I love the city of Louisville. I worked in the River City for several years so I’m somewhat familiar with its spirited vitality. I love the variety of cultural opportunities and the bustling restaurant scene. I love the vibrant downtown energy and the area by the waterfront. I love the museums and the parks and the people. I love Churchill Downs and Thunder Over Louisville. What I can’t seem to love are the Louisville Cardinals sports teams.
Over the years, I’ve tried to support the dirty birds. After all, I’m a Kentuckian and I’m quite proud whenever in state schools do well. I love it when Eastern or Western or Murray or Morehead win and advance against other teams, but I just could never get myself to cheer ever honestly for that grating shade of red and black. The closest I ever got to rooting for the Cardinals was a mindset of tepid neutrality. There was polite applause for Darrell Griffith, Bobby Turner, and the Doctors of Dunk, maybe a nod of acknowledgement for Never Nervous Pervis, a tip of the hat to the gentlemanly Denny Crum—but nothing ever bordering on any type of full fan support.
When Rick Pitino became Louisville’s coach back in 2001, the floodgates opened, replacing my lukewarm neutrality with outright contempt. I’m a “loyalty” kind of guy and what Rick did was unforgivable. I appreciate what he accomplished at UK but I’ll never understand anyone turning Benedict Arnold. You don’t sleep with the enemy, stab your former employer in the back, or marry your ex-wife’s best friend. Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat. I think that’s the problem with Rick—he was never really a Wildcat. Even when Little Ricky was leading Kentucky to the ’96 national championship, I always felt he was just a displaced big city dude thinking he was doing us hayseeds a giant favor. Maybe that says more about my own personal insecurities regarding my Kentucky roots than anything else, so who am I to judge?
But animosity toward Pitino is the one major reason UL’s 73-70 win over UK hurts so much. It’s like your enemy twisting the knife and gloating—as if this one solitary victory somehow validates Rick’s entire decision to leave my beloved university. I see him and UL athletic director Tom Zurich pounding down ribeye steaks in celebration, endlessly reliving Quentin Snider’s game-of-his-life performance over premium shots of Woodford Reserve.
Even with the loss, I must say that the atmosphere in the YUM Center was predictably electric, as it always is when these bitter rivals meet together for their yearly Armageddon showdown. As John Calipari aptly stated, “Everyone makes it life and death and it’s not life and death. It’s worse than that.” Louisville fans decked out in nerdy red Christmas sweaters and carrying Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump Fatheads were out for more blood than usual this evening, trying desperately to root their team on while grasping for recollection of what it actually felt like to win one of these season-defining games. At one point, their ear-splitting screams became guttural, transcending the humanity of a mere basketball game and plunging the entire experience into a cesspool of vitriol and venom. With the game tied at 57 and the arena ready to explode, I realized that this rivalry was indeed something very special. These fans wanted not only to win, but to humiliate their hated oppressors. I could literally sense evil permeating the arena air as they sought my head on a platter. For a sports lover like me, there was no other place I would rather be.
Afterwards, I asked Rick why he thought this rivalry was the best in all of college basketball–from his unique perspective of having been the head coach at both of these elite programs. This is what he said. “The Yankees don’t like the Red Sox and the Red Sox don’t like the Yankees, but they take it to a new level. The reason I think it’s the best rivalry is because of the fanbases and not the teams. Everybody lives for this game. Everybody in Carolina and Duke doesn’t live for that game because you also have Wake Forest when they’re good. You also have N.C. State. This is it for us. We have no professional teams so this is it. And they’ve dominated us for a while now, so it’s good to get a victory.”
As I listened to his answer I realized a change in my own perspective. Maybe I’m just mellowing with age but it suddenly dawned on me that my love for UK Basketball has nothing to do with Rick Pitino. Rick Pitino, or any one person for that matter, isn’t bigger than the program and shouldn’t influence my emotional state or Wildcat passion as a fan. Kentucky didn’t lose tonight because of Rick Pitino. The Wildcats simply lost because they missed crucial free throws, didn’t play solid defense when the game was on the line, and responded in typical youthful fashion in front of a hostile crowd. Unless the Cats learn their lessons, it’s exactly the type of game that can end your season come March.
It’s the Christmas season, so I’ll go ahead and forgive Rick Pitino for jilting UK over two decades ago, but that doesn’t mean I can’t ever cheer against his loathsome Louisville Cardinals. As we saw tonight, a dash of venomous vitriol adds a bit of spice to any such rivalry regardless of who’s coaching. L’s Down! We’ll see the Cards in the tournament.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.