Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Lessons from Big Blue Nation

By: Guest blogger, Zach Edwards

To someone not blessed enough to spend their life here, the Commonwealth of Kentucky doesn't appear to have too much to offer.  If you look simply at the statistics (high poverty, low-performing schools, high rates of obesity, etc.), you'd probably be right.  Obviously, the whole picture is much broader than that, and without the opportunity to actually experience life in the Bluegrass, you don't realize how great it actually is.  Kentucky is a special place for a variety of reasons.

There's arguably no more beautiful and contrasting landscape in the entire country...Picturesque mountains in the east, low-lying river valleys in the west.  While unpredictable at times, the weather here is tolerable and we get to experience four legitimate seasons throughout the year.  There are no better thoroughbred horses anywhere on Earth, and we are the only place on the planet where real bourbon is made.  When asked where one is from, only those from Lexington and Louisville reply with anything except, "______ County."  And despite all the negative stereotypes of Kentuckians thrown around in pop culture, there is a certain sense of pride we take in calling this great state home, rarely found in folks from anywhere else in the country.

Even if those truly Kentucky examples don't impress an outsider, we can always hang our hat on one undeniable fact: We have the best damn college basketball program on the planet.
Whether or not you're a sports fan, or if you wholeheartedly disagree with my statement above, you'd have to admit there is something special about Kentucky Basketball and its fans.  It is a sentiment ingrained from the womb in millions of members of Big Blue Nation that is passed down through the generations.  And no matter how good or bad a particular season may end up, that sense of pride never fades.

During this time of year, virtually the entire country gets swept away with March Madness.  And, in Kentucky, when the Cats are rolling, it is essentially a 3-week holiday.  Kentucky Basketball fans discuss hoops all year long, no matter what the calendar says.  But March is a special time, and the most anticipated time of year for many Kentucky fans.  Vacation days and savings accounts are used to follow the team all over the country.  The "Blue Mist," a colloquial term attributed to the masses of Kentucky fans taking over entire cities where the Cats play, has been coined.  Atlanta, Georgia, the site of the SEC tournament many times, has been referred to as Catlanta for the same reason.  When the Kentucky Wildcats are in town, the local economy gets a big boost (see How Big Blue Nation Spends Its Green *disclaimer: includes some salty language).

John Calipari has, on numerous occasions, quipped "You people are crazy," in reference to Kentucky fans.  And he's right on the money.  We camp out for a week to get tickets to a practice.  We travel all over the country to watch a group of college kids play a game.  We talk about the players, dissect every word spoken by the coach, and truly engulf ourselves in trying to fix problems when the team isn't playing well.  We are crazy...Crazy about our team, and crazy about basketball.

Unfortunately, "crazy" isn't always a good thing.  Many Kentucky fans admittedly take things too far.  They harass 18 and 19-year old kids on Facebook and Twitter.  They call for the head coach to get fired after every loss (and even some close wins).  But after the next victory, they're right back on board.  I liken it to a drama-filled love affair between two teenagers.  When things are good, there's nothing better in the world.  When things are bad, it is utter despair.  There will be countless breakups, and reconciliations, but no matter what, they will be together forever.  The only difference is that the roller coaster love affair between Kentucky fans and the Wildcats truly is unending.

The roots of that love affair are deep, and come from a variety of directions...Most of which point back to Adolph Rupp, who coached the Cats from 1930-1972.  Rupp led Kentucky to unparalleled success in a time when college basketball was in its infancy.  He took his teams to New York City regularly to play at Madison Square Garden, giving his Wildcats national exposure.  He won 4 NCAA Championships, took the Cats to 6 Final Fours, coached Team USA to an Olympic gold medal, and did all of it using rosters compiled almost exclusively of players from Kentucky.  That early and sustained success, coupled with a lack of professional sports teams in the state, led to a rabid fan base unmatched, with the possible exception of Alabama football, anywhere in the sports world.

For me, though, Kentucky Basketball has always been more than winning percentages and championships.  Sure, those things bring a sense of pride in the world of college hoops, but it is much more than that.  Some of my earliest memories include sitting in the living room, watching the Cats play on TV with my dad screaming at the top of his lungs.  Or, sitting on the stairs in our garage while he tinkered with something at his work bench, a Kentucky broadcast blaring from the speakers in the corner, and he fluidly telling me about Kyle Macy's free throw routine, or how the loss to Georgetown in the 1984 Final Four still haunts him to this day.

The first game I remember watching was the famed classic in the regional final against Duke in 1992.  I was 7 years old, and I remember Dad mumbling about how he didn't even want to watch, because he knew Duke was going to blow us out.  So, we went to eat dinner at Bonanza in Draffenville, only to make it home in time to see the last few minutes of regulation.  The game went to overtime, and we watched the conclusion, but I'm sure I don't have to tell you how it ended.  I remember laying in the living room floor, watching as the final buzzer sounded, seeing the hurt and disbelief on my dad's face.  He slowly stood up from his recliner, and I watched him lumber past me on his way to bed, without speaking a word.  I knew, at that exact moment, I was forever hooked.

