My Rivalry Story -- More than a Basketball Game

Reading all these rivalry posts, I decided to formally share my POV on the rivalry game and what it means to me.  It’s a really long story, so read on if you dare.

I grew up in a UK a UK fan.  My extended family owned a coal company and the entire family pooled together for season tickets and each head of household drew at random for the games.  Whatever games my Dad drew (after the complaining and swapping was finished) I'd get to go see since my Mom and sister didn't really care about sports and only cared about UK because my Dad was so passionate.  This made all my cousins super jealous as they'd rarely get to go to games and I would go to 2 games a year, every year.

I got to see some really good games as a kid with my Dad.  I got to see Kentucky beat LSU (who was ranked and had Shaq) in Rick Pitino's first year as my 9th birthday present.  (I now know my Dad traded two other games to get this one, since it was close to my birthday.)  What I remember from the game was that UK shot 33 3-point shots.  Thirty-three!  (Only 9 of them went in, but I would have sworn all of them did as a nine-year-old.)  I probably shot more airball three-pointers that summer than any other 9 year old in existence, but it didn't matter.  I was living the dream.

My parents divorced when I was 10 and I'd spend most weekends with my Dad at his apartment.  We'd play video games, watch movies, but in the was Wildcat basketball.  My father was a pretty defeated man after the divorce, but one of the main things that kept his fire going; like it was before, was his passion for Kentucky Basketball.  I think that's one of the biggest reasons he'd try his best to get tickets and take me to those games.  We went to the SEC tournament in 1995 in Atlanta and UK won the tournament with an epic win over Arkansas in overtime.  I even had a pair of those awful denim basketball shorts (Jorts!) from the 1996 season...and wore them every time I played ball--with pride.

My first live experience of the UofL game was on New Year's Day 1995.  My Dad (a lawyer) had finished a case for a client of his who lived in Louisville and was a big-time Cardinal fan.  It was a domestic case and my Dad helped ensure this guy was given custody of his kids over a "bad woman".  (That's all the info a 12-yr old was going to get.)  The guy was going to be out of town for New Year's (spending it with his kids), so he gave my Dad his nose-bleed seats in Freedom Hall to the game.  It was my first trip to Louisville and I remember thinking how HUGE the city was as the only other "city" I'd ever been to was Lexington.  There were quite a few Kentucky fans in our section but I remember feeling VERY intimidated by all the red shirts around me.  It was my first away game.  Kentucky lost.

Next Louisville experience was when we drew for the Louisville game at Rupp in 1997.  Louisville won the game, very unexpectedly; I can't tell you if Louisville was ranked, but I know Kentucky was top 10 that year.  I remember a Louisville fan talking with my Dad after the game while we waited to cross the street.  The Louisville fan (a tall and overweight black guy, biggest guy I'd ever seen) said, "Wow. I can't believe we pulled that off.  You guys made a great comeback toward the end there.  I don't know how we held on."  A drunk guy standing on the other side of the Louisville fan dropped the N-bomb and threw a "spit cup" at him, but it missed and hit my pants.  My Dad was livid as was the Louisville fan and nearly every Kentucky fan around.  Two other Kentucky fans shoved the guy to the ground and a few policemen came over.  Both my Dad and the Louisville fan stuck around to give info to a cop and I think the drunk guy was arrested. I was 14 and I remember on the ride home, that nasty used wintergreen tobacco smell still in the car, asking my Dad why so many people hated black people.  I'd seen racism for many years growing up in rural Kentucky and had heard the n-word used casually by older folks (and some of my friends) for as long as I could remember.  Why did they hate? My Dad had always taught me to ignore that hate, but also to never treat anyone special, just because they were black.  I can't remember exactly what wisdom was shared on the ride home, but I do remember having a lot of respect for my Dad and decided to start standing up to others against racism.  Whether it was telling my friends off or a 70 year old WWII vet at the body shop I worked at, I wasn't going to sit quietly anymore.

Time went on and I watched UK win 2 National Titles in high school.  I had always been a straight A student, but by my junior year, it was clear expectations had been set very high for me and I wanted to shatter those.  My sister was announced as Valedictorian of her class, so naturally I had to match it.  I had taken every Advanced Placement (AP) class my school offered and had scored well enough to get college credit on most of them.  I did extremely well on my ACT, and had decided that I wanted to major in Engineering in college and was considering Medical School after that.  I applied to 5 schools; MIT, Georgia Tech, Ohio St., Louisville and Kentucky.  Having been a Kentucky Governor’s Scholar in 1999 I had a guaranteed full-ride to Kentucky or Louisville.  I was accepted to all 5 schools and received a scholarship to each.  However, the MIT, Ohio St. and Georgia Tech offers were half-scholarships, leaving tens of thousands of dollars to come up with annually.  My family was pretty well off financially, but it had always been said that college was “on our own” to build character.  I knew my limits in terms of working during the school year and I had to admit that I wouldn’t be able to work my way through school and still do well.  After visiting all my choices, I ultimately chose UofL. 

