Writing the Rivalry


Over the past week, a lot of ink has been spilled about tonight's UK-U of L game.  With two Kentucky teams in the Final Four, the national sports media has subjected us to many trite musings about "legacies" and "dynasties."  We've heard ridiculous tales of old men erupting into fisticuffs.  We've heard stories of houses divided.  We've been taken to rural towns and urban areas.  We've been introduced to hillbilly fans and soon-to-be-millionaire players.  And yet, none of these stories -- and I'm pretty sure I've read them all -- has captured what it actually feels like to be a basketball fan in Kentucky during the most intense rivalry week of all time.

All week, I've known that I had to write something about tonight's game.  With each passing day, it's seemed harder and harder.  With each cliched story about the Calipari - Pitino rivalry or the mania across the Commonwealth, I've felt that I had less to say.  But, I am a writer in Kentucky.  I write a sports column for a Lexington magazine.  I write for two blogs about Kentucky life.  And I am a passionate University of Kentucky basketball fan.  I have to say something, right?

As I sit in front of the computer screen with a few minutes left before tipoff, I don't know how to convey a Kentuckian's love of basketball.  How do I explain taking First Grade P.E. classes in the same gym where King Kelly Coleman -- the greatest high school basketball player in Kentucky history -- once played?  How do I explain that a family friend -- one of my town's most prominent citizens -- is remembered not for his civic accomplishments or his well-respected, successful children but for the fact that he played a season for Coach Rupp?  How do I set to paper the many times this winter when my brother and I were terrified to ask our father  (a retired coach) about his cancer recovery, opting instead to joke with him about ridiculous plays and matchups? (Little Brother believes a 2-3 zone conquers all...) 

A few weeks ago, my father and I were walking through the Pikeville Wal-Mart when a little old lady stopped us.  She was riding in one of those store-provided motorized wheelchairs.  Daddy and I were both wearing UK blue which, she said, told her that we were Good People.  She then asked me to get another of the motored chairs and drive it across the Wal-Mart to her husband.  At that moment, it hit me.  Our blue shirts signified a tribe, a bigger whole to which we all belong.

Over the past several days, I've heard the UK-U of L feud portrayed as existing along racial and socio-economic lines.  I've heard that it is a rural versus urban matchup.  To me, it's much simpler -- it's the team into which we are born, the tribe to which we choose to belong.  It's as simple as being born in an Eastern Kentucky county rather than one close to the big city.  It's where your parents attended school, or the team they chose to support.  It's the subtle nuances of which Louisville neighborhood you live in.

I suppose, in the end, there's no way to explain it if someone hasn't lived it.