“When times are good, be happy: but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.”—King Solomon. (Dr. Michael Huang Photo)
My love affair with Kentucky Basketball began when our family moved to Lexington in the late 1960s. I was only eight years old at the time but was immediately smitten by Adolph Rupp and his four national championships. Every kid growing up in Lexington at the time wanted to be Dan Issel, and I was certainly no different.
For the next fifty years, Kentucky Basketball remained at the top of my priority list. If the Cats were playing, I was tuned in. Even while stationed overseas, I somehow managed to catch Cawood Ledford and his legendary broadcasts on the Armed Forces Radio Network. My oh my, how I looked forward to those biweekly issues of The Cats’ Pause delivered directly (albeit two weeks later) to my front door.
Like many of you, I discovered that my daily mood swings were tied in to how the Wildcats were doing. Tough losses (Dream game to Louisville, Middle Tennessee State, Georgetown, Laettner, Wisconsin) drove me to the depths of despair. But when Kentucky won big (1978, 1996, 1998, 2012), all was right with my soul.
Two years ago, the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball slogged through their worst season ever with a 9 – 16 record. They followed that up last year with their worst loss in program history to Saint Peter’s in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Suddenly, a once proud fan base used to national championships and Final Fours found themselves without a tournament victory in nearly four years. That’s unfathomable.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, however, the freefall into obscurity continued this year. In case you hadn’t heard, Kentucky lost at Alabama by 26 points this past Saturday. Then just last night, South Carolina—a 19.5-point underdog and one of the worst teams in the SEC—upset the Wildcats in Rupp Arena.
Take a quick peek on social media, and you can see the fans are past restless. They’ve got their pitchforks and torches out. Coach John Calipari appears clueless, and there’s no place for him to hide. Players calling out other players, rumors of locker room dissension, fans holding critical signs in Rupp or shouting at Calipari in his postgame radio show—it’s all falling apart right before our eyes.
In other words, it’s ugly. It’s like the Titanic, and fans are jumping ship left and right.
I think that’s what hurts most of all. Talk to anyone over thirty-five, and they’ll tell you Kentucky Basketball just isn’t what it once was. The passion is missing. Kentucky fans used to be invested in their team and the program. There was a deep pleasure and satisfaction derived from having your identity tied in with what you knew was the greatest program on the face of the earth. Sadly, that ownership, kinship, and brotherhood seems to have flown the coop.
Let’s be honest. Kentucky is a small state. Other than bourbon, horses, and fried chicken, there’s not a whole lot about the Bluegrass State that citizens of the commonwealth can brag about. For many, life is a grind. The one thing we do know, however, is that we are good at basketball.
When Kentucky Basketball is relevant and competing for championships, life’s hardships just don’t seem to hurt quite as much anymore. Regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or political viewpoints, Kentucky fans have that common bond—an inherent passion to somehow will their team to victory and to let the rest of the basketball world know how much they care.
That bond is slipping away, and that makes me unbearably sad.
So, what do I do now as my beloved Wildcats seem poised on the brink of a massive meltdown? Do I stay perpetually pissed off? Pop another Xanax? Follow another team? Tune out all together?
HELL NO! If the Titanic’s going down, I’ve decided I’m going to be one of the last ones off. Regardless of blowouts, blunders, or boycotts, I’ll stay tuned in—silently cheering from my seat in the peanut gallery on press row. Kentucky Basketball has brought me boatloads of precious memories over the years. It’s taken me on so many fabulous road trips. I’ve gotten to meet wonderful Wildcat fans from all over the world. I’M NOT LETTING THE CURRENT STATE OF KENTUCKY BASKETBALL STEAL MY JOY—and neither should you!
Look, Kentucky fans are knowledgeable, dedicated, and loyal to a fault—or at least they used to be. Say anything remotely negative about the team—and be prepared to face the wrath of an angry BBN. Remember when disaster hit the program in the Billy Gillispie years? Kentucky fans were hurt and embarrassed. But they somehow circled the wagons, went into protective mode, and came back more passionate than ever.
