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UK Basketball Is as Polarizing as It Is Beloved

MegRobertsonNY, Flickr.com

I hesitated to write this for fear of being removed from Christmas card lists. But a phenomenon surrounding University of Kentucky basketball has been far too fascinating for far too long to ignore any longer. It is an unavoidable fact that there are more than just a few people who simply hate the Wildcats. I’ve been around it for a very long time. When I was young, impressionable, and caved to peer pressure, I even joined in the chorus. Didn’t mean it. Didn’t care. But it’s a whole new world. And, yet, some things never change.

I have a great many friends who simply cannot stand the program. Some are U of L grads–understandable. Some have reasons I’ve never learned, to be honest. Yes, UK fans can display poor behavior–just browse through the online message boards for some deplorable examples. But UK basketball is a great equalizer.

The Fiddlin' Five (wildcatworld.com)

The old men at the barber shops, on the bus benches in front of the courthouses, and at the local diners who can recite every miniscule Kentucky basketball factotum–chapter and verse. If they have nothing else to discuss, they have UK basketball.

The elderly ladies–octogenarians, nonagenerians–who’ve been coming to UK games, dressed to the nines in UK blue, since they were girls and Adolph Rupp was on the sidelines. These are the women who, all across the state, will call their sons and daughters and make sure they have the right channel information so they don’t miss the game on TV.

There’s what I call the great hub of Kentucky–Elizabethtown–where travellers stop and eat. You have those heading south who didn’t want to get off the interstate in Louisville. You have those heading north who haven’t had an opportunity for a good sit-down meal since Bowling Green. They meet at, say, Cracker Barrel. They’ve never met. But they see the photos of UK players on the walls and the conversations begin–long ones about tradition, the Fiddlin’ Five, Rupp’s Runts, Joe B. Hall and Kyle Macy, the three consecutive title game appearances in the 90s, and, almost certainly, Anthony Davis.

They highlight certain games that remind them of important moments in their lives…”Oh, I remember THAT game. It was 1974, and we had just bought our first house…” UK basketball is about tradition. It’s that ability to unify and bring folks together, however briefly, that gives me a deep appreciation for the team and its history. Yes, I’m a fan.

Anthony Davis (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

I graduated from Western Kentucky University and the Hilltoppers are my first love. Dyed in the wool. But I support every other Kentucky team, too–Murray, Eastern, Morehead, and, yes, even Louisville. Hardcore UK fans ask me how I can do that. I say, “It’s easy…they’re about a hundred miles away from my doorstep.” But there’s more. The first basketball game I ever saw was in 1973. I was seven years old and went to see Louisville play St. Louis at Freedom Hall with my parents and some cousins. I had a blast.

Besides, I was never a student at UK, so that ingrained hatred of Louisville–which I completely get–isn’t there. I have no dog in that hunt. But I do love history. And all of these teams are steeped in it. But UK seems to come off as the most polarizing of the bunch. And, granted, that feeling extends to a national level. But I do know people who wish they’d lose every game. To each his own, I suppose. I know I’M not gonna be the one to tell some 82-year-old grandmother in Winchester, sitting on her sofa, wearing her UK blue turtle-neck and Wildcat brooch, that she’s gotta be out of her mind.

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