Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Blue Bloods

It was 13 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. Most Kentucky Wildcat fans old enough to have seen it do.

We were living in Falmouth at the time and the only entertainment we really had that winter was watching Wildcat basketball with our friends. It was Tubby Smith's first year as our coach, we had made it to the big dance two years in a row, and no one really had very high expectations for that team.

Until March.

I can't tell you a lot about the early games, except that we had this trend of getting behind early and then coming back in an exciting and stressful fashion. My stomach hurt constantly that spring; I'm fairly certain being a college basketball fan gave me an ulcer.

But I can tell you a lot about the Duke game. The parts of it I was brave enough to watch, anyway.

Some of you fair readers are from other states or favor other Kentucky teams and just don't get how it is with us and Duke. We hate them. No, more than hate. We abhor them. Probably the same kind of hate other college basketball fans have for us. The only team in the country that can really make us feel like the proverbial red-headed stepchild is Duke. Year in and year out, we have to hear how awesome they are. Even those years when we're pretty awesome, too. And then there's the whole Christian Laettner thing. How would you feel if your beloved team's most devastating loss shows up in every single highlight reel of the tournament's history every damn year and gets talked about almost weekly by one sports pundit or another? You'd probably have a chip on your shoulder the size of a Chevy.

So of course we met them in the tournament in 1998. We were, as so many are when they meet Duke in the tournament, not the favorite.

We had shag carpet in that little Falmouth apartment, the kind of shag carpet high enough to lose a kitten in. The game came on. I started pacing. We got behind. I paced some more. And suddenly that shag needed a rake taken to it in a bad way. I am pretty sure it had to be replaced when we left in May; I wore that sucker down to a nub.

I did what I always do when it looks like UK is going to lose: I looked away. It's hard to look away in a tiny 4-room apartment, so I went for a walk. A loooong walk. All the way to the mighty Licking River, which, it turned out, you could actually see and hear at the very end of our street. Huh, I thought. No wonder the flood hit our street so hard. I guess we should have maybe investigated that further when my dad asked us how close we lived to the river and whether or not we purchased flood insurance.

Our neighbors, who had just recently moved back into their restored home, shouted the score out to me each time I passed:

"UK's down!"

"They're still down!"

"It's not looking so good!"

Then I stopped getting updates, and the expletives I had been hearing from open windows changed to cheers and claps.

"Get back in here!" Jason called from our tiny, rickety balcony. "They're coming back."

I came back just in time to see the seniors, not a superstar in the bunch, make a collective decision that they simply were not going to lose. It was the most powerful display of sheer determination I've seen in sports before or since. These were kids who had grown up as UK fans themselves. They'd seen the Laettner shot. That chip on their shoulder lifted them up instead of weighing them down.

When Scott Padgett made the three-pointer that gave us the lead, he sounded a battle scream that was pure unadulterated triumph. I decided, as I have done many times since, that UK needed me to look away and send all of my positive energy their way from a quiet place where my mind rays could reach their full potential; usually, this place is the bathroom. I heard footsteps.

"You can come out now. You don't want to miss this."

I came out just in time to see them win and go to the Final Four. We laughed. We cried. We tried to call our friends in Lexington, but got a message that all lines were currently busy. This is the best way I can tell you about what it's like to live in Kentucky: we are, by and large, a united state of basketball.

History has a way of repeating itself. Life is very different for us now; we have a house, not a teeny little apartment. We are parents and have plenty to distract us from UK basketball. But some things never change.

This Sunday saw me, yet again, huddled in the bathroom, not able to watch as a close game became increasingly stressful. Yet again, Jason retrieved me with these words:

"You can come out now. You don't want to miss this." 

And for the first time in 13 years, we were back to the Final Four. A team that was in transition; a team we didn't have very high hopes for; a team that decided, just when it counted, that they were not going to lose.

Sounds very familiar.

I texted those old friends who used to live in Lexington (they now live in Louisville) instead of calling them. I had no problems getting through this time.

But that does not mean it's not still a united state of basketball.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I've never been much of a basketball fan, but I'll say one thing. Duke's fans are THE MOST obnoxious fans in the world!!!