This program isn’t about John Calipari. It’s far bigger than any one coach or player. When you cut to the core, it’s really more about us—the intensity and passion of die-hard fans willing to follow their team through thick and thin. The Big Blue Nation is what makes Kentucky Basketball so special. Lose the fans, and you’re left with nothing.
I doubt if King Soloman was a Kentucky fan, but I’m told he was a pretty smart guy. You’d be wise to heed his advice during this firestorm of a season. Despite the impending train wreck and dumpster fire, Kentucky fans need to stand firm. Don’t worry, be happy, and just stay passionate while watching or attending the games. The reward comes as part of the journey. You never know what changes the future will bring.
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.
7 thoughts on “Don’t let Kentucky Basketball Steal your Joy”
I understand where you’re coming from. We have both been the beneficiaries of extremely successful basketball programs, and its all too easy to fall into the trap of entitlement, even when you appreciate, logically, that winning in a highly competitive environment is a complex blend of talent at the coaching level, the players’ level, and a good measure of luck thrown in. When the playing field is tilted by the entry of new forces, the portal, NIL, conference realignments, outrageous salaries at academic institutions that theoretically function in the public interest, but that have programs that represent a stepping stone into a lucrative sports/entertainment sector, disequilibrium is the norm. The best that one can hope for is, perhaps, a cyclic return to the spotlight, assisted by adjustments (coaching changes, recruiting efforts, scheduling adjustments) and still…. no entitlement. Yet, within each contest, even the ones you lose, looking very hard at it, someone stands out as delivering far more than anyone could have suspected. From out of the shadows, those performances emerge, and pride in that effort can be comforting. Strategic changes, substitutions sometimes produce favorable results in a team’s progress, without winning. And finally, justice, that wonderful balancing of the scales that we know is elusive, is served by our team’s loss. As an example, in football Bowl Games, Pitt Panthers defeated the Bruins at the last moment, the victory of an underdog, against all odds. And, as if I needed more humility, the Trojans, and Heisman winner, Caleb Washington, lost to underdog, Tulane. So then the Bruin basketball teams stole one point victories from USC, being outplayed until the last 30 seconds. The lesson: have some empathy for the winning performance, and take your victories not as entitlements, but that as achievements in which a lot of factors worked in favor of your team. We survived the years of Steve Alford, Steve Lavin and Walt Hazzard. Caliperi is a proven winner, and he sure knew how to get performances out of the collection of players that are today’s teammates. Kentucky will win again, consistently, and it will taste even better. We, Bruins, know this, under Mick Cronin and Cori Close, but there are no entitlements, in Lexington or Westwood, and little sympathy from the perennial downtrodden.
Thanks for your perspective. Do younger UCLA fans (forty and under) have any earthly idea about the dynasty days of Wooden?
They see banners hanging at Pauley Pavillion but the Wooden Era is a matter of historical consequence like the myth that America has never lost a war. It will fade away with the statues and banners, and have the relevance, in 50 years, of Babe Ruth, or Jim Thorpe.
I have been a UK fan since the 1940’s, stronger for football than basketball, but this has been a more disappointing year for me, in both sports, than any I can remember. I would like to think positive about the future for both sports, but right now I’m having a hard time doing so.
David, I do feel your pain. Gotta keep the faith–especially during times of trial and tribulation on the basketball court.
Not sure about the myth analogy above but I am sure our basketball program has been in decline for several months and it’s trajectory will be hard to turn around. Player and playing styles change, recruitment is more complicated w NIL and we are seeing that as younger coaches (Alabama) and a seasoned veteran (Rick Barnes at Tennessee) adapt, maybe Cal has not. Great talent has slipped away (or transferred out) over the last 5 years which hasn’t helped. Like Dr Huang says, let’s keep perspective, don’t expect a miracle turnaround, live your life…and hope changes are made to right the ship. The changes will be interesting to watch.
Unfortunately, we may now be officially desperate for a miracle turnaround.