Celebrating my 30th year reunion with my Henry Clay High School classmates this weekend, I couldn’t help but remember how anxious I was as an 18-year-old to get the heck out of Lexington and never turn back. Small-town claustrophobia, tinged with the subtle anti-Semitism I’d endured as a kid, propelled me like a rocket to school in Boston, dreaming of a White House job, or perhaps the riches of Wall Street.
Politics — plus the desire to raise our daughters in the real world, near family — brought me back home. But with my public career now history, and out-of-state colleges emptying our nest, I’m not about to take off for the bright lights of the big city.
My staid, blue-blood hometown is now a dynamic, diverse and progressive community. And I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
I’d been struggling to explain my hometown attachment, until I encountered a new idea being peddled by Lexington Mayor Jim Gray. In a recent op-ed, Gray’s whip-smart senior policy adviser, Scott Shapiro, identified a new urban planning construct: the “University City.” After analyzing U.S. cities with between 250,000 and a million residents, and targeting those with a major research university and populations made up of at least 10 percent students, they found six towns with strikingly similar statistics and success: Lexington; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Fort Collins, Colorado; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Madison, Wisconsin. All of them boast big city excitement and progress: with high education levels, diverse and tolerant communities, strong economic growth, and vibrant arts and culture. But unlike major metropolises, they also feature low unemployment, cost of living, and violent-crime rates.
I elaborated on this perfect balance — and explained why University Cities may be the best model for urban planners to empower more communities to share in the potential for economic growth — in my column yesterday in The Daily Beast: “Are University Cities the Key to the American Dream?”
But in my research on public policy and economic development, I hit upon another realization: Each of these model cities for the American Dream also feature a dynamic — and sometimes transcendent — college sports ethic. Lexington, of course, boasts THE GREATEST TRADITION IN THE HISTORY OF COLLEGE BASKETBALL, and while Durham/Chapel Hill produces a far inferior product, the Research Triangle certainly shares our ardor for the roundball. Lincoln and Fort Collins are huge football towns; while Madison and Ann Arbor are sports crazy from fall kickoff through March Madness.
Sure, the coastal elites can brag about more Picassos at their museums, more virtuoso violinists in their orchestras, more prima ballerina assoultas on their stages. But New York and Los Angeles can’t approach the atmosphere of The Big House on a crisp fall Saturday Michigan afternoon or Cameron Indoor on a UNC/Duke game night. Perhaps my greatest disincentive for ever leaving Lexington would be abandoning my cherished lower-Rupp-Arena season tickets.
Moreover, as I’ve argued in this virtual space on so many occasions, the role college sports plays in building relationships and inter-personal harmony is an invaluable resource for any society. Fandom promotes a cohesive, interdependent community: We might fight about politics or religion or culture, but on game day we join voices in passionate advocacy of our squads. Here in the Bluegrass State, college hoops even has played a critical role in racial healing and securing popular support for higher educational achievement. It’s also impossible to overestimate how sports joins families in common cause; fostering passion, hope, and even love among parents and children grasping for a connection, trying to wrest a relationship out of a world of distraction and sometimes disappointment.
The man behind the “University City” construct understands this phenomenon. “The UK sports presence helps pull it all together in Lexington,” suggests Mayor Jim Gray. “It has a dynamic, unifying influence. Our teams pull us up, and give everyone something in common to smile about.” Gray also appreciates the economic boost of this powerful source of joy and camaraderie: “It enhances our entertainment offerings…But it also makes us even more culturally rich…Sports becomes a shared cultural value, which helps us build community.”
UK sports certainly was a dominant theme at this weekend’s 30-year Henry Clay High School reunion. A generation that had grown up with Joe B. and suffered through Sutton was now scattered across the globe, but we still held close our common love of the Cats. Miles, even continents, apart, our enduring embrace of basketball sustained our shared bonds. One of my classmates told the tale of his Persian Gulf Navy submarine surfacing long enough to catch the WHAS radio broadcast of the 1996 championship (of course, it was the U.S.S. Kentucky). Another boasted of dancing the White Man’s Overbite on Bourbon Street after the 2012 triumph in New Orleans. And like clockwork, after the initial pleasantries and the inquiries about kids, parents and careers, my old friends all wanted to chat about my most newest vocation — writing for KSR — critiquing my past columns and offering story ideas.
It’s amazing how the space of three decades can be closed so rapidly, and friendships re-ignited as if only a weekend had passed since our graduation parties. It’s instructive that language of sports endures to provide a unifying force; that we continue to produce shared memories even when our only mode of contact is an occasional Facebook post.
It’s part of the magic of growing up and living in a University City. It’s why so many come and stay. And it’s why I will never leave.