Louisville was the best choice for me as they had an excellent Engineering program, offered a nationally recognized co-operative education program and did it on the fast track as well.  If I did my best, in 5 years I would have a Bachelor’s, a Master’s and a full year of work experience in industry.  UK had a solid program as well, but I didn’t like the campus and they didn’t offer a co-op program that was as complete and established as UofL’s.  In addition to the full academic scholarship, I had several local scholarships (some Kentucky state specific) that would allow for me to have around $5000 per semester of extra funds for food, lodging, etc.  This allowed me to not work during the year-round program.

My family, save for my parents, was incredibly unsupportive of the decision, my grandfather in particular.  He secretly asked if it was a “money thing” and offered to pay me any difference to “just go to UK”.  I explained to him my choice and he warned me, “Well if you ever cheer for them…”  At my high school graduation, as I was called up to deliver my Valedictorian speech; they announced my school of choice.  It was booed.

I loved college life at UofL as most young people do.  I was fortunate to not love it too much and I kept my grades in order as well.  I joined a fraternity and one of many social interactions was attending UofL football and basketball games.  I had never been to a college football game before and the atmosphere at Louisville was electric.  We celebrated watching players like Arnold Jackson, Anthony Floyd and people asking whether this Ragone kid would be as good as Redman.  I enjoyed the tailgating and cheering for football so much, I started attending basketball games as well.  I watched Louisville struggle under Denny Crum’s last season; but I learned to respect and appreciate Cardinal Basketball.  Having a player like Reece Gaines to watch was incredible.  I still followed UK basketball, but not of great depth.  I cheered for both teams throughout the season and when they played, I was distraught.  I think I felt that I should want UK to win, but it didn’t feel right.  Even though UK won easily that year, I had that classic “bummer” feeling after the game.  As the year went on, everyone around me talked Louisville ball and by season’s end, I knew a lot about Louisville Basketball.  I was a Louisville fan and have never been distraught for whom to cheer for on gameday since. 

The off-season of course brought Rick Pitino to Louisville and with him, came some redemption from my family.  My family was the sort that would have voted Rick Pitino for governor during his UK tenure and magically became huge NBA fans after Pitino left Kentucky to the point of buying me a Celtics jersey for Christmas that year.  Pitino was hero and savior of Kentucky basketball to them and with some early heat being applied on “Ten Loss” Tubby Smith at that point in time, my family was truly upset that Tubby wasn’t instantly fired to make room for Rick’s return. 

Even though it was already the case, suddenly it became “okay” for me to be a Louisville fan.  I’d come “home” with Louisville attire and my Dad would start asking about Louisville’s team, and we’d have discussions about both Kentucky and Louisville.  My college years went on and Louisville had some really great years while I was at the University.  My best highlights were far and away attending the Liberty Bowl against Boise St. and attending the Final Four in St. Louis.

For the past decade, I’ve been a Louisville fan and after each Kentucky-Louisville game I have a tradition.  The day after (to let any boiling blood cool), I call my Dad and we talk about “the game”: who played well, who coached better, what ref calls were wrong, what strategy might have been better for the other team.  It’s a great talk and I look forward to it every year, win or lose.

I’ve since moved to New Mexico, so I’m not immersed in as much Kentucky and Louisville basketball on a day-to-day basis, especially during rivalry week.  I’ve never been to the KFC Yum! Center.  I’ve never seen Peyton Siva play live.  But I did suffer with you last Friday and I did have a nice long 90 minute chat with my Dad on New Year’s Day. 

I may not remember how many points, rebounds and blocks Samaki Walker went off for in that triple-double back in 1995; but I know how to stand my ground, how to make choices for me and my wife and kids, going against the grain of what’s popular in the eyes of family and friends.  I may not be able remember how close that game in 1997 really was or who the on-court heroes were; but poised to adopt two children from Ethiopia this year, I know exactly how I feel about racism.  To me, this rivalry is a lot more than a basketball game.  Growing up in and around this basketball game, I’ve learned a lot about myself.  Not that I wouldn’t have learned these things apart from “the game”, but “the game” has always been there, seemingly in the foreground, but in reality in the background.  And I think that's how it should be.  Go Cards!

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