up. I even wrote an essay my sophomore year of high school about why Louisville had the best starting five in the nation. Grade: A.
The city of Louisville is the only ideal place to be a Louisville fan. The state is predominantly blue, but in the city, red has a slight advantage. I grew up in Paducah, which is way out in western Kentucky, about seven miles from the Illinois state line. And that part of the state is at least 85 percent Wildcats blue.
Growing up, the rivalry often turned into a racial one, with Louisville representing a style that appealed to blacks and Kentucky appealing heavily to whites. That has changed a lot through the years, but there are still striking differences between the schools. It’s the city vs. the country. It’s the privileged school that has held most of the advantages and stands as perhaps the nation’s greatest college basketball program (Kentucky) vs. the school that has redefined and maximized itself and built its own enviable tradition (Louisville).
Having followed the rivalry as a child, a college student who went to another state school (Western Kentucky), a displaced Kentuckian, a journalist returning home and now as a displaced Kentuckian again, I’ve seen it from all angles.
It’s special. It’s odd. But it’s ours.
The date March 26, 1983, is one that every true Kentuckian knows by heart. That’s when The Dream Game occurred. After not playing for 24 years, Kentucky and Louisville met in the Mideast Regional final of the NCAA tournament in Knoxville, Tenn. Every true Kentuckian knows the score by heart: Louisville 80, Kentucky 68, in overtime. Even though the Cardinals had won the 1980 national title, they had to win that game to prove a point to Kentucky. The Wildcats, who had a policy not to play in-state opponents, hadn’t scheduled a regular-season game with Louisville since 1922. They had only met a few times in the postseason during that 61-year lull, and The Dream Game, for the right to go to the Final Four, loomed as Louisville’s chance to show Kentucky, up close, that there were two powerhouses in the state.
The Dream Game led state legislators to pressure the schools into meeting during the regular season every year. That pressure remains today, and the schools have played in the regular season for the past 29 years.
Dad, who texts “CARD’S!” (I’ve learned to love the typo) after every Louisville victory, lives for those games. And because Kentucky wins about two-thirds of the time, he turns angry often. If a Kentucky player has a great game against Louisville, it’s only because he’s “playing the game of his life because he wants to beat Louisville.” Several years ago, we argued for nearly an hour because Rajon Rondo, the Kentucky point guard at the time, dropped 25 points against the Cardinals.
“He only did that because he’s from Louisville, and Louisville messed up not recruiting him hard,” Dad said.
“He’s a future NBA first-round draft pick, Pops,” I said. “He could do that to a lot of teams.”
“Nah,” Dad said. “He only got off because it was against Louisville.”
Dad, who used to record every Louisville game on VHS tape, has a contradiction, though. He named my little brother, Kyle, after former Kentucky guard Kyle Macy. I asked him last year why he’d choose a player from his hated rival.
“I just thought he was the coolest dude at the time,” Dad said.
Maybe I’ll start calling him a closet UK fan.
Then again, now is not the time to challenge my father on his love of Louisville.
Records: Kentucky (36-2) vs. Louisville (30-9).
History: Since the series resumed annually in 1983-84, Kentucky leads 18-11 and won 69-62 on Dec. 31. This is the fifth NCAA tournament meeting with each team winning twice. Louisville won the 1983 “Dream Game” for the Mideast Region championship.
Final Four: Kentucky has 15 Final Four appearances, Louisville is making its ninth appearance.
National titles: Kentucky seven, Louisville two.
Name calling: Louisville fans call the Cats “Ca-yuts” and Kentucky responds with “Loserville.”
Pitino vs. Calipari: Rick Pitino had much greater success coaching Kentucky blue than Louisville red — he was 6-2 against the Cardinals at Kentucky and is 4-7 against the Wildcats at Louisville. He’s also 0-3 against John Calipari.