Love and UK Basketball
Affrilachia, by Frank X Walker
Since the only two relevant topics these days are war and basketball, I thought I’d share the emotional war I experience around the “game” of hoops. I wrote a poem once called Death By Basketball that probably sums it all up even better, but when I was in high school, I had the pleasure of seeing my name listed on the final list after tryouts for the varsity basketball team. My mother, who was less impressed than I was and not exactly a fan of sports (at least in those days), reminded me that I had just been elected president of my sophomore class and that rather than take on another responsibility, I had to choose between the two. Since I was only a mediocre basketball player and had not had the chance to fail as president, I passed up the opportunity to perfect my jump shot (don’t think they had threes in those days) while filling the gap between football season and outdoor track, both of which I was already addicted to.
In those days, let’s call them the 70s, there were some hard and fast unspoken rules around basketball in my neighborhood. One was that if you lived in McIntyre Homes you had to hate the Boston Celtics and the other was the only college team worth its salt was the Louisville Cardinals. Of course to do that properly a real fan had to worship the L.A. Lakers and absolutely loathe the Kentucky Wildcats. Somehow this whole love/hate thing sank into the psyche of my community until it became an issue weighed down and governed by color. And not a red or a blue thing, but a black and white thing. If you even thought about wearing a Wildcat shirt or hat to a pickup game in the projects, you could count on being verbally assaulted. There was and still are no shortage of license plates, jackets, hats, and even mailboxes flown in honor of the Louisville Cardinals without any real connection to the team in my home town, even though Pitino’s style and Tubby just being Tubby helped convert quite a few new fans over the years.
I carried my socialized love for U of L and hate for UK right into my freshman year at the University of Kentucky, but my love for the game soon had me camping out for tickets (which is no longer allowed) just so I could stand up the whole game in the student section of Cor-“Rupp” Arena (a phrase often heard in my neighborhood). A dozen or so of my friends I and fell so hard for Valerie Still at a student dance in Blazer Hall, that we even went to all of the home Lady Kat games. And not enough people can say that. I spent almost 17 years in Lexington and most of it at UK as a student and as the program coordinator of the King Cultural Center, and while searching for my niche on campus, I sustained my divided basketball loyalty by never owning a UK shirt while a student and not mentioning during trips back home how much fun I was having playing pickup games over the years in the Seaton Center with LaVon, Dirk, Dicky Beal, Charles Hurt, Kenny Walker, Leroy Byrd, Reggie, Shawn Kemp (who dunked on me about 10 times in one game outdoors at Blazer), James Blackmon, Ed Davender, and Travis Ford (who I lit up for about 20 points outdoors on the blue courts). I can’t say my level of support and admiration was such that they ever became more than acquaintances, friends, or student athletes while at UK, but I’ve witnessed up close how genuinely uncomfortable being worshipped and treated like immortals was. I’m rather proud that my legacy at UK will be starting the now annual homecoming basketball game between the BSU and UK alumni, faculty and staff. The staff is 10-0 and witnesses at the inaugural game know that Nikky Finney is as good a hoopster as she is a poet. She lead the team in scoring that year with 17 points and capped off the first half with a NBA range three-point shot that almost ripped the nets off.
I never camped out for U of L tickets, but I did pretend to be an official photographer once and followed the visiting team (Memphis State I think) from the bus and all the way to the door of the visitors’ locker room just to get to sit on the floor at a U of L basketball game on a dare.
As if I wasn’t punished enough by the anti-blue fanaticism of my first set of in-laws, my current wife is a U of L graduate. Her father is a former All-American at U of L. Her mother, sister, and three brothers all bleed Cardinal red and have also been socialized to loathe UK. Once they discovered the source of my undergraduate degree I became the token Wildcat fan to drag to the annual UK/U of L football games and tease until basketball season started.
I probably encouraged the teasing by organizing a bachelors’ basketball game on my wedding day (the one and only such bachelor activity to my knowledge) that was held outdoors at U of L and pitted my died-in-the-wool UK fan nephews and groomsmen (mostly UK grads) against my brother-in-laws and their friends (all Cardinal-holics). I am proud to say–and I have witnesses-that we represented that day and many in attendance at the wedding a few hours later, probably mistook my fatigue from five games of highly-contested full-court basketball with what may have seemed like total relaxation and confidence.
Many argue that college basketball is just a game. Some think it’s a way of life. I’m still trying to decide. And all I know is that the best thing about spring is March and the best thing about March is the Road to the Final Four. And even if it means I have to watch little mini-commercials of Christen “I-love-to-hate-him” Laetner’s miraculous shot to beat Kentucky in the final game in the tournament so many years ago, I still get to see things of majesty and beauty, like Tubby Orlando Smith selling his definition of manhood and unselfishness to a group of trusting young men and charging them with discovering what they can accomplish by finally working together as a team. These guys are winners in every sense of the word before they even lace up their sneakers.
Man, I love this game almost as much as my in-laws hate my raggedy UK shirt.