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Louisville/Kentucky is the Best Rivalry in College Basketball

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Any and all fans of sports are forever indebted to ESPN for everything it's done. The world wide leader is most certainly the driving force behind making the modern fan, the man or woman who can spend an entire weekend watching 48 hours of coverage pertaining to their sport of choice, what it is today.

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 ESPN over the years, but none greater than their uncanny ability to somehow convince the vast majority of this country that what they say is as much a fact as 1+1=2 or Washington was the first president or Johnny Weir pulls mad chicks.

So when every ESPN personality with an ACC degree subtly mentions 37 times a week that Duke/North Carolina is the best rivalry in college basketball, when the Devils and the Heels are 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," when Dick Vitale belittles 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 collegiate athletics, what choice do us mere voiceless spectators 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!!!


Louisville vs. Kentucky is the best this sport has to offer. The game might not get the "full circle" treament, 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 means more. It means more to the players, it means more to the coaches, and it means more to the fans.

Louisville and Kentucky get just one crack at each other every year. One shot to avoid embarrassment and harrassment for 365 days.

If Duke drops the first of the minimum two meetings with the Heels, then the Cameron Crazies 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 and call it a night.

When the final horn blows in the Battle for the Bluegrass, an entire fan base is immediately forced to come to grips with the terrible truth that they will now be heckled unmercilessly for an entire year by friends, co-workers, family, teachers etc. whom they would undoubtedly stab if it weren't so frowned upon.

This is not an overstatement by any means (except maybe the stabbing part...probably not). Nary did a college basketball conversation take place in 1998 when myself or one of my trusted allies didn't bring up the fact that the same Louisville team that had finished the season 12-20 defeated the eventual national champions from Lexington Rupp Arena. Of course the whole national championship>no postseason argument is an effective retort, but the point is that even a national championship season in these parts can leave a fan base feeling a wee bit unfulfilled if it doesn't include a win in the Civil War.

By the same token when I attended the UL/UK football game in Commonwealth Stadium two years ago and sat in a section where I could count the number of people besides myself wearing anti-crip gear on one hand, I didn't get any "your conference sucks" or "you guys are overrated" taunts. Even as a Wildcat team picked to fall by three touchdowns stood just two yards and an extra point away from tying the game in the fourth quarter, it was a steady dose of "Patrick Sparks fucked y'all up" and other hilbilly Chaucerisms that were hurled at me from multiple directions.

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.

To put it simply, Louisville and the state of Kentucky don't get along. Louisville and Lexington are the two biggest cities in the commonwealth so the conflict there is relatively self-explanatory. The real abhorrence in all of this, however, is that which exists between the Derby City and the smaller "big blue nation" communities out in the state. These communities don't like Louisville because they think Louisville thinks they're dumb, and Louisville doesn't like these communities because they think they're dumb.

It's 119 counties against one here on nearly every level. Anyone who grew up in the Louisville area and played youth sports at a decently high level can tell you what an eye-opening experience playing their first tournament out in the state was. It's a different world and the people make it clear from the outset that you don't belong. Also, you're probably not going to win.  

But the biggest and most touchy issue between the two vastly different cultures has always been and still is race.

By now everyone knows that the '65-'66 Texas Western team was the first to start five African Americans and make it to the final four. Far less known is that Louisville was the second program to achieve the feat. Kentucky's history under Adolph Rupp, who when Louisville was coming to prominence with African Americans leading the way remarked that one would "never play for me," has been more extensively documented.

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 the high-five.

Kentucky's heroes are the gritty, small, good ole' boys like Richie Farmer, Jeff Sheppard and Cameron Mills. Though his contribution is appreciated, the name Jamal Mashburn is unlikely to show up on the list of a Breathitt County man's top five all-time Cats.

Perhaps the best example of the still prevalent racial divide appears in Rick Pitino's chapter in 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 geatest rivalry in the sport has to have a defining moment, and I challenge any other rivalry to come up with a game that can compete with the "Dream Game" in 1983 as far as significance is concerned.

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 on the way to U of L's first Final Four. Since then the Cardinals had suddenly become a major player in the college basketball landscape, and craved a shot at "big brother" that Rupp and subsequenty 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.

"I can't tell you how much more the game meant to U of L than to UK," says Billy Reed. Then sports editor of The Courier-Journal, Reed incurred the wrath of UK's coaches and fans for advocating a series between the two schools. "Had UK won that game they probably would never have played (the series)."

Despite a buzzer beating shot by Jim Master that sent the game to overtime, the Cardinals ran off 14 straight points in the extra period and ultimately prevailed 80-68.

The U of L community erupted and quickly the governor, legislators and even the boards of trustees of U of L and UK began to talk about a series between the schools. Shortly after, the announcement was made that Louisville and Kentucky would begin playing each other annually.

One game played an awful 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, the Sparks shuffle, and of course the Rick Pitino saga.

Two teams that can't even sniff the top 25 right now are going to take the court in Freedom Hall tomorrow, and the rankings (or lack thereof) aren't going to matter one bit. 4,041,769 people live in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and I would venture to say that by 4 p.m. at least 70% of them will be able to tell you whether the Birds or the Blue prevailed.

There's really no reason to mask anything here, I don't like them. I don't like what they stand for, I don't like the way they've achieved the things they brag so much about, and I can't stand the thought of losing to them for the third straight year. I don't care what our record is, I don't care what their record is, I want this bad.