On Kentucky Girls and Basketball

State College Gymnasium
When I was freshly out of graduate school, I found myself working in a small office.  My co-workers were a couple of women transplanted from far-away places like Grosse Pointe and Long Island.  When March rolled around, my office had the oddest custom: they did nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary. No brackets. No surreptitious use of the office television. No bending of the dress code to accommodate school colors. No smack talk. It was like spending the spring in an odd alternate universe that had somehow planted itself in Lexington's South Side.  It sure wasn't how we do it in Kentucky.  Even when it's just us girls.

We take basketball quite seriously in the Commonwealth.  It's a perfectly justifiable position, because our teams are really, really good at the game. Tonight, as the Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament kicked off, four Kentucky schools were among the competitors. Two of those schools will also send teams to the Women's Tournament.  For most Kentuckians, that translates to a very personal stake.  Everybody knows at least one person who went to UK, Western, Louisville, or Murray State.  A lot of us went to at least one of those schools ourselves.     We  raise our kids to be fans of our alma maters and the closest regional university.  We teach them to take sides in the huge in-state rivalry. When we hear of enterprising Nebraska fifth-grader Max Kohll, who made national headlines for being sent to the principal's office after starting a $5 bracket pool among his classmates, we don't know what all the fuss is about.  Even the most conservative church-goers among us think "there's nothing wrong with filling out a bracket; little Max is just learning his math and earning some spending money."

They say that, in some parts of the country, women don't follow basketball all that closely.  Apparently, sports are often construed as a "guy thing."   In Kentucky, being a basketball fan knows no gender line.  You'll never hear any "guys watch sports while the girls go shopping" nonsense around here.  You can walk into any gym in the Commonwealth-- from grade school to D-I --and  find little old grandmothers decked out head-to-toe in team colors, actively following the game and uttering the only curse words they ever allow themselves in reaction to bad officiating.   All across Kentucky this weekend, wives and girlfriends will be planning elaborate game day spreads. As we prepare our hot wing dips and cheese balls, we make sure that we won't get stuck in the kitchen at game time.  Our love of basketball is as much our birthright as wearing elaborate hats to the Derby or inheriting our grandmothers' perfectly seasoned cast iron skillets.

Every March, the nation is treated to stories of fandom and sports mania.  Some are heart-warming, some are ridiculous, and some are just insane  There are the Cinderella stories that are so beloved by the national media.  There are the guys who travel thousands of miles, never miss a game, and saddle their kids with ridiculous names.  Here in Kentucky, one of the great storylines of our obsessive love of basketball is our female fans.  There's the elderly lady whom I recently saw in my hometown Wal-Mart -- her long grey ponytail and ankle-length skirt identified her as a member of a particularly conservative Baptist sect, while her "Legacy of Kentucky Basketball" t-shirt identified her as a member of the Big Blue Nation.  There's my sorority sister Alexia, who's teaching her Baltimore-raised children about Murray State basketball through the power of cable TV and internet feeds.  There's my dear friend Jenksie, sister to a  Mr. Basketball and Wildcat alumnus, who has forgotten more inside scoop than Pat Forde ever uncovered.   There's my Mama Cindy -- mother to two of my dearest friends -- who dreamily recalls that Pat Riley was her first Wildcat crush.  There are innumerable stories of other Kentucky women who can break down a defense better than any TruTV analyst I've seen this week.  Unlike the most famous UK alumna/basketball fan, most of us even remember to put on pants with our jerseys.