I told myself that, whatever my fellow Her Kentucky contributors wrote in the "I Don't Get It" series, I would keep my mouth shut. Everybody likes different things. Besides, the whole point of the exercise was to explore Kentucky traditions from a fresh viewpoint. We wanted to be a little edgy, a little irreverent. To constantly post responses that argue the contrapositive would simply be a defense of the status quo. And, you know, Kentucky Tourism already has its own website.
Today, though, I was reading Sarah's thought-provoking piece on Kentucky basketball. She made some fantastic points-- regardless of the Lexington-in-March mindset, college basketball is just a game. And, I suppose, there are other things one could be doing than constantly obsessing over lineups, opponents and recruiting news. But, there was one sentence in Sarah's essay that has stuck with me all day. In response to the Worst Game in College Basketball, she noted, "the fact that so many Kentuckians recall that game as if a loved one had received a tragic cancer diagnosis blows. my. mind."
I grew up in a huge, tight-knit family. We just happen to also be obsessive Kentucky basketball fans. Because we do have such a strong tradition of cheering on our Wildcats, I find that my family's timeline often intertwines with basketball events in our collective history. I can remember my late grandfather getting too nervous to watch the end of close games -- a habit I've unwittingly picked up in recent years. I can remember my little brother -- six years old at the time -- taking the '92 loss to Duke so personally. And, I can remember times when the love of the game provided levity and comfort in otherwise difficult situations.
When I was in eighth grade, my father was diagnosed with a rare blood disease. The kind that Dr. House's patients contract. We honestly didn't know if he was going to ever leave Central Baptist. During those horrible days, it just so happened that Kenny Walker was visiting a patient on the same CBH floor -- I think it was his girlfriend's mother, but that's largely irrelevant. My mama, understandably exhausted and terrified, just happened to run into Kenny in the hallway one day. She's a tiny little blonde lady, with no more than a passing interest in sports. Kenny, whom we all know to be a bulky 6'8, was at the height of his career with the Knicks. I can only imagine how odd their conversation must have looked, but the SkyWalker graciously obliged her request to briefly visit my dad, a basketball coach and Wildcats fanatic. To this day, it's the only thing we discuss about those horrible weeks of illness. And, I have to admit, I'm still a bit starstruck when I see Kenny Walker at the mall or a game.
A decade or so later, I was in graduate school at Kentucky when a beloved aunt suffered a freak heart episode. She lay in a coma at the Med Center on the night that Kentucky played Utah in the '98 National Championships. I took in the festivities at the corner of Lynaugh's and debauchery that night, then awoke the next morning to visit the hospital before class. My aunt recovered and my team won. That's what I consider a successful week.
The loss in 1992 is still heartbreaking nineteen years later. It stings every time they replay that damn shot during March Madness. This fall, a loved one of mine did receive a cancer diagnosis. I have to say, it hurt a whole lot more than Laettner's stomp-shot maneuver. In true Kentucky fashion, among the cards and well-wishes and prayer chain requests were a family friend's "get well gift" of UK tickets. They seemed most therapeutic.