In recent years when March rolled around, I’d turn off ESPN, shut down Twitter and ignore sports-related emails from my out-of-state friends. I got it — Kentucky basketball’s quick turnaround from Gillespie-era mediocrity back to the pantheon of college hoopdom stoked angry, jealous embers outside of Big Blue Nation into raging hate-fueled fire. Of course, continued oxygen was provided by an outspoken coach with a controversial history and an improbably immediate success story in mastering a new college sports paradigm that everyone seems to hate.
However, as KSR’s mole embedded within the pseudo-elite and the jump-shot-challenged intelligentsia, it was my duty for the past few weeks to monitor and critique the Establishment resentment toward our boys in blue.
But a funny thing happened on the way toward the anticipated fear and loathing. While certainly the haters remain (including a TBS broadcasting team that appears to root for every UK challenger), Kentucky’s fan base has seemed to grow nationally, significantly, as their wins pile up. Although Notre Dame’s Coach Mike Brey declared audaciously that the Fighting Irish were “America’s Team” in their Elite Eight showdown with the Cats, that crown better fits the head of the team that pulled off the Ã¼ber-thrilling victory last night in Cleveland.
Yes, sports fans, like the Dallas Cowboys in the late 20th Century, the Kentucky Wildcats — at least during this unprecedented run — are now America’s Team.
How did this transformation happen? I credit four variables behind the Cats’ surge in national popularity:
One unifying feature of sport is the specter of history being made, with the spectator feeling part of the shared experience. That’s why in an era of DVRs and spoiler alerts, we still like to watch our major sporting events live — especially with basketball, where those in attendance really become part of the action. For those of us creeping into middle age, consider how many office watercooler conversations, or dinner table talks with the kids, center around the epochal contests that we watched in our youth: from Goose’s greatest game, to the first Bird/Magic matchup, to Nova’s coke-fueled upset of Georgetown, to Jim Valvano furiously circling the hardwood for a hug…and on and on.
As Kentucky approaches an unprecedented 40-0 season (no I am STILL not jinxing it), the Big Blue Nation cheers and hopes and even prays for each consecutive victory. But so are a lot of other Americans, particularly the more casual fans with no dog in the hunt, who are climbing aboard the bandwagon in time to be part of history.
As I’ve mused in these virtual pages many times before, basketball wallops the other Big Three sports when it comes to the visual experience for its spectators. Basketball games are filled with relentless exhibitions of artistry in action — colorful feats of intensely-rehearsed talent and gravity-defying acrobatics, while the participants remain in near constant motion. Because the vertical plane is regularly pierced, only basketball can provide those rare, sublime moments of transcendental grace.
Critics have been carping all year about how the recent primacy of defense has resulted in lower-scoring, less exciting games. And while Kentucky is certainly guilty of the former charge, and has endured several brutally ugly slug-fests on their way to the Final Four, the team inevitably has produced thrilling, breathtaking moments — Monster Dunks! Improbable Blocks! Clutch Threes! — even in their most lop-sided victories. Their refusal to lose close games like last night make for suspenseful, goose-bump-inducing theater. In the end, this team simply is fun to watch, and there are plenty of basketball aficionados outside of the Bluegrass State who don’t want to see this show leave town too soon.
As the Wildcats have been pigeonholed to be the exemplar of the much derided “one and done” paradigm, many occasional hoops followers would naturally assume that our ball club would be filled with selfish, egomaniacal, entitled semi-pros who are focused on NBA glory, at the expense of the team, the campus and the greater community. But as anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to this year’s squad could attest, these Cats have obliterated the stereotype. Indeed, the adjectives most associated with this group of ballers — unselfish, likeable, team-focused, joyfully charismatic, and most of all, humble — belie the reputation applied ignorantly by the controversy-seeking screaming heads on talk radio and the Twitter-verse.
From the moment The Twins deferred the pros, to their gritty, unselfish contributions in the last seconds of the Notre Dame game, the spirit of integrity has permeated this year’s squad. And the more the country has seen the true character of these Cats, the more they’ve cheered for a perfect season.
As sports criticism has proliferated — from thousands of new online avenues to the comments section of every web site — commentary has become more and more vociferous and hyperbolic, the language used more and more hostile and toxic. Feeling the anxiety of competition, some more traditional news sites have tried to outdo their pajama-clad blogging brethren with breathless snark: Check out this over-the-top, innuendo-filled attack on John Calipari in this week’s New York Times. The social media has piled on, in one high-profile case forcing super-fan Ashley Judd to expose the vicious, misogynistic tactics of often-anonymous wannabes who desperately desire to expose their resentment-fueled bile to the rest of us.
I’ve never pretended that Coach Cal is perfect, nor that his recruiting tactics at the University of Massachusetts don’t deserve scrutiny and questioning. But that was 20 years ago, and in a nation whose culture revels in the redemptive power of second chances, it’s about time to forgive him. And when the critics continue to pile on about ambiguous transgressions from the past century — some taking it out on a talented actress who merely shows up to games to root for her alma mater — most Americans witness the current track record of a Cal-coached team that hasn’t even emitted a whiff of scandal, and view Kentucky as the embattled David against the monstrous media Goliath.
Don’t get me wrong: The “America’s Team” appellation will by no means stick for long term. Our country loves an underdog story, and should the Cats post a perfect season, expect America to find new favorites in the coming years. But while the United States is far, far from unanimous, do understand that due to all the reasons that make this team so special, our Nation — for the next week at least — is becoming a lot Big Bluer.
Postscript: As a recovering politician, I’m especially aware when I have lost the people’s support. And my valiant attempt to name this year’s squad “The Purr-fects” appears to have been a Dukakis-in-the-tank-like flop. KSR commentor EdC may have put it best last week: “Purr-fects is TERRIBLE. It’s Kentucky Wildcats, not lap cats. Please just stop already. I am embarrassed for you and I don’t even know you.” And Twitter’s @Pete_white00 did me the honor of making me the target of my first meme:
So — back to the drawing board. I find anything with “Un” to be clichÃ©d and derivative of the unique, special branding of the nineties Unforgettables squad. I will take your suggestions below — and if anyone comes up with anything original that sticks (and I will heavily promote any good ideas), I will take you to a UK home game next year.