“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.