‘In Kentucky, basketball is part of the definition of who you are’

March 28, 2012

The old-timers showed up right when Wheeler Pharmacy opened and made a beeline for the back of the store. They took their usual seats at the lunch counter and had their usual conversation about Kentucky basketball.

How are we going to beat the press? Coach John Calipari will have to carefully distribute playing time. We might have our hands full in the NCAA championship game. Is there any way little brother can beat us Saturday?

“Coming down here looking for a little bit of knowledge is like trying to get a sip of water from a fire hydrant,” explained Jim McGary, one of the regulars.

The lunch counter is a no-frills space where the decor is dated but the coffee’s fresh. And Kentucky basketball is always the topic of conversation — so much so that even Calipari stops in now and then. He came in earlier this week, in fact. The Wildcats coach certainly didn’t need a reminder, but the old-timers made sure he knew how big Saturday’s game against Louisville is — and never mind that it’s the first time two schools from the same state have made the NCAA tournament’s Final Four since 1991.

McGary, 73, works in the life insurance business, so he knows these things: “I can’t explain it. It’s not a matter of life and death,” he said of Kentucky-Louisville hoops. “It’s more serious than that.”

‘Two different entities’

There are more than 46,000 miles of interstate highway in the United States, but there’s no stretch like the 61 miles of pavement that separate Louisville and Lexington. Similarly, there are 344 Division I basketball teams and perhaps no two — not even that pair down on Tobacco Road — have a disdain quite like what you feel driving around Kentucky. The closest comparison in sports might be Alabama-Auburn football.

The rivalry isn’t apparent on Interstate 64, driving west from Lexington, because Louisville’s fan base barely stretches beyond its city limits. But all you have to do is flip on the radio. Any station will do. One morning last week, Jimmy from Louisville called up to sing a song. Rose said her town was devastated by recent storms but Saturday’s game has helped residents momentarily forget. And “Ronnie on a bucket,” with an accent thicker than molasses, shared the minority opinion: He hopes Saturday’s loser will support the team from the Bluegrass State in Monday’s title game.

“I think that’s something we can all wish for,” said Joe B. Hall, the famed Kentucky coach who co-hosts a daily radio show with Denny Crum, Louisville’s Hall of Fame coach. “Whether it’ll happen or not, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Not likely. These two schools don’t like each other. Never have. The game is still a couple of days away and tension is already heated. Local police, in fact, had to respond to a fight earlier this week — at a dialysis center, of all places.

“I didn’t talk to him about the ballgame,” one of the combatants explained to WKYT-TV. “I was talking to another guy about the game. He was meddling and told me to shut up and gave me the finger!”

The two schools didn’t play a regular season game against each other from 1922 to 1983. While both programs have a history of success, Kentucky has always loomed larger, both inside and outside the state.

“Louisville is like the little brother fighting for recognition from the big brother,” former Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton famously said in 1986, words that still fuel both fan bases.

The rivalry only became more heated when Rick Pitino, who coached Kentucky from 1989 to 1997, accepted the Cardinals job when he returned to the college ranks in 2001.

“It’s two different entities, really,” he said this week.

Pitino explained that the schools are “culturally different,” pointing out Louisville‘s minority population and urban environment. He’s also well aware of Kentucky’s large alumni population in Louisville’s back yard, which can make neighbors out of enemies.

“It ends up with a lot of bad marriages, a lot of mixed marriages that end up bad,” he said. “You have a Louisville woman with a Kentucky man and it always ends bad.”

He was joking. Kind of.

Hugh Barrow is a prominent Louisville attorney who practices family law. While he’s never seen basketball formally cited in divorce paperwork, it‘s been an underlying factor. “There’s definitely some truth to it,“ he said.

Barrow has a case right now, in fact, in which one man’s two grown children — Kentucky fans — have made life difficult for their father’s Louisville-loving wife. “She’s a rabid Louisville fan and they just treat her like crap,” he said. “They’ve treated her so poorly and it really has centered on this rivalry and this season. It’s sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back and she’s packing up.”

‘It cuts both ways’

John Y. Brown served as Kentucky governor from 1979 to 1983, and he knows better than anyone Kentucky’s struggle for red-state or blue-state status. “Probably got more attention than anything I did as governor,” he said of his creative attire 29 years ago.

