Lessons from the UK/UofL game

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Lessons from the Louisville Game
by Heather C. Watson

It’s a great time to be a Kentucky fan. As we enter 2010, our basketball team is undefeated, with notably amazing performances against perennial powerhouses UConn and UNC. Every home game sets an attendance record. We’re racking up accolades and records at a steady clip, and it’s safe to say that we have the potential to go far in the tournament this year. It would be the perfect start to a possibly legendary season, but that fifteenth victory kind of nags at us. It got really ugly against the Dirty Birds this weekend. We let them rattle our cages far more than they should, resulting in a far closer game than we liked.

When you analyze the box scores, the Louisville game is a simple exercise in statistics: the Number Three team in the country welcomed an unranked school onto their home floor. The home team, with its deep bench of blue-chip recruits, simply outscored its visitors. Their opposing team held only one lead – by one point—for twenty seconds of play. The home team’s nine point victory was inevitable.  However, in basketball, as in life, we can’t merely look to facts and statistics to tell the story. Even the two teams’ combined five technical fouls don’t accurately convey the scrappiness, vitriol and anger with which the game was played. Even though Coach Calipari – the savior and prophet of the Big Blue Nation—presented repeated entreaties to “keep it classy,” the game teemed with bloodlust. Every fan, player and coach among the crowd of nearly 25,000 was primed for a fight better fitted to the Roman Colosseum than the site of Miley Cyrus’ recent tour.  The lines between an aggressive defense and outright aggression were blurred in an unsettling manner. It became pretty hard to remember that we were watching a game.

In my eastern Kentucky hometown, we’re more passionate about the game than just about anything else. As a high school cheerleader, I attended many District and Regional basketball games in which that passion overwhelmed the competing teams, as well as their fans, cheer squads and pep bands. There were more fights than I’d like to admit: I saw mothers punch referees, 90-pound cheerleaders that required a police escort onto the gym floor and innumerable jeers, taunts and tasteless signs. Under those heightened and dramatic circumstances, it’s quite hard not to take the game personally: I can vividly recall the hurt, anger and confusion my fourth-grade self felt while watching my father coach a game in which he received a technical. Someone I love was being publicly questioned, and it was heartbreaking to watch.

This year’s UK-U of L matchup stirred up the same kinds of passion across the Bluegrass. In an already basketball-mad state, we’re receiving frenzied media attention: UK’s players are widely regarded as sure-thing first-round draft picks, while coaches on either side of the court have been placed under constant media scrutiny for both their personal and professional lives. The story unfolded like an Aaron Spelling soap opera: two handsome rivals –– immaculately dressed and coiffed –– barely maintained civility as they went about their business. Each recently experienced a dramatic reversal in fortune. Each prepared to fight to the death. And each, in their remarkable displays of hubris and aggression, risked the very battle they were there to fight. It became nearly impossible for any Kentuckian –even the non-sports-minded (and I’m assured that they do exist, even in Kentucky)—to remain unaffiliated in this grand drama. Every foul, free throw and possession extrapolated my fourth-grade feelings of hurt, fear, heartbreak, excitement and anticipation onto tens of thousands of fans. The drama, albeit less than Wagnerian, was remarkable. When the dust settled, though, we’d ultimately only chalked up a single non-conference win. The lessons we can learn from the game are far more valuable than any rivalry, grudge or wager, however.

My grandfather, an English teacher and basketball coach who was equally devoted to the teachings of Adolph Rupp and William Shakespeare, was the master of the sports metaphor. There are, he often told me, life lessons to be learned in every Hail Mary, Grand Slam and Home Run. Two of my grandfather’s coaching metaphors ring particularly true for the Wildcats in light of our recent win over U of L. The first is that “there’s no excuse for missing a free throw.” Now, the literal interpretation of this statement is quite useless: we made a whopping 61.8% of the free throws that we attempted against Louisville. However, the free throw line is called the charity stripe for a reason: it’s the closest thing to a freebie that one can achieve in life. The player isn’t guarded, remains still, and controls the destiny of his own shot. Moving forward, we can’t miss any free throws: sixteen conference games still lie before us, and we can’t allow ourselves to rest on the laurels of our early victories. Even the weakest teams in the SEC will bring their A-game to Kentucky; neither the players nor the fans can assume that any games are automatic victories.

The second life lesson that I can imagine my grandfather imparting to Cal’s Kids is that “you have to play smart.”  To be successful, a basketball team needs not only talent and passion, but also an intellectual and calculated approach. We need to temper some of the emotion we displayed in the Louisville game with a more mature and clear-headed approach as we take on our conference rivals. Always-tough Tennessee will present another long-standing coaching rivalry, while Pitino acolyte Billy Donovan’s will be, ahem, chomping to take on the Wildcats. To successfully master our conference rankings, we must show the maturity and grace to overcome rivalry, rather than engaging in the bloodsport mentality of the Louisville game. Just as DeMarcus Cousins recently graduated from SEC Freshman of the Week to SEC Player of the Week, we –players and fans alike- must graduate from the petulance of rivalries to focus on the post-season goals ahead.

Still, it felt awfully nice to beat the Cardinals again, now didn’t it?

Floyd County native Heather Watson holds degrees from Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky. She lives in Lexington with her fiancé, Bob, and their Black Lab, Max. Follow her at twitter.com/heathercw.



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