With all the exciting happenings of the past few weeks, I have taken the chance to step back and truly appreciate the exhilaration and enthusiasm this astonishing run has brought upon Card Nation. With my Final Four tickets in hand, I could not be more thrilled and proud to be a Louisville Cardinal. I have also been able to reflect upon my personal journey to this Final Four – and as a Cards fan in general – and what it means to me. Given the circumstances surrounding this week, I wanted to share my unique perspective with you.
I have not always been this way. I was born into Big Blue Nation (I know, I know)… brainwashed from the moment I took my first breath and bred to worship all things ‘UK’ and to loathe all things ‘UofL’. I come from a family with a strong lineage and loyalty to the University of Kentucky. My grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins are all die-hard Big Blue fans – most of them having attended the university.
I remember my father taking me to Rupp Arena for the first time in the mid-90s. We drove two hours through a snowstorm to watch one of Nolan Richardson’s ’40 minutes of hell’ Arkansas teams at the peak of that program’s prominence. At one point, the drive got so bad and so unsafe, my dad asked me if I would be disappointed if we turned around and went back home. He promised to bring me to another game. I told him how much I wanted to go to the game, so we soldiered on.
I remember staying up as late as my parents would allow me to on weeknights to watch UK games. When they forced me to go to bed before the game ended, the first thing I would do when I woke up in the morning was ask if UK had won or lost. I remember breaking down into tears one time after my dad had informed me that the team had lost.
Living in Central Kentucky, it was easy to live like this. There were no outside influences; everyone banded together in one large, powerful, blinding sea of blue. Outside of the city of Louisville, UK fans are sheltered from differing opinions and perspectives, making it easy to go with the flow. Thankfully, I was able to escape.
During my senior year of high school, it was time to start applying for colleges. Being from a regular, lower-middle-class family, and having a somewhat respectable ACT score (but not respectable enough to consider going out of state), I only had two choices: UK and UofL. Naturally, my dream was to go to UK. Ultimately, however, the decision would come down to which school offered more scholarship money… which UofL did. As disappointed as I was UK could not match UofL’s offer, I was excited to start the next chapter of my life. So off to Louisville I went, ready to broaden my horizons – but I swore I would never, ever cheer for the Louisville Cardinals and that ‘Benedict Arnold’ Rick Pitino.
Since none of my high school friends joined me in attending the University of Louisville, I knew absolutely nobody when I got to school. I met a few people from my dorm – who eventually became my best friends – and decided to get season tickets to football and basketball. I viewed these events as more of a social gathering than anything else: a way for me to meet people. I was mostly indifferent when it came to the actual game that was being played, unless UK was involved.
Then, I hit rock bottom. It was my sophomore year, and UK was coming to Louisville to face the Cards in Freedom Hall. I did the unthinkable: I wore a Rajon Rondo jersey underneath my red t-shirt in the student section. About five minutes into the game, I ripped off the t-shirt, revealing the blue jersey that was shamefully hiding underneath. I am quite embarrassed to recount this story today, but I can’t deny the past. After the game, I was (deservedly) hounded by my fellow UofL students. I suspect the reaction would not have been as bad, had the referees not blown the game by calling a foul against Ellis Myles on Patrick “Happy Feet” Sparks (instead of a walk – which it clearly was) in the waning moments of the game that gave him three free throws to seal the victory. I know everyone painfully remembers that moment.
My transformation into the full-blown Cards fan I am today starts at that very moment. Each year I was at UofL, our football team made it to a bigger and better bowl game: GMAC, Liberty, Gator, culminating in an Orange Bowl berth. I attended the latter three. I also continued to go to every regular season football and basketball game. The more events I attended, the more I was able to cheer for Louisville. The more I was able to cheer for Louisville, the more I felt the Big Blue wrath of my family and former friends from high school.
When you are part of such a massive and powerful force, you are completely oblivious to the true nature of the beast. Slowly but surely, I was exposed to it. The more exposed I was, the more appalled I became by the nasty, ignorant, hypocritical, and bigoted fan base. I saw how they placed everything in their lives aside when it came to UK basketball. I saw how genuinely upset they got and how easily they turned on anyone who mentioned anything that might be perceived as negative about their program – all while insecurely bashing anything and everything that wasn’t UK basketball.
The treatment of Tubby Smith (who I was a big supporter of) by the fans, partnered with the ensuing Billy Gillispie Era, finally pushed me to swear off the Big Blue Nation forever. By that time, I would say my allegiance was a 60/40 split between UofL and UK. My trip to Miami for the Orange Bowl was the final reinforcement I needed, and it was one of the greatest trips of my life. The Cardinals’ victory signified that they had arrived on the national football scene, and it reinforced in me that I was right where I needed to be, supporting the school I needed to be supporting. It was Louisville, after all, who wanted me, and wanted me to come to their school.
I can see how you may think that I am a ‘frontrunner’ or a bandwagon fan; or that when the going gets tough, I switch my allegiance; or that I only became a Louisville fan because UK was going through a rough period and UofL was succeeding. I can assure you that is not the case. I have come too far to ever consider turning back now. I have been through too much with this university to pledge support to anyone else. I met my girlfriend there, made my best friends there, and, in general, became a man there. I have created a twitter account dedicated to exposing ignorant UK fans (@CrazyCayutsFan – unsolicited, and possibly desperate, attempt at getting some extra followers). I was uninformed in my youth, and now I have been enlightened.
The one thing I regret not doing in college was going to St. Louis for our trip to the Final Four in 2005. I swore that when we made another one, I would do whatever possible (within reason) to get to the next one. On Saturday, I was literally in tears for the first time in a long time after I realized that the Cards were really going again.
Not only that, but we have the chance to play the Evil Empire – the team of my former affection – and knock Emperor Calipari off his throne in a game for the ages. It truly seems like the perfect ending to an intriguing fairytale and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.