clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Louisville/Kentucky is college basketball's best rivalry

New, 27 comments

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

It almost goes without saying that each and every sports fan in the 21st century is forever indebted to ESPN for everything it's done since its 1979 inception. 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 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 pawns watching from home have but to lay back and accept all 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!!!

It's not.

Louisville vs. Kentucky is simply 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, it means more to the fans, and it means more to the state.

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 sitting in your own living room 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 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...or not...sorry Craig). In 1998, nary a college basketball conversation took place on the hollowed grounds of Holy Trinity Grade School when myself or one of my trusted allies refrained from bringing up the fact that the same U of L team that 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.  

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 hardwood-related 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 easy enough to understand, but the real abhorrence in all of this is that which exists between the "The Ville" 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, well, Louisville thinks they're dumb.

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 Freedom Hall, muggers behind the doors of every store in Mall St. Matthews, and gang-bangers residing in each and every Lake Forest home. 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.

The most notorious issue between the two vastly different cultures has always been, and still is, race.

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.

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. From longtime assistant Harry Lancaster's admission that Rupp had once told him: "Harry, that son of a bitch is ordering me to get some niggers in here. What am I going to do? He's the boss." To Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford reporting of Rupp's rabid use of the word "coon" during his speech at halftime of the now celebrated '66 title game.  

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. While his contribution is certainly appreciated, the name Jamal Mashburn is unlikely to show up on the list of a Breathitt County man's top five all-time favorite 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 greatest 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 1983 "Dream Game" from the standpoint of significance.

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. 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 at both universities began to talk about a series between the two. Shortly after, 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, 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 inside Rupp Arena tomorrow, and the rankings (or lack thereof) and the records aren't going to matter one bit. More than four million people live in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and I would venture to say that by 7 p.m. at least 75% of them will be able to tell you whether the Birds or the Blue prevailed.

It's as simple as we really don't like them, they really don't like us, and when that's the case the stakes are always exponentially higher. There are no moral victories, there is no next time, there's only a winner and a loser.

If you haven't been around it, I'm not sure you can fully understand.

Go Louisville, beat Kentucky.