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How the Cats Transformed from Resented Goliaths into America’s Team

Photo by Chet White – UK Athletics

Photo by Chet White - UK Athletics

Photo by Chet White – UK Athletics


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 über-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:

Making History

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.

Artistic Excellence

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 flopKSR 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: purrfects

So — back to the drawing board.  I find anything with “Un” to be clichéd 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.

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.

23 Comments for How the Cats Transformed from Resented Goliaths into America’s Team

  1. Smyrna_Cat
    8:18 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    Mr. Miller. I shake my head when I read your meanderings. After making a statement like “UK is America’s team,” a logical writer would then proceed to give examples to show how the public opinion has changed, and how the common fan has embraced UK as their own.

    You didn’t do that. You meandered. To be frank, I think as many people tune in to watch UK to see if we will lose as do that tune in to see if we win. The BBN is amazing, and anytime we are as excited about a team as we are this one, we show up in mass, we watch anything that is blue, and we read (and post) about anything UK oriented.

    I don’t think most UK fans think we are “American’s Team” … and we don’t care. Haters gonna hate. BB fans are gonna cheer. And the programs that envy us can root for us to lose all they want. We don’t care.

    Yes, back to the drawing board. My suggestion … write an article that actually has the objective of sharing worthwhile information with UK fans. And good luck with that “recovering politician” thing.

    • Saul T. Nuts
      8:57 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

      A little harsh, IMHO. Jonathan always writes a fine article, and this is no exception. It doesn’t have to be a peer-reviewed, flawless piece of art…sure, he rambles a little…but it’s always interesting (or at least entertaining).

    • Smyrna_Cat
      11:28 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

      Well, it is hard to argue with someone with the web name SALTY NUTS. Perhaps that explains your attraction to the writings of Mr. Miller. I do find it interesting that you are the only one that does not have a REPLY option. I think the only time I have seen that is when Mr. Miller posts comments here.

      Regardless …

      I will have to disagree with you about the quality of Mr. Miller’s writing. I am glad you find them entertaining … I just think they come across as blatant self-promotion that is poorly written, illogical, lacking a sense of coherence, and overly pretentious.

      The idea behind writing is to introduce a subject, offer information relating to the subject, and come to a conclusion based upon that information. Mr. Miller does not do that. Perhaps that is the problem when you are a “recovering politician” … after all, a good politician never presents a straight answer to anything.

      And Purr-cats … that has GOT to go.

    • Leuther
      1:04 pm March 30, 2015 Permalink

      Must agree! Miller is full of himself and has never learned to express himself succinctly…

    8:30 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    Smash Brothers had gotta be in consideration somewhere.

    • UKfaninLou
      9:12 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

      Yep, I called that one as soon as the video game story came out. And I don’t usually like team nicknames.

  3. Schwartz
    8:44 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    We are MagnifiCATS!

  4. kuhlkat
    9:22 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    The unbeatables

  5. Wildcat13
    9:26 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    The WILDcats, who are now 37 & WON, should be …..”THE WILDWONS”

  6. CALO222
    9:40 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    I’m actually all for the Smash Brothers

  7. PAK
    10:03 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    If they do it – I will call them “The Undefeateds”

  8. sylvar
    10:07 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    Wow… Smash Brothers is kinda perfect.

  9. booney h
    10:58 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    I also like Smash Bros., but isn’t this the perfect team for Drew’s “Team NF”? Seriously, why not The Perfectionists?

  10. FlySoup
    10:59 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    The Big Blue Machine

  11. real True Blue Cat
    11:00 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    To what are you referring regarding recruiting at Umass? Are you referring to the Camby situation? That had nothing to do with recruiting although the uninformed masses assume it does.

  12. minton06hd
    11:09 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    Though it’d never happen, I like the idea of the team being christened the XL’s (or some catchier variation thereof). Roman numerals for 40, plus a reference to both the team’s size and larger-than-life season.

    • Tycobbn1
      6:35 am March 30, 2015 Permalink

      Not Roman numerals & it hasn’t happened yet, but I hope they end up the “40 9ers!” That’s been my suggestion & hope for awhile now. 49 ers would be pronounced just like the football team. 40 = 40 wins. 9ers = 9th National Championship! There might be a better way to write it out but I like it. Make it happen Cats!

  13. bigbluecoop
    11:13 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    How naive. Come out of your Blue bubble Jonathan. I looked at Yahoo and ESPN message boards after the game last night and the sheer amount of hate and vitriol was staggering.

  14. Secretariat
    11:15 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    I clicked on the comments hoping that at least one person had recommended “Smash Brothers”…I was not disappointed (it could even be the “Super Smash Brothers” if you’re feeling fancy!)

  15. na8vecat
    11:47 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    Brothers by Choice

  16. na8vecat
    11:56 pm March 29, 2015 Permalink

    Here is my game plan for the Badgers …… Rotate Townns, Johnson & Lee every 4 minutes on Kaminski and tell them to bang him up . Also I wanna see if he can run the floor ? I want a fast paced game , I think these two scenarios , wear him out and in the 2nd half he is draggin a$$ big time. Wisconsin shot the lights out in the Arizona game , I dont think they shoot this well 2 straight games?

    What does everyone else think ?? GO CATS HANG #9

  17. EdC
    8:20 am March 30, 2015 Permalink

    Sorry I am just reading this. Thanks for the shout out 🙂

  18. UKCrewser
    10:09 am March 30, 2015 Permalink

    40-0 simple…. There have been other undefeated teams, teams with cute nicknames, but no one has ever been 40-0. Besides, that’s how everyone will reference them anyway. I like 40-9ers thing, but too much football reference…”Wow, remember 40-0? They were…..(add description here).”