Brown was referring to the “Dream Game“ on March 26, 1983, the first matchup between Kentucky and Louisville in nearly 25 years. The two teams refused to play in the regular season but their paths collided in the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight. The entire state was on fire that week, but Brown played it down the middle, famously stitching together a red jacket and a blue one.

Louisville won the game in overtime, sending Big Blue into an identity crisis, and politicians such as Brown finally had some momentum. The governor and state legislature put pressure on the schools to play each other regularly.

The schools finally began squaring off the next season, and for the past two decades it’s been a date the entire state annually circles on its calendar.

“But it’s also created great disdain among kindred spirits. It cuts both ways,” Brown said. “There’s no one sitting on the sidelines when it comes to Louisville and Kentucky.”

Basketball is a subject that requires careful tiptoeing for politicians. Much of the state detests big-city Louisville, but it’s nothing compared with their feelings for Cardinals hoops. Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson spent 21 years as Louisville mayor before trying his hand at a statewide campaign in 2009.

“If I had a stitch of red, they’d see I was a U of L fan,” he said. “I had more questions about my allegiance to the UK Cats than I had about being a big-city mayor who couldn’t relate to rural communities.”

Even within Louisville’s city limits, most agree that nearly half the basketball fans are Wildcat supporters. But at least there, supporting the Cardinals isn’t considered criminal.

“We have two very different approaches to running a program,“ Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said. “UK has a one-and-done approach. We don’t. Plus, we have a new arena here [the 22,000-plus-seat KFC Yum! Center opened in 2010] and the Cats have arena envy. We got the best arena in the world and they can’t handle that.”

Regardless, it’s harder than ever. Brown says he couldn’t get away with the red-and-blue jacket today, and Kentucky’s current governor will have to come up with a different plan. Most likely, Gov. Steve Beshear will begin Saturday’s game sitting with Louisville fans, and Abramson will sit with Big Blue. At halftime they’ll switch. They’re still working on attire.

“In the past, I’ve worn my favorite shade of green,” Beshear said. “Maybe I’ll wear a referee’s shirt, so I can referee the rivalry between our two schools.”

‘It matters more to them’

Kentucky fans dominate the state, while Louisville faithful barely own their city. For the most part, Cardinals fans see an opposing fan base lacking in education, class and teeth, a group who can barely find their way out of the mountains of eastern Kentucky without tripping on their overalls. The Wildcats, meanwhile, consider the Louisville faithful uppity, envious of Kentucky’s success, attention and large fan base.

“In North Carolina, people are big fans, they care. But in Kentucky, basketball is part of the definition of who you are,” said Matt Jones, the unapologetic Wildcat supporter who runs the popular kentuckysportsradio.com site, in addition to his regular radio and television gigs. Jones attended law school at Duke and knows basketball is different in the Bluegrass State. “If you ask most UK fans, ‘Who are you?’ UK will come up right away. It’s not just their job or whatever. It’s ‘I’m the world’s biggest UK fan.’ It matters more to them.”

Terry Meiners is a Kentucky graduate and a Louisville native who has been poking fun at both sides for more than 25 years on the city’s 50,000-watt news talker.

“For the Cats, the entire universe is based on the success of Kentucky basketball,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the sun forgets to come up, it doesn’t matter if the electricity and water has been cut off, or a natural disaster has swept through — as long as Kentucky basketball is on an uptick.

“Louisville is big in Louisville. Kentucky basketball is big in all 120 counties of the commonwealth.”

Saturday’s game will mark Pitino’s sixth Final Four appearance and Calipari’s fourth (though two were formally vacated). Both coaches understand what’s on the line, and Calipari especially has been playing down the rivalry. In the national semifinals, “it does not matter if the school’s 10 minutes from you or 1,000 miles,” he said.

But Calipari knows it matters to Kentucky fans, and he knows they’re ready to fight.

“They are piranhas. . . . If you’re going to attack Kentucky, just be right. . . . I’m just telling you, piranha — womp, womp, womp,” he said, using his hands to bite the air in front of him. “They’ll come and eat your yard, your house, these people are nuts.”

Kentucky is heavily favored to win Saturday in New Orleans, and if they do, the Wildcats will move on to the title game and Louisville can take solace in an unexpected Final Four appearance. “If it’s the opposite, we’re talking about nuclear bomb,” Jones said.

The Wildcats would have a tough time recovering, and Cardinals fans, he says, will never allow them to.

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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