I remember the first time I stepped foot in Rupp Arena, and how awesome the place was for a wide-eyed kid who had ridiculous dreams of one day donning the blue and white and running out onto that floor.  I remember seeing the joy on my dad's face the first time he got to watch a game live, some 30 years after he first became a fan.  He went that long without ever seeing a game in person, and yet his allegiance never wavered.  Some people follow Kentucky religiously for a lifetime, and never get the opportunity to see a game other than on a television.  And yet, they still refer to the team as "us" or "we."

But, the most special memory I have of Dad and I in connection with UK basketball came much later, while I was still living in Lexington.  I had gotten us tickets for Kentucky vs. Miami (OH) in November of 2009.  It was John Calipari's first season as head coach,and future #1 NBA Draft pick, John Wall, was making his collegiate debut.  We ate a late dinner at O'Charley's, had our first beer together (yes, it was the first time we had drank a beer together) and made our way to Rupp.  The game didn't go so well for a while, as the Cats dug themselves into a 19-point hole.  But during the second half comeback (Kentucky ended up winning on a John Wall jumper with 2 seconds to go), I remember looking over at one point after a big play, and seeing my dad screaming and pumping both fists in the air.  He was like a kid on Christmas morning opening that one gift he had hoped against hope to receive.  At that moment, I realized the game itself didn't really matter...It was the second game of the season.  But having that beer at O'Charley's, seeing my dad that happy, and getting to spend time with him did matter.  For the first time in my life, I didn't really feel like it was father and son.  I felt like it was friend and friend.

And that is what makes Kentucky Basketball so special to the fans that follow the team with a religious fervor.  Of course, winning games and championships is hugely important, but it's the memories with friends and family connected to those games that leave the biggest impression.

One of the items you'll find on my bucket list is to attend a Final Four.  And while that hasn't happened yet (and given the skyrocketing prices of tickets, might not for a very, very long time), I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Midwest Regional Final in Indianapolis two weeks ago.  Not only did I get to personally witness one of the greatest games in the history of the NCAA Tournament, culminating in Kentucky's 16th trip to the Final Four, but I got to do it with my wife, Adrienne, and my best friend, DJ.  I'm sure when I look back on that day twenty years from now, the excitement of the game and seeing Aaron Harrison's game-winning shot will have faded somewhat.  But the memory of me letting out a guttural scream of pure joy, wrapping my arms tightly around two of the most important people in my life, will remain as vividly as if I were still there.

I can only relate to my own personal experiences, but that doesn't negate the feelings of thousands of other Kentucky fans across the globe.  After Kentucky lost to Connecticut in the title game Monday night, I was admittedly depressed.  It was arguably the best three-week run in the history of college basketball (with the exception of coming up short at the end), and I was more sad to see it end than I was sad about us losing the championship.  But, as I sat in my recliner listening to the post-game show on the radio, it helped me understand just how special (and important) Kentucky Basketball is to so many people in Big Blue Nation.

Towards the end of the show, a caller commented about how he had been going through some tough times in his personal life leading up to the SEC Tournament in Atlanta a few weeks ago.  He said the run the Cats made to reach the SEC Final, and the valiant effort they showed against Florida in that game, gave him a glimmer of hope for what they could do in the NCAA Tournament.  He went on to say, despite all the bad things going on for him personally, the joy and excitement he experienced as the Wildcats marched to the National Finals helped alleviate the pain he felt in his personal life.  And this team gave him a source of happiness, in a time when he didn't have it from anywhere else.  And, despite the loss, his life was better because of what this team had been able to accomplish.  That's what Kentucky Basketball truly means to millions of fans scatter all over the world.

Being a Kentucky fan has certainly brought plenty of happiness to my life.  The all-time winningest program in history, the most NCAA Tournament appearances and wins, the highest all-time regular season and NCAA Tournament winning percentage, 8 national titles and 16 Final Fours are all evidence to that.  But, the real joy (for me) comes in sharing that passion and excitement with loved ones.  I hope there comes a day when I'm piddling in my garage, my wide-eyed son sitting on the steps, listening to me ramble on about Cameron Mills' "Shot Heard Across the Bluegrass," or Keith Bogans spraining his ankle against Wisconsin in '03 and what might have been.  Maybe I'll tell him about the joy it was to watch the pure dominance of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrest, or the day I saw the 2014 team advance to the Final Four during their magical NCAA Tournament run.  I hope he shares in that passion, and I hope he takes me to a game someday, after sharing a beer at an O'Charley's.  I hope he looks back on those days like I look back on them with my dad.  And I hope he realizes...Sometimes, it isn't simply just a game.

Go Big Blue!

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