For all the (mostly deserved) flack the network gets, the 21st century sports fan is still forever indebted to ESPN for everything it's done over the past 30 years. The world wide leader is the driving force behind the modern fan: the man or woman who can gleefully devote any given weekend to watching 48 hours of coverage pertaining to their sport of choice.
But when any person, idea or organization grows so large and powerful, people are bound to find fault with it. I, like most, have developed numerous issues with the four letter network over the years, but none greater than its uncanny ability to somehow convince the vast majority of the country that what it says is the unquestioned end all, be all.
Each winter you've got every ESPN personality with an ACC degree subtly mentioning 37 times a week that Duke/North Carolina is the best rivalry in college basketball. You've got the Devils and the Heels right alongside the Yankees and Red Sox and Ali/Frazier in a four-times-a-year SportsNation poll question asking "which is the best rivalry in sports." You've got Dick Vitale belittling anyone with a reasonable opinion that differs from his own by boasting time after time that there is "absolutely no doubt" that UNC/Duke is "far and away" the best rivalry in college athletics.
What choice do us voiceless pawns ("the little bald bitches on the chessboard") watching from home have but to lay back and accept this? ESPN is like the NASA of sports. This is what they do. Someone has researched this. There's a formula. It's right. It has to be right.
It's not right.
Louisville vs. Kentucky is the best this sport has to offer.
The game might not get the "full circle" treatment, it might not garner a week of over-hyped advertising, and it may not feature a man on the television screaming like the fate of the Middle East is at stake, but it simply means vastly more than its top rivalry competition. It means more to the players involved, it means more to the coaches involved, it means more to the fans involved and it means more to the state involved.
Barring a meeting in the NCAA Tournament, the Cards and the Cats get just one crack at each other every year. Forty minutes for 12-months of bragging rights. Forty minutes to avoid embarrassment and harassment at work, in school, or in your own bedroom for 365 days.
If Duke drops the first of the minimum two meetings with North Carolina, then the Cameron Crazies can retreat to their dorms, talk about how they'll get 'em in a few weeks or in the ACC tournament, pop in season one of BattleStar Galactica (yep, nerd joke) and call it a night.
When the final horn blows in the Battle for the Bluegrass, an entire fan base is instantly forced to come to grips with the terrible truth that they will now be heckled unmercifully for an entire year by friends, co-workers, family, teachers, etc. whom they would undoubtedly stab in an exposed appendage if it weren't so frowned upon.
Don't get it twisted, there is no intended exaggeration or hyperbole in this post (except maybe the stabbing part...maybe). In 1998, nary a college basketball conversation took place on the hollowed grounds of Holy Trinity Grade School where myself or one of my trusted allies refrained from bringing up the fact that the same U of L team which had finished the regular season 12-20 had defeated the national champions from Lexington 79-76...in Rupp Arena. While the national championship > no postseason argument would seem like an effective retort to the uneducated outsider, being able to claim victory in this rivalry is like a one-year unlimited get out-of-jail free card.
The use of "hate" is excessive in almost any context, but this rivalry brings the utilization of the word closer to the cusp of appropriateness than any other.
Without delving too much into the issues, there is a definite disconnect between the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky.
Though relatively insignificant in the eyes of the rest of the country, Kentuckians outside of Louisville view the Derby City the same way someone from upstate Vermont views New York City: prostitutes parading around the KFC Yum! Center, muggers behind the doors of every store in the local mall and gang-bangers residing in each and every high-rent neighborhood home.
The differences between the two might be best exemplified through the basketball rivalry.
A conversation about Louisville with a Kentucky fan that doesn't include the use of the words "class," "trash," and "thugs," is one that never took place. And Cardinal fans are just as quick to toss "redneck" and "racist" around when the other side is brought up.
Louisville's heroes are the "Doctors of Dunk" (led of course by Darrell "Dr. Dunkenstein" Griffith), whose electrifying style of play set the standard for "Phi Slamma Jamma" and the "Fab Five." The high-flying 1979-1980 national champion Cardinals are also credited with either creating or popularizing (depending on who you talk to) the high-five.
Kentucky's heroes are still the small, gritty likes of Richie Farmer, Jeff Sheppard and Cameron Mills. John Calipari coaching in the Ivy League is more likely than the banner dedicated to The Unforgettables coming down.
If you want to get a Wildcat fan worked into a tizzy, simply state that Adolph Rupp being a racist is indisputable. Whether it's fair or not, there is no question that race was at one point a defining issue between the two programs. Thanks to Glory Road, just about everyone knows that the 1965-66 Texas Western team was the first to start five African-Americans and make it to the Final Four. Less known is that Louisville was the second program to achieve the feat.
The issue - at least as it was then - is well laid out in Rick Pitino's chapter of Eddie Einhorn's fantastic compilation How March Became Madness:
The one big problem we had in recruiting at Kentucky was a bitterness about race. Once, when we were trying to get Dwayne Morton, who was born in Louisville, I went to talk to his family and gave this big speech about why he should play for us. His grandmother was listening and she said, 'Coach Pitino, I'm a big fan of yours.' I smiled thinking we were in, and then she said, 'But everytime I see those boys go on the court and step on that man's name, we applaud in this household.'
She meant Adolph Rupp- the arena was named for him by then- and that was when I really understood the opinion of African Americans locally about Kentucky. Rupp might have been a legendary coach, but he sure wasn't legendary in the African American community. The University of Louisville was viewed as the place where African Americans could excel, and Kentucky was a white-bread University. We lost Morton to Louisville.
People don't like what they can't understand, and these two sides certainly don't seem to understand each other.
The result is cultural warfare in the form of a 40-minute college basketball game.
Of course the greatest rivalry in the sport has to have a defining moment, and I challenge any other collegiate feud to come up with an event that can compete with the 1983 "Dream Game" from a significance standpoint.
The two teams hadn't played since 1959 when Peck Hickman's unranked Cardinals knocked off Adolph Rupp's second-ranked Wildcats 76-61 in the Mideast Regional semifinals. The victory paved the way for U of L's first trip to the Final Four. Since then the Cardinals had won a national championship and become a major player on the national scene, and Louisville fans craved a shot at "big brother" that Rupp and subsequently Joe B. Hall refused to allow.
But the game finally happened in '83 when the teams were paired in the same region and met in the Mideast Regional championship on March 26 in Knoxville. Despite a buzzer-beating shot by Jim Master to send the game into overtime, the Cardinals ran off 14 straight points in the extra period and prevailed 80-68.
The U of L community erupted and quickly the governor, legislators and even the boards of trustees at both universities began to talk about a series between the two. Shortly thereafter, the announcement was made that Louisville and Kentucky would begin playing each other annually.
One game played an awfully large role in making this what it is today. If Louisville loses we may never have had the showdowns of the '80s, the upset in '98, Patrick Sparks' late-game heroics or the saga Rick Pitino's betrayal. But here we are. Less than a day away from the Cardinals and the Wildcats going at it just eight months removed from a Final Four tussle in New Orleans.
The contentious nature of the modern rivalry is being spearheaded by the main faces of each program. Rick Pitino and John Calipari both claim no bad blood, but the words sound every bit as hollow as the ones both utter following a bad loss.
Calipari took pot shot after pot shot at Pitino and Louisville after his arrival in Lexington, most notably referring to Kentucky as "the only real program in the state." This was the comment that finally drew a response from Pitino.
"Four things I've learned in my 59 years about people," Pitino said. "I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid."
"If the shoe fits anyone," he added. "Wear it."
A pair of strong and ostentatious personalities in a power struggle for control of a state. It's sexy, and you can't blame the media for honing in on it. But the fact of the matter is that if Calipari and Pitino were both suspended for tomorrow's game, the win would be no less satisfying for anyone supporting the winning side. Whether the parties in question realize it or not, this is much bigger than either one of them.
The war of words between the two coaches has died down considerably since last April, thanks in no small measure to Calipari claiming his first national title, a title which ran right through Pitino and U of L. But now, for the first time in the Cal era at UK, it's Louisville which appears to be the bigger and the badder of the feuding sons. A win over the Wildcats won't have much of an effect either way on the Cardinals' quest for a national championship, but there's a sense in the city of Louisville that U of L fans need to feel what it's like to beat Kentucky again. That need figures to create quite the environment on Saturday inside the KFC Yum Center.
The fans have spent a healthy amount of time taking the easy and expected shots at the other coach's off-the-court issues, but it's only a means to get under the skin of the enemy. All either really wants is a victory...and for the taste of defeat to crush the souls of the other side.
There are no moral victories in a Kentucky/Louisville game and there is no next time, there's only a euphoric winner and an inconsolable loser.
It absolutely means more than any game should to a group of human beings, but I suppose that's what you'd expect from a sport's top rivalry.
If you haven't been around it, you just can't understand.
Go Louisville. Beat Kentucky.