(BANGKOK, Thailand) – On countless occasions in the past, I’ve heard Kentucky Basketball referred to as a religion. Hopefully, that’s more a validation of our basketball identity than a trivialization of our lukewarm faith. Here in Thailand, basketball disinterest notwithstanding, there’s absolutely no ambivalence about the identity of its citizenry. The Thai people are Buddhists through and through–over 64 million of them accounting for nearly 94% of the entire population.
The Thais wear their religion on their sleeve–praying, giving alms, and worshipping much more genuinely and fervently than what I’ve experienced with their American evangelical counterparts back home. Monks in their saffron colored robes walk the streets every morning, receiving offerings from a dutiful and reverent population. In Thailand, the landscape is dotted beyond description with a myriad of ornately decorated, jaw-dropping temples. Each of these opulent palaces are chocked full of buddhas—all sorts of emerald buddhas, golden buddhas, and even reclining buddhas—stark and ever-present idols vexingly vying for everyone’s adoration and adulation.
I’m no expert on Buddhism, but from what I’ve learned, it seems to be a belief system devoid of much optimism. The endless cycle of reincarnation and the near impossibility of attaining nirvana are complete opposites of the unconditional love, everlasting hope, and eternal life promised to all those who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. With that said, I still find it hard to accept that the millions of people so committed to their own belief system in this part of the world may likely all end up perishing in eternal fire. Who am I to question God’s sovereignty, but it doesn’t seem quite fair to be placed squarely behind the eight ball just because you were born into a culture that proudly identifies themselves as followers of the Enlightened One. Face it, if you were born here, you’d also be lighting candles, burning incense, and pressing gold foil on the next random buddha icon that came your way.
If only Christians in America identified with Jesus with similar devotion and vigor—or simply identified themselves with half the zeal we usually reserve for our basketball team. I’ve learned on this trip that I’m as guilty as anyone in that regard. I love Thailand and could easily stay here forever if not for one thing—the land formerly known as Siam is simply NOT part of Big Blue Nation. During my entire stay in Bangkok, I haven’t encountered a solitary soul who gives a hoot about Kentucky Basketball. Regular Thai citizens couldn’t pick John Calipari out of a lineup. They wouldn’t know PJ Washington from George Washington, Kevin Knox from Fort Knox, or Malik Monk from a Buddhist monk. They think Matt Jones once sang Delilah, and that Meisterbuerger is a low-end sandwich chain. It bothers the heck out of me that they’re ignorant to the winning ways of BBN.
It’s humbling for UK fans to admit that 99.9% of the people in Thailand (or the rest of the world for that matter) care absolutely nothing about that which makes us so passionate. They simply can’t understand why I’m walking around looking for passable WIFI connections at 7 am in the morning just so I can pick up Tom Leach on his iHeartRadio broadcast in real time. They have no earthly idea why this idiot in blue is so jacked up on a floating market boat ride as the final seconds tick away in Kentucky’s massive win over West Virginia. They can’t imagine anyone in their right mind going bonkers over a sport other than soccer or boxing or badminton (yes, badminton). Did it really take me traveling halfway around the globe to finally realize that whether Kentucky wins or loses makes absolutely no difference in the overall world order?
But that doesn’t stop me from cheering like a madman for the Big Blue 9000 miles from home. That’s still a huge part of my identity. It’s who I am and a defining part of my history. It can’t be manipulated, or suppressed, or faked, or erased—just as the Laettner shot can’t be erased. It’s as real as Kyle Macy’s socks, or Antoine Walker’s shimmy, or Jamal Murray’s bow and arrow. It’s why I can’t stand Duke, or North Carolina, or Indiana, or Digger Phelps for that matter. It’s why my moods fluctuate based on the shooting percentages, turnover to assist ratios, or girlfriend problems of 18-year old prodigies who are blessed with the ability to dribble and dunk. Sure, all True-Blue fans always want Kentucky to win every game by twenty points, but whether Kentucky winds up on the NCAA bubble or wins the NCAA championship shouldn’t ever diminish our passion and zeal for simply cheering on the Blue and White.
At least that’s what I keep telling myself. If you’re a true Wildcat fan, rooting wholeheartedly for your team—win or lose–is inherently a part of your identity, a part of your DNA. Coach Cal says relax and enjoy the process. But just like the Thais and their religious fervor, there’s been something inherently missing for the past few years in our Kentucky Basketball worship experience. A season without a championship is like Christmas without Christ. I want the prize. After Kentucky pulled off a miracle 17-point comeback against Huggy Bear in Morgantown on Saturday, we’re suddenly back in the hunt. Championship number nine can’t come soon enough.
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media and Bluegrass Sports Nation. He’s currently trying to cover University of Kentucky Sports while traveling abroad. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.Huangswhinings.com or follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.