‘Twas the day after Christmas, and 24,000 Big Blue Nation congregants stood united — in Rupp Arena, the cathedral of our Commonwealth — in a thunderous, rapturous, spiritual embrace…
Of a devout Muslim.
It may have been unintentional irony, but in selecting former University of Kentucky great Nazr Mohammed to perform the traditional “Y” ceremony during the regular season’s most anticipated game, Coach John Calipari delivered one of the most potent political statements of the year.
And in so doing, Coach Cal trumped The Donald.
The “Y” tradition borders on a holy sacrament.
During the first “TIMEOUT ON THE FLOOR” after halftime of most UK home games, a group of cheerleaders contort their bodies on the hardwood to spell out the first seven letters of the state’s name. The tame exercise (with the possible exception of the Kama-Sutra-esque second “K”) concludes with a local celebrity being escorted to Center Court to lift his arms high into the air, and become — for one shining moment — the living embodiment of the letter “Y.” It’s the modern equivalent of a high priest standing in the middle of the Great Temple, reaching toward the heavens, bringing the blue-attired congregation to its feet and lifting the faithful into frenzied spiritual revival.
My own Forrest Gump-ian brush with the tradition came in February 2010, when an old friend of mine called to see if I could wrangle a few extra courtside seats for his business colleagues from my then-boss, Governor Steve Beshear. I briefly demurred, but after he explained that one of his partners was hoops legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, my success was assured.
After alerting the team of the icon’s presence, I had the privilege of relaying Coach Cal’s request that Magic perform the “Y.” A devoted student of the game and its traditions, Magic gleefully accepted. Better yet, he was willing to consider my advice to spice up the ceremony by throwing in a John Wall Dance.
The move was that winter’s shimmy sensation: a swinging, bicep-flexing arm strut, patterned after a spontaneous Big Blue Madness moment of street bravado by the eponymous All-American freshman point guard. Johnson was already a huge Wall fan, but unfamiliar with the You Tube dance-imitation phenomenon. But after a few of my exuberant demonstrations — improved upon by the less-rhythmically-challenged servers at Bellini’s — the point guard got the hang of it.
At the appointed moment, Johnson took Center Court, and proceeded to lift his arms to the sky. Then, like magic, the legend smoothly transitioned his right arm into a John Wall Dance. The crowd erupted into an authentic, communal embrace of pure joy, radiating off of Magic’s trademark supernova smile. The move made national news, one wag even suggesting that it signaled the resurgence of our recently-struggling program. And I would forever be able to share the story of my day as a celebrity dance instructor.
When the archival Louisville Cardinals venture to Rupp for the most anticipated regular season contest of the year, the “Y” ceremony takes on special prominence. Two years ago, the rite featured Kentucky native Josh Hutchinson, fresh off the mega-success of his blockbuster Hunger Games appearance. (Hutchinson later claimed the moment was the highlight of his career — amplified by his being greeted by a Mockingjay Salute, which my daughters explained was pretty cool.)
Yesterday, among all of the potential honorees who have represented THE GREATEST TRADITION IN THE HISTORY OF COLLEGE BASKETBALL — the recognition of the “Y” was bestowed upon late-nineties center and recent NBA retiree Nazr Mohammed.
Nazr was not an obvious choice. His uniform does not hang in the rafters, and while his NBA career was long and productive, he was never the kind of superstar who captured the state’s or the nation’s attention or imagination. Still, the two-time NCAA champion exemplified the value of hard work and team play: exhibiting decades of lunchpail, blue-collar, unglamorous hard work in the paint, grabbing rebounds and clogging the lane while others captured the glory. Further, with Rick Pitino