photo and story by
Larry Joe Treadway
why it matters.
Basketball, Kentucky, Wildcats. these three words together might not be the first three words uttered from a bluegrass baby’s gooey mouth but eventually they are learned and spoken with pride and reverence once afforded heads of state and beautiful women. You see, we take basketball a might seriously in the Commonwealth. Sure, Indiana and North Carolina and Kansas might argue that basketball is just as important in their state’s culture and history—but I’d stand on a soapbox and proclaim there’s really no state where it matters more and the expectations are any higher.
You see, back in the earliest part of the 20th century, back before city and county school merged to become big monoliths, each individual little high school might not have the student population or budget to field a football team or even a baseball team but they could usually find 8 or 9 kids to fill out a basketball team. And in towns and communities of this small size, local basketball games became the place where folks met up, socialized and as a hub for all this activity, deep knowledge of the game and pride in one’s team was fostered and grew. Basketball was pretty important in places where there just wasn’t much going on.
But I think any state can historically say sports played this kind of role in community building, but what makes Kentucky a little different is that, I’m gonna be honest here…we just didn’t have much to be proud of. Statistically, the state is at or near the bottom of most educational barometers and most economic indicators. But as these players, from these small communities, got better at basketball and as this ol’ ball coach named Adolph Rupp began to snatch them out of the hills and bring them to the University of Kentucky to play basketball and the team began to succeed—well, something pretty big happened.
These kids with names like Spicer, Beard, Tingle and Jones hauled their community followers with them in mind and, many times, body to cheer them on. And this Kentucky team kicked, scratched and pummeled all comers, winning championships, setting records and dominating discussions. By god, basketball was something ‘we’ were good at. State heroes in Chuck Taylors were being made and chests were being pumped by both fans and foes alike. UK, love ‘em or hate ‘em—you had to deal with ‘em. And after you’ve tasted a little success, well you don’t wanna go back to the taste of the hind tit, as they say. So a tradition was born. On radios throughout the state, folks huddled, listened, learned about the game. Armchair coaches of both sexes knew more at basketball than some actual coaches. Or so they thought. When it is thrown around as a sport cliche’ around here that people ‘bleed blue’ it ain’t just a phrase, we do. It runs in the blood and gets passed from generation to generation.
This year the team will top 2,000 wins. More than any other team in the country. And when a state is suffering double digit unemployment rates and two of the state’s resources are coal and tobacco (a couple of the most chastised commodities going) well, we are looking for something to rally behind and take some sort of pride in. This damned basketball matters. We are good, no wait, we are great at basketball and we might have hit some speed bumps in the last few years, you, outside of Kentucky, are going feel a little of the greatness over the next few months and come March…well, don’t be surprised to see us dominating discussions again, rolling with a swagger that wasn’t lost, only tucked back in the closet waiting to brought out Sunday-best style.
goal. Holga+homemade filter. Ilford Delta 400.