Saturday's game pits the University of Louisville against the University of Kentucky
University of Kentucky is the top seed in the tournament
One Kentucky fan reportedly offered his wife in exchange for a ticket
You think it’s wild being a fan when a basketball-obsessed state encounters the biggest rivalry meeting in its history? Try being a politician.
Hours after the University of Kentucky punched its ticket to a Final Four meeting against the University of Louisville, Kentucky governor Steve Beshear’s office was asked for a reaction.
That was on Sunday night, but it took until Monday morning before it came. Let’s just say the game plan from the Democratic governor was conservative: “The best thing about this game is that a team from Kentucky will play for the national title.” (Kansas plays Ohio State in the other semifinal)
Imagine the high-fives among the staff for walking that non-committal tightrope. Others in the state have been less cautious.
In a state defined by its basketball loyalties perhaps even more strongly than its political allegiances, the jump circle and political circle sometimes merge.
John Yarmuth and Ben Chandler are Kentucky Democrats who sit on the same side of the aisle in Congress, but will be on decidedly different sides of this rivalry.
“The teams are both so good, I’m sure that whoever prevails, it will be the experience of the teams’ seasoned upperclassmen that leads the way,” said Yarmuth, whose district includes Louisville.
Boom. Kentucky has only one seasoned upperclassman who plays regularly.
Chandler, whose district includes Lexington, issued his own subtle jab, saying, “I think it’s great that everyone in Kentucky can be a part of the Wildcats’ journey to another championship.”
Boom. That’s not exactly a part that Louisville fans will relish playing.
When it comes to basketball, Kentucky is both a red (Louisville) and a blue (Kentucky) state. The state’s most iconic architectural features, the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby illustrate the split. One is lit red, the other blue, for the entire week.
SI on Kentucky-Louisville
The latest poll conducted by the Louisville Courier-Journal found that about 65 percent of the state’s largest city identified themselves as Louisville fans. Out in the state, that number was 91 percent who backed Kentucky hoops.
But wherever they are this week, there is conflict.
On Tuesday, in a dialysis clinic in Georgetown, Kentucky, police were called when two patients got into a fistfight over the game.
Ed Wilson, 69, was actually hooked up to a machine when he heard Charles Taylor, 72 and a Louisville fan, “start to run his mouth,” Wilson said.
Taylor said he was talking to another fan when Wilson, “told me to shut up and gave me the finger.”
So, dialysis machine or no dialysis machine, Taylor went over and hit Wilson – and this longtime rivalry added another chapter to its lore.
The rivalry, of course, has roots that run much deeper than sports. Louisville, the state’s largest city, has always had a contentious relationship with the rural rest of the state. And basketball has played a major role in the identity of this state, has always been a point of pride for a population often on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
For much of their basketball histories, the teams did not play. Legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp didn’t believe in playing the smaller state schools. An example of Rupp’s influence: He once raised his hands in practice and said, “Lord, please send me a man who is worth a damn!” At that moment, then-governor (and once commissioner of baseball) Happy Chandler entered the gym. When Chandler laughed, Rupp told him he didn’t care if he was the governor, if he couldn’t be quiet, he’d have to leave.
The University of Kentucky called the shots, and these teams did not play for 24 years until the NCAA Tournament threw them together in a 1983 regional game dubbed “The Dream Game,” by fans in the state.
Before that, all Kentuckians could do was argue over which team was better. Someone manufactured a board game with dice and player cards that could be used to simulate a contest.
But resentment seemed to fester. In a vintage 1983 video before the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall tried to end an on-camera interview when he was asked about why the Wildcats wouldn’t play the Cardinals. Louisville’s Denny Crum, young and confident, took great pleasure in baiting Kentucky and its fans.
Once Louisville won that contest, the teams agreed to a yearly series, even as the state legislature was moving to force them to play.
But none of the subsequent meetings has had as much at stake as Saturday’s game – a trip to the national championship.
The rivalry between the coaches – Rick Pitino at Louisville and John Calipari at Kentucky – only intensifies matters. Pitino coached Kentucky to a national championship in 1996 and his name hangs in the rafters at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, while Calipari is seeking his first national title. The two men have been polite this week. It’s unlikely their state will follow suit.
It’s hard to describe to those outside the state how this rivalry is woven into its very fabric. A handful of weddings have been rescheduled. People wear UK or U of L T-shirts under their clothes to church. Businesses will close early on Saturday. One local high school Hall of Fame had to reschedule its ceremonies because inductees were going to miss it to watch the game.
Early in the week, on Craigslist, a man claiming to be a Kentucky fan offered his wife in exchange for a Final Four ticket.
It might’ve been a joke. It’s testament to the particular brand of March Madness in this state that no one is really sure.
From the statehouses to the coffee houses, time is going to stop on Saturday night, and one fan base is going to dread going back to work on Monday morning.