Whenever anybody asks me to try and explain the significance of basketball in the state of Kentucky, there's always one story that instantly pops into my head.
I was working at a law firm downtown in 2009, and on this particular day I was watching the front desk while the receptionist took a break. A family of three -- a mother, a father and a young boy -- were waiting to meet with one of the attorneys.
After 30 seconds or so of silence, the mother, in as stereotypical a Southern drawl as you can imagine, spoke up.
"How do y'all like your new player?"
I had never met this woman, nor had I met either of the family members she was sitting next to. I was wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt, nothing which would give away anything about who I am or what I enjoy. She was wearing jeans and a blouse, and the same thing held true for her. Given the circumstances, it was about as insane an opening line as you could ever deliver to a stranger.
Except I knew exactly what she was talking about.
Justice, who would go on to win a state title at Shelby Valley and be named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball later that year, had committed to walk-on at Louisville a week earlier. The woman explained that she and her family were from Pikeville and that they had watched Justice play since he was a little boy. We talked basketball for a good five minutes before the family was finally called back for their meeting.
As she began to walk away, the woman had one last thing she had to get out.
"We'll be rooting for y'all and Elisha now, you know, except for on that day."
There is nowhere else in the world where this happens. This woman had no idea that I was a Louisville fan or that I even knew the slightest thing about basketball, and yet she was still confident enough in the likelihood of both facts that she deemed it appropriate to ask just about the most vague question possible to a complete stranger. And naturally, her confidence was validated.
This is Kentucky. This is the place where, unless otherwise specified, every single conversation about sports is assumed to be centered around either U of L basketball or UK basketball...or both, of course. Only it's typically not nearly as pleasant as that 2009 exchange.
For the players, tonight is simply -- or at least mostly -- about extending their season and taking another step towards a national championship, and that's the way it should be. These guys have worked, fought and grown with their teammates for the past year, all while having one goal in mind. That goal has never been particularly concerned with the team's arch-rival.
For just about everyone else, it's different.
There's no point in diving deeply into the minutiae of the rivalry for umpteenth time, but I think we can all agree that for the fans, and a few other members of both programs, this isn't just a Sweet 16 game. For selfish reasons, I hate that.
These last four years or so have been the most successful and the most fun that I've ever experienced as a fan. It started with the Preston Knowles team that nearly overachieved its way to a Big East championship, moved on to the miracle run of March 2012, rolled into Louisville's first national title in 27 years, and now here we are: hoping to make history and not ready for the ride to end.
The fun has been as much about the "small stuff" as it has the on-court success. The fan memes, the lovability of guys like Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Russ Smith, the rags-to-riches story of Luke Hancock (who's also lovable, by the way) and the evolution of the man at the head of our program. It's all been very special to experience and to be a part of.
Through this stretch of overwhelming positive, there has been just one consistent negative, and I don't think I need to spell out what that is.
All year long it's felt as though this season, regardless of how it played out, was going to be the end of something. That's not to say that Louisville won't be just as good next season or the season after that, it's just an acknowledgement that the last of the cast of characters who helped spark this unbelievable ride are about to move on. For it to end with yet another loss to Kentucky -- who would in the process become the first team to defeat Rick Pitino in the Sweet 16 and the first to defeat a 30-win U of L squad before the Elite 8 -- is almost too cruel to think about.
I'm choosing to view Friday night as more of an opportunity than a risk, and so should you.
It's an opportunity to finally put an end to the most inexplicably brazen offseason that I've ever seen from any program or franchise. It's an opportunity to grab the one feather that has been missing from the proverbial cap during this special run. And, most importantly, it's an opportunity to rise to a monumental occasion and leave no doubt as to whether or not you have the ability to become just the third repeat national champion since the 1970s.
It's about far more than just the tournament, but it's also about far more than just the rivalry.
Go Louisville, beat Kentucky, keep the dream alive.