March 29, 2012

Outside my home here in Louisville, all hell is breaking loose. Insults and predictions are dropping like bombs. Rational people are fleeing bars and restaurants in search of sanctuary. Offices have become battlegrounds, families are being torn apart, and minor events such as weddings are being reorganized. I now know what Edward R. Murrow must have felt like when he was reporting about the siege of London during World War II.

In more than a half century of covering basketball in Kentucky, I thought I had just about seen it all. Heck, even though I was just a kid in 1955, I remember the flag over the state capital building in Frankfort being lowered to half-mast because Georgia Tech had ended the Kentucky Wildcats' 129-game home winning streak (still the national record). That was my first clue that basketball wasn't just a game in my native state.

Nevertheless, I wasn't prepared for the madness that surrounds me this week. I guess I always knew that Kentucky and Louisville would someday meet in the Final Four. But I never dreamed that it would cause all serious work in the Commonwealth to grind to a virtual standstill. I never dreamed that Anthony Davis' brow would get more radio and TV time than anything since Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the first time in 1971.

To put it into context, this is Super Bowl week in Kentucky. Even folks who only have a casual interest in hoops -- yes, we do have some of those -- are suddenly expressing opinions and making bets and generally acting like fools.

Naturally, the national media has been in town this week, trying to ferret out basketball crazies to interview. This makes me nervous because when they find somebody like the guy who has the UK logo in his glass eye, it doesn't exactly reflect well on us. But we can't deny the obvious. You may have heard about the two senior citizens in Georgetown, Ky., ages 69 and 72, who almost came to blows arguing about Louisville and Kentucky during their dialysis treatment.

I feel sorry for my daughter Amy and her husband, Rob, who both committed the unpardonable sin of graduating from Duke. UK fans hate Duke almost as much as they hate U of L. When UPS came out with a television commercial during the start of this year's NCAA tournament that featured Grant Hill's pass to Christian Laettner for the miracle shot that snatched victory away from UK in 1992, a state legislator got up and called for the delivery giant -- which has a hub in Louisville -- to withdraw the commercial because it was too upsetting to many of his constituents.

Media people must be careful about what they wear because the conspiracy theorists on both sides always are looking for clues to our real feelings. Earlier this week, when I wore some UK togs to my Silver Sneakers exercise class, I overheard a red-clad lady hiss, "I thought so!" To counter such talk, I've taken to wearing a baseball cap that's U of L red on one side and UK blue on the other. But even that display of political correctness didn't solve much. A barista in Starbucks took one look at me and asked if I could please tilt my head to the red side.

Why are we like this? Well, as best I can figure, it's that 1) basketball is a sport that's economically viable in a poor state, and 2) everybody needs to feel superior about something, and basketball isn't nearly as controversial as Kentucky's other signature industries -- gambling, whiskey and coal.

There's also the fact that we don't have any professional sports in the Commonwealth -- except for the Kentucky Derby and horse racing -- but we do have two college teams who play in NBA arenas, pay coaches NBA-like salaries and charge NBA-like ticket prices. So we obsess about the Cats and the Cards every day of the year. It's very much like the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry, but with some unique geographical and sociological twists.

Located on the banks of the Ohio River, just across from Bobby Knight country, Louisville is Kentucky's largest city but also the one most despised by the denizens of WASPish rural Kentucky. If it weren't for all the tax money that we send to Frankfort to fund projects in other counties, many out in the state wouldn't be at all upset if Louisville seceded from the Commonwealth. They seem to think we have odd views about race, religion, sexual orientation, politics, and, of course, sports.

A couple of days after UK had roared through its first two NCAA tournament games in the sparkling new KFC Yum! Center (is that a horrible name or what?) in downtown Louisville, I ran into a guy who operates a pizza joint just up the street from the $248 million, state-of-the-art arena.

Noting that UK fans had packed the arena for both days, not to mention the open practice the day before the Wildcats' first game, I remarked that the tournament must have really boosted his business. "Yeah, it was great," the guy said, "but not because of the Kentucky fans. They didn't hang around Louisville. They went home." I wasn't surprised. People from rural Kentucky don't feel comfortable in Louisville. And they really hate it that the Cards have a new home that makes Rupp Arena look dated and dowdy.

Oddly enough, the man mostly responsible for getting the Yum! Center built is Lexington businessman Jim Host, a UK graduate who bought the Wildcat radio rights in the 1970s and used that to build the nation's premier college sports marketing company. To his friends around the state, Host tried to justify his role as chairman of the Louisville Arena Authority on an economic development basis. His standard line was, "What's good for the state's biggest city is good for all Kentuckians."

That didn't fly in Lexington and rural Kentucky, where the populace is 99.9 percent Big Blue. To some, Host is now regarded as the state's biggest traitor since, well, Rick Pitino.

Never mind that Pitino pulled the Wildcat program out of the dumpster and rebuilt it into a national power during his splendid eight-year run in Lexington (1989-97). He left to rebuild another legendary brand name, the Boston Celtics, and when that didn't work out, he took the best college job then available. He accepted athletic director Tom Jurich's offer to replace Denny Crum at U of L in 2001.

But what Pitino regarded as a simple business decision -- he loves the Commonwealth because of the importance placed on basketball -- was seen in Big Blue Nation as the ultimate sin. Some will never forgive him. A couple of years ago, when word got out the Pitino was being extorted by a woman with whom he'd had sex, the schadenfreude in Lexington was as strong and pungent as the aroma of manure at a Bluegrass horse farm.

Most of the credit -- or blame -- for our collective madness belongs to Adolph Rupp, who won 876 games and four NCAA titles at UK from 1930-'72. More than Henry Iba or Joe Lapchick or any other coach from the 1940s and '50s, Rupp invented overemphasis in college hoops, and his legacy to UK fans is the superiority complex they display to this day, much to the consternation of U of L fans and many others in college hoops.

The first five of Rupp's successors -- Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton, Pitino, Tubby Smith and Billy Gillespie -- all tried to tame the beast in one way or another. But John Calipari is different. He feeds the flames and fans them, talking about something mystical he calls "The Kentucky Effect," which embodies everything to do with the lust for winning that makes UK the perfect place for a coach who likes to demagogue it up a bit.

Calipari and UK were made for each other. Calipari freely admits that he's running an NBA prep school for one-and-done superstars. This is just fine with those in Big Blue Nation, who have long regarded academics as mostly a nuisance. Unlike any Wildcat coach since Rupp, Calipari owns the fan base, and the true believers deeply resent any insinuations about Calipari's recruiting methods or his Final Four appearances that were vacated at UMass and Memphis (Calipari himself was never charged with any wrongdoing).

Perhaps the most amazing statistic about UK's current team is that senior forward Darius Miller, who was signed by Gillespie, has played with 40 teammates during his four years in Lexington. No team, pro or college, has that kind of turnover. But it's what happens when you essentially bring in a new team every season.

As my friend Dave Kindred recently pointed out, the UK-U of L saga is downright Shakespearean in its plot twists. It's too bad that Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson isn't around to write Fear and Loathing in New Orleans. Take Crum, for example. He was the first coach in the Commonwealth who had the audacity to challenge UK's superiority, and he kept at it until UK finally waved the white towel and scheduled a regular-season series with U of L after the Cards' historic NCAA tournament win over Kentucky in 1983.

But for the last several years, Crum has co-hosted a radio talk show with Hall, whom he once hated as much as Hall hated him. Even more amazing, Crum has been Pitino's harshest critic -- much tougher than anybody in the Louisville media. It's reminiscent of the way Rupp publicly second-guessed Hall after being forced to retire in 1972. However, instead of chiding his best pal Denny for breaking the coaches' code of omerta, Hall sits quietly by, maybe because he too isn't too fond of Pitino for outshining him at UK.

And then there's the curious case of Marquis Teague, the freshman from Indianapolis who will start at point guard for UK on Saturday. His dad played for Pitino at Boston University in the early 1980s, and the Teague family was a fixture at U of L football and basketball games until Calipari roared in, late in the recruiting game, and snatched him away. It wasn't so much a matter of Teague being overcome by "The Kentucky Effect" as it was the list of one-and-done point guards, at both Memphis and UK, that have gone through Calipari's revolving door directly into the first round of the NBA draft -- DaJuan Wagner, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Brandon Knight.

If Calipari looked and sounded like a Pitino on training wheels early in his career, he now seems intent on topping Pitino's record at UK and showing everyone that he has surpassed his former mentor in every respect. Earlier in the year, a Louisville columnist suggested that Calipari suffered a severe case of "Pitino envy." Calipari slights the U of L program every chance he get and he somehow fails to mention Pitino when talking about the coaches who built "The Kentucky Effect."

Much to Big Blue Nation's delight, Pitino seemed to be on the ropes only a few weeks ago. As U of L staggered down the stretch of the regular season, losing four of its last six games, the talk shows were humming with chatter that maybe it was time for Pitino to hang up his tailored suits. But then his current team put on some new neon-orange uniforms that seemed to get them recharged and embarked on an unlikely eight-game winning streak that probably has even surprised Pitino.

Ordinarily, the big news of the week would be that Louisville native Jennifer Lawrence, whose family still lives in town, is receiving widespread critical acclaim for her starring role in The Hunger Games. Naturally, though, even that story has been given a basketball twist. U of L fans have high hopes that she will become their answer to Ashley Judd, the Kentucky-born actress (she's currently starring in the series Missing on CBS) who has been a fixture at UK games for years.

Actually, hunger games are a pretty good way to describe many of Louisville's contests this season. Unlike Pitino's previous Final Four teams at Providence, UK and U of L, this one can't shoot a lick but, instead, gets its offense out of a relentless defense that makes other teams play ugly, too. The current team's most interesting players are Gorgui Dieng, a 6-foot-10 soccer player from Senegal who speaks five languages, and Russ Smith, a spindly guard from Brooklyn who drives Pitino nuts with his erratic play. But Smith is just about the only pure scorer on a team that often goes long stretches starving for points.

Like almost everybody else in Kentucky who has a pulse, I will be watching The Game. The Cats have a huge edge in talent -- Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Teague all may be starting in the NBA this fall -- but the psychological advantage belongs to U of L. If the Cards lose, it won't be the end of the world. But if the Cats lose, well, Pitino wasn't just kidding when he said state police would have to guard the bridges to stop Big Blue jumpers.

In the meantime, it's war around here. For the first time ever, I'm looking forward to the Kentucky Derby as a break in the action. Unlike Lexington and rural Kentucky, Louisville is home to both the Cards' and UK's largest alumni club. That makes for a combustible mix every day of the year, but now the hostility is off the charts. It has gotten to the point that when I see a fanatic heading my way, I want to scream "Incoming!" and duck behind a potted plant.

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