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Sports and the “University City”


James Crisp | AP

James Crisp | AP

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.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.

16 responses to “Sports and the “University City””

  1. Question.mark

    You lost me at “small- town claustrophobia” youve obviously never lived in a small town if you think Lexington is one lol

  2. Rixter

    He lost me at ‘celebrating’

    Jon Miller only writes one article a week for KSR, yet he is the all time leader in number of words written on the site.

    1. Leuther

      Agree! What else would you expect from a self absorbed, bloviating Democrat. Too bad he never learned to express himself succinctly…

  3. Jim D50

    I would say that many of us who attended UK would agree with most, if not all, of your observations of the University City and UK’s place in it. My Dad listened to UK basketball whenever he could throughout his 30 year military career which included 3 wars and many tours of duty overseas. As a kid I remember him listening to “Rupp’s Runts” on the transistor radio in Germany. We also listened to Mohammed Ali win his first title in Germany. Sports was a common theme we could always talk about up until his death. He was proud to tell his Army buddies that his son graduated from the University of Kentucky. And so was I when my son and daughter also graduated from the University of Kentucky. 10 college buddies and I still meet together every Derby Day as we have for 30 years talking about our time in Lexington.

  4. Girlwildcatfan

    I always enjoy Mr. Miller’s posts very much. He always beings a great view point with the appropriate reasoning to back it up. I sometimes have differing views but am very glad for what he brings to the table and that he is not afraid to out his views out there. Even though you may not agree, appreciate his posts for what they are. I also really enjoy Freddie Maggard’s posts. He presents his vast knowledge of the football program in a real and honest way in which I can understand a lot more about football–I have not watched much football until this year–and he has helped me understand a lot do the intricacies and fundamentals of the sport. Kudos to you both and thanks for the terrific effort you put into your posts. I look forward to more great work from you both.

  5. Twnky

    Can we get rid of this guy yet?

  6. post

    I’m confused, was this a post about a “University City” or how awesome Jonathan Miller thinks he is? (Not to mention all the plugs for his other articles and how ridiculous that is)

  7. Bluegrass

    A 1000 word essay that could have been said in 12 words. At my high school reunion we like to talk about Kentucky basketball.
    Rarely do Mr. Miller’s articles actually discuss Kentucky athletics. They’re either ramblings of him trying to sound sophisticated and enlightened or political activism.

  8. Walter White

    I used to think BTI sucked, until Miller started writing for KSR

  9. ClutchCargo

    I would like to thank Jonathan for writing a somewhat shorter than normal post that took less time to scroll past.

  10. Comment

    “propelled me like a rocket to school in Boston” (links article discussing how Harvard grads say this)

    “I elaborated on this perfect balance .. in my column yesterday in The Daily Beast” (Links to articles)

    “my cherished lower-Rupp-Arena season tickets”

    “I’ve argued in this virtual space on so many occasions” (Link to article)

    “my old friends all wanted to chat about my most newest vocation — writing for KSR”

    Talk about a self absorbed narcissist. I’m convinced this guy only writes for KSR because it is another way to stroke his ego and pump out “I’m jonathan miller and i’m better than everyone” propaganda.

  11. Ryan

    I like paste.

  12. Robert Sutherland

    Mr. Miller I have experience as you state…in so many ways…and your statement “Real People” is right on..Real People being persons who are Genuine persons who are kind to others, and persons who do not put on “airs”.

    Mr. Miller did you grow up in Danville, Kentucky? My Neighbor and good friend was Jon Miller…also Jewish and every weekend he and his family traveled to Lexington to attend Services…

    I love your weekly articles because you tell it like it IS…

    Robert Sutherland
    Class of 65 – Danville Admirals

  13. Piedma Schwartz

    Easily the worst writer on this website. Including the Louisville trolls.

  14. CatsFan

    *reads “by: Jonathan Miller”*

    *gives the scroll wheel a solid flick*

  15. Tampa satchel

    I never read the Bachelor updates or whatever they were. Not for me. Don’t watch the show and had no interest in reading the articles, but never did I feel the need to click on the comments and belittle the writer. As CatsFan intimated with, *gives the scroll wheel a solid flick*, I would just move on, but the irony doesn’t escape me that CatsFan says he skips Mr. Miller’s article, when in fact he has stopped to comment.

    I read all of Mr. Miller’s articles, as he brings a different perspective than the rest of the authors here. Clearly he was brought in as a thought provoking change of pace and I believe he has lived up to that role. I don’t always agree with him, nor do I enjoy every piece to the same degree, but overall I he am happy he writes for KSR.

    Maybe he is not for everyone, but if you comment he has done his job and that is to get people to read and comment. I am sure he thinks you for that whether you praise him or not.