One of the most amusing aspects of the days leading up to the Final Four showdown has been the inability of UK coaches, players and fans to avoid talking about University of Louisville basketball.
That doesn’t come easy for a university, which for the better part of the past century, was so wrapped up in its own existence that it was oblivious to the advances of the other school. Convinced of its superiority, not wanting that challenged, the UK athletic department refused to schedule UofL in basketball. That would change after 1983 when an NCAA clash was unavoidable, resulting in a memorable loss to UofL and subsequent pressure from the state legislature.
Earlier this season one of the biggest selling items in Lexington retail outlets was a T-shirt embroidered with “Louisville Is Invisible,” the buyers going along with the contradiction. The person who coined the slogan thought it was provocative, UK fans actually bought into it. But it was considered laughable by Louisville fans.
UK Coach John Calipari also made a transparent attempt to disrespect the most profitable program in college basketball and the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center, declaring, “It’s Kentucky throughout this whole state.” Never mind that Bluegrass polls have consistently debunked the notion that UK is more popular than U of L in Louisville and Jefferson County.
Rick Pitino said the other day that part of the animosity toward UofL was the cultural differences between Lexington and Louisville, rural versus urban and all that portends. U of L was an early leader in recruiting black athletes, with many UK followers jokingly referring to the Louisville “Black Birds” as Cardinals’ success continued. Even today, UofL is referred to as the “ghetto school” by some UK partisans.
Denny Crum, a young protege of UCLA’s Johnny Wooden, would take over the basketball program in 1971 and lead his team to a Final Four during his first season and later notch two national championships. He would be succeeded in 2001 by Rick Pitino, causing mass resentment among UK fans, taking U of L to the Final Four in 2005. That would spark construction of a new 22,000-seat arena, the envy of college basketball. Now UK fans want a new arena but may have to settle for a renovation.
Kentucky basketball, lately, has thrived on one-and-done’s, curiously returning the program to a powerhouse status, feeding the massive ego of the fan base, achieving what it believes to be the ultimate. The fan base idolizes the players and worships the basketball program, not taking kindly to challenges, criticism or competition, especially within state borders.
When it’s all said and done, respect is all U of L fans expect from their counterparts. The school is getting plenty of it this week for two reasons. The Louisville program has earned it and UK fans have no other choice but to acknowledge what UofL has accomplished.
What a week with John Calipari and his followers talking so much about Louisville. The worst fear of Cats’ fans is that everything they believe in could be at risk because of a rival they refused to acknowledge for so long.