The always venerable Wikipedia defines an expatriate as “a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country or culture other than that of the person’s upbringing.” In other words, they’re strangers in a strange land. University of Kentucky fans have always identified themselves as members of “Big Blue Nation,” and in many cases, the BBN really CAN be found almost anywhere your travels take you. With that in mind, the series “The Ex-Pats of Big Blue Nation” will profile those Kentucky fans who have moved away from the Bluegrass State for whatever reason, asking how they’ve managed to maintain their devotion and fanhood despite living in areas where every exhibition game isn’t televised or where no one in the neighborhood understands the significance of the date April 2, 2012. You may recognize this ex-pat from Twitter as @Helitzur- at least, that’s how I knew him before he introduced himself as Haggai from Alexandria, VA. Read on and enjoy hearing about life as a UK fan outside of Kentucky.
Let’s start with the basics. Please state your name, where you’re from, and current location for the official record. No need for exact addresses, I don’t want to get you in trouble on the Internet.
My name is Haggai Elitzur. I grew up in Lexington, KY. I live now in Alexandria, VA, which is just outside of Washington DC.
How did you get from Point A (Kentucky) to Point B (where you are now)?
I’ve been a Kentucky ex-pat since I graduated from high school (Henry Clay, class of ’94). I went to college in California, followed by grad school in Michigan, and I’ve been based in the DC area for work since 2004.
What team’s fans dominate your area? (College or professional)
DC sports is dominated by the Redskins, the most popular local team by far. That’s true even when they stink–i.e. most of the last 20 years–so it’s not just because everyone else here has RGIII-fever. The Capitals have also built a loyal hockey fanbase in recent years, and now that the Nationals (the only local team I’ve adopted) are pretty good, they have a solid following as well.
For college sports, Maryland basketball used to have more of a buzz, but the die-hards have been complaining for a while that the fans don’t show up anymore for anyone other than Duke and North Carolina. Georgetown doesn’t seem to have re-captured their big 1980s following, even when they’ve been good in recent years–there was WAY more hype around here for George Mason’s 2006 Final Four run than for Georgetown’s Final Four appearance in 2007. For college football, Virginia Tech alums are the loudest fanbase in this area.
Was it a hard adjustment going from living where everyone knows every detail about UK sports, to where people may conceivably think UK and Louisville are the same team?
The biggest difference for me is the perspective of how people see college basketball in general. Back in Kentucky, everything is seen through the prism of UK sports, even for fans of the rival teams, who are always measuring themselves against UK (e.g. Little Brother and the Sweet 16 Ring Dispensers). And for pretty much all casual-to-non-sports fans in Kentucky, they’ll be willing to throw in a “Go Big Blue” when everyone’s excited for a particularly big game.
But once you move away, not only do people not know much about UK, they also see college basketball in particular through the prism that the national media presents, which (begin soapbox) is my explanation for why Duke is the ultimate evil for me. KSR had this debate in-depth when UL played Duke in the Elite Eight, and while I HATE the Dirty Birds and rooted like crazy against them in every other game, I would literally root for the aliens who attacked New York in The Avengers before ever rooting for Duke. EVER.
That’s because sports fans outside of Kentucky, by and large, blindly accept the national media narrative about Duke being the true pinnacle of college hoops. The best team, the classiest program, the pure ideal of what college basketball is supposed to be, blah blah blah. So while UL is our true on-court rival, and we barely ever play Duke, the cursed Devils are really our biggest rival for the status of being the top program in college basketball nationally. That’s a perspective you NEVER have to deal with if you still live in Kentucky, thankfully. But you do have to hear it from sports fans outside of Kentucky, and Duke’s particular brand of sanctimoniousness is just unbearable (soapbox over).
Also, it looks like Josh Hopkins agrees with me about Duke being the ultimate evil, as he tweeted during the tournament, and I’m betting it’s for similar ex-pat-driven reasons:
How many Kentucky fans would you say are in your general vicinity? Is there a local UK alumni group or bar?
There are people from all over the country in the DC area, including a decent number of Kentuckians. The local place for UK games is Grevey’s, in northern Virginia, owned by ex-Wildcat star Kevin Grevey. He played for the Bullets in the late ’70s and early ’80s, including their 1978 championship team.
How do you show off your fandom while living away from Kentucky?
The trash talk flows freely during the season, especially when someone gets it in their head that they can make fun of UK around a devoted fan. At a minimum, people around the office get their annual reminder during tournament time, when everyone starts scrambling to fill out brackets without having watched any games all season.
What’s the hardest thing about being a fan outside of the geographic BBN? The best thing?
Being around people who don’t care much can be tough during big games, and all the ignorant nonsense about Calipari is especially grating. I actually haven’t experienced much UK-specific dislike–for instance, I don’t remember anyone talking trash to me when things were falling apart under BCG–but the national media has spread too much nonsense about Calipari over the years for even the national title to overcome.
I guess the best thing is when you can initiate someone to being a UK fan, even if it’s just temporary. During the 2011 Final Four run, my girlfriend at the time wasn’t a sports fan at all, but she genuinely started rooting for UK when she saw how much I was into it.
What do you do for games?
I used to get together with old Kentucky friends who lived here, but now that they’ve moved back, I usually watch by myself and follow along with other fans on Twitter during game breaks. Grevey’s is a good place for watching games, though I don’t get out there too often.
I also want to give a shout-out to Zeke’s in San Francisco, which is the UK-watching place there. Most of my family live in that area now, so I visit San Francisco a few times each year, and I always swing by for a game if I’m in town during the season. (Zeke’s was profiled here on KSR last summer).
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to follow a game live?
It wasn’t all that crazy, but with a TV in the multi-person office where I was working during the 2011 Final Four run, I dropped any pretense of working during the second half of the first-round Princeton game and just stood there watching the last few minutes like I was in a bar. I still fondly remember seeing the last play of the Morehead St. upset of UL right after Brandon Knight’s last-second game-winner. My office-mates knew how big a UK fan I was, but they also got a close-up view of real rivalry hate there as well.
How do you keep up with UK news without the local media readily accessible?
KSR is certainly the best resource for that. Not just reports and links to all the relevant news, but getting it from the UK fan perspective, which is the toughest thing to stay in touch with when you don’t live there anymore.
If I embark on a cross-country road trip with my friends, a la Britney Spears in Crossroads, do you have a UK-themed room I can stay in?
No UK theme, but I do have a guest room. Throw me a follow on Twitter, @helitzur, and it’s yours for a visit. I’m easily bribed that way.
Seriously, back when there was some talk about UK possibly playing in DC against Georgetown as part of the Big East-SEC challenge for this past season (in the end, we got the Teo-fest at Notre Dame instead…ugh), I was really looking forward to meeting and/or hosting some of the awesome UK fans I’ve only virtually “met” online. I definitely hope that UK gets to play here in DC sometime in the near future.
Since becoming an ex-pat, have you returned to Kentucky to watch the team play or seen the team play live in a different area? Any stories there?
I’ve seen a few games in Rupp over the years on visits back to Lexington, thanks to some generous friends with good tickets. The last one was against Liberty, in the BCG era. And yes, UK actually won that game, though everyone was nervous going in–it was Game 1 AGW (After Gardner-Webb).
How do the locals respond to your fandom?
As I mentioned about the teams that are most popular in the DC area, very few people here have college basketball as even one of their top few favorite sports, so most of them are gracious about meeting a fan who’s super-passionate about something they aren’t as into. The few people who actively troll will talk about Duke or Calipari, but believe me, #LouisvilleDoesn’tExist once you leave Kentucky. Seriously, no one cares about them AT ALL. I can’t even make any line beard jokes, since nobody will get them.
What advice do you have for anyone who may be considering a move from Kentucky who is concerned about missing out on following UK?
The internet and social media have made it so much easier and more fun to follow UK sports for us ex-pats. KSR is at the center of it for me, and as an offshoot of that, I’ve connected with tons of terrific fans on Twitter. So for KSR readers or others who haven’t gotten much into Twitter, I’d suggest giving that a shot, since there are so many great BBN people on there to follow and interact with.
Any general stories that the readers of KSR would be interested to hear about living as a BBN ex-pat?
I’ll close with a general example of how KSR and internet coverage has brought the BBN together so much more now than even in the fairly recent past. For the ’96 and ’98 titles, I was in college in California, and aside from some calls back home to friends right after the Cats won it all, there was very little direct contact for me with any of the UK fanbase. And even my friends weren’t so easy to get a hold of at that exact moment, since they were all sprinting out of the house to reach Euclid and Woodland (none of us had cell phones back then…back in my day…you whippersnappers).
But for the championship last year, things were completely different. I got to see immediate reactions and pictures from a bunch of fans who were actually in the stadium for the game (mostly via Twitter), and I could get the KSR postgame show online, where grown men were calling in and weeping with joy on-air. I also got to see video of the full title celebration at Rupp, which went up online that same day it happened. On top of all that in the immediate aftermath, basking in the championship glow over the next few days and weeks with other fans on KSR, Twitter, etc., was so fun and fulfilling as a die-hard fan. So while the ’96 title is extra-special for me because it was the first one I ever experienced–literally, the dream of a lifetime for a UK fan–the ’12 title is my first one as an ex-pat where I truly felt an immediate connection to the Big Blue Nation. And thanks to KSR for being such a big part of that!