If you haven’t caught up with Part 1 yet, check it out here.
image credit: sports.com
I have many fond memories of Rupp Arena and those memories are the crux of what I wanted to share with the Bluegrass Threads readers. This isn’t a piece pretending the games are larger than life—and I hate to break it to anyone who believes they are—they aren’t. They’re just 18 year olds dribbling a ball. Whoever wins and loses rarely matters. What truly matters are the memories we’re spoiled enough to enjoy because we exist in this unique, timeless culture. I couldn’t tell you the first time I went to a UK game. I vaguely remember Rex Chapman and his awkward 1980’s stylized short shorts. I remember walking into a cavernous Rupp Arena with the generic, 1970’s concrete wall designs, and the orange, yellow and red seats (what were they thinking?). I remember the smell of hot dogs, ketchup and mustard splattered all over the condiment stand across from the vendors. I remember falling in love with the pep band and screaming out “UK!” at the end of each song and then acting like a brat screaming out “UcK!” when the team was playing poorly. My mother was appalled and scolded me–good for her.
I identify March of 1992 as the turning point for my fandom. Kentucky vs. Duke. Everyone knows this game. I remember being terrified of my parents—especially my father who was drinking each bourbon and diet coke like it was his last. Sean Woods hit a running baby hook shot in the lane to give Kentucky a 103-102 lead. My father screamed and got on the ground, doing push ups, almost as an offering to his collegiate athlete God. It was tribal. It was hilarious. I felt like I was a part of something important and much bigger than me. I was hooked. Well, everyone knows how that ended. Christian Laettner hit an incredible shot and broke all of our hearts. I went to my room and cried. Later my mom came in and hugged me. It felt like it did when you’re sick as a kid and mom’s love makes you feel…even more sick.
I like to remind my dad about doing push ups in front of the television, or throwing his glass across the room after that shot and, prior to the shot, exclaiming, “I really want them to win this game” while on his knees. Now that I’m almost 30 and I’ve seen plenty of good times and bad, I can understand why that game meant so much to him then. It was Kentucky re-emerging from the ashes of the late 80’s where probation and scandal had almost killed the program. Calipari rejuvenating the program almost 20 years after that shot is symmetrical. Kentucky being relevant is essential to Lexington and to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. So many families and friends come together for these silly games. “Where you watching the game?” “Want to grab a few beers and watch? “We’re heading downtown for some dinner and the game.” “Elite 8 party at my house! Go Cats, baby!”
I attended another game today. I have no idea how many this makes for me but as I was walking around downtown Lexington, which has grown considerably since 2009, I realized the downtown culture is largely fueled by Kentucky basketball. When the weather is gross, Kentucky basketball keeps the restaurants full and the atmosphere exciting. There’s also the familiar yuletide feeling of Thanksgiving and Christmas and it’s so cold outside because that’s basketball weather! The fountains lit up at Triangle Park, complete with an ice skating rink and a Christmas tree as you walk across our goofy little bubble passage ways that rise above downtown.
After the game ends and I step outside onto Vine Street, gazing towards Lexington’s modest skyline, “My Old Kentucky Home” rings in my head. It is played at the conclusion of each game while the cheerleaders lock arms and sway back and forth. I think about how many family members, friends, lovers and partners are linked together from Paducah, Cadiz, Owensboro, Cave City, Bowling Green, Louisville, Lexington, Danville, Somerset, Powell, Newport, Covington, Morehead, Maysville, Middlesboro, Hazard, Harlan and Pikeville. Kentucky is a diverse border state with cultural influences coming from all directions, but maybe basketball is our common bond. It’s both humbling and comforting to feel connected to the world at large. And even in the smallest of scopes, here in Lexington, I know I’m closer to my loved ones because of our bond–especially to my Dad, whom I credit for grooming me as a fan. Hopefully that connection lasts long after we’ve left this life.