Wild Cats Fan The actress's love for UK basketball epitomizes a statewide passion

May 02, 2004

For six months beginning last September, I played the role of
Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, and during curtain
calls I was always entertained by shouts of "Go, Big Blue!" and
"Go, Cats!" or seeing signs expressing our shared passion for
college basketball. But while I treasured my time on stage, I
deeply lamented the fact that it prevented me from attending my
beloved Kentucky Wildcats' games. That's why the first thought I
had (after Ouch!) when I injured my left foot during a
performance in February was, I can probably catch the rest of
the games. Indeed, shortly after I had surgery, I flew to South
Carolina in early March to watch the Cats dominate the
Gamecocks 84-65. ¶ People often ask me to try to explain why
Kentuckians are so nutty about UK basketball. My guess is that
it's because the commonwealth is so diverse, from the mountains
of the east, where my family hails; to the central bluegrass,
where we have a proud tradition of raising the world's best
thoroughbreds; to the farmlands of the west. Basketball is one
thing that unites us, something for which we all can be proud.
An airline pilot once told my Nana that when he flies over the
state, he can tell when UK is playing because the roads are
empty.

I loved hearing my Aunt Margaret talk about my grandfather Papaw
Judd driving a large group of kids down Route 60 to Memorial
Coliseum in Lexington. At home, Aunt Margaret said, they watched
games on TV with the volume turned down so they could listen to
Cawood Ledford's radio broadcasts, and I dream of them doing so.
When my family moved to Tennessee in 1979, I used to wait
anxiously on Saturdays for the SEC games to come on. I'd sigh
when I finally saw Rupp Arena, wistfully reckoning that I knew
half the people in the gym. That's a lot of people for a
13-year-old to know, but I was homesick.

One thing I love about going to UK games is that I don't feel
like a movie star, I'm just another passionate fan. In 2002, I
hopped on a plane to Gainesville, Fla., took a cab to the arena
and watched the Cats beat the Gators 70-68, feeling as free as I
do when I walk the woods surrounding our farm. Later that year,
after my brother-in-law's car went out in the first 30 minutes of
the 12 Hours of Sebring race in Florida, my husband, Dario
Franchitti, and I left earlier than expected. He went home to
Tennessee, and I went to St. Louis, where along with the rest of
Big Blue Nation, I gleefully watched Tayshaun Prince score 41
points to beat Tulsa 87-82 in the second round of the NCAAs.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know many UK players and
coaches over the years. I get to go backstage, if you will, and
enjoy time with the young men, appreciate their basketball IQs
and develop friendships. Tony Delk is still my favorite. He was
the MVP of the 1996 Final Four, and watching him taught me to
look past the flash of offense and to value tremendous defense.

After the Cats beat IUPUI 95-64 in the first round of the 2003
NCAA tournament in Nashville, the team came to my house and I
cooked for them. The fellas signed a wall that runs along the
staircase to the basement and is adorned with awards given to me
by the people of Kentucky, and what they wrote is almost as dear
to me as my grandmother's pearls.

I have had so many wonderful memories over the years, but I'll
leave you with my most recent. It was March 7 and I was sick with
bronchitis, but I made it to Rupp for Senior Day. During the
first timeout of the second half, the UK cheerleaders spell out
KENTUCKY, and a person from the crowd is asked to come out to
make the Y. That day cheerleader Jason Keogh hoisted me onto his
shoulder and carried me--and the blue-painted cast on my left
foot--to midcourt. Before I was even introduced, I was given a
standing ovation. It was the most extraordinary feeling.

Back on Broadway, at that very moment, my play was closing
without me, but I was getting the best curtain call of my life at
Rupp from the people who mean so much to me: the people of
Kentucky.

Ashley Judd, a 1990 University of Kentucky graduate, will next be
seen in De-Lovely, which will be in theaters in June.

COLOR PHOTO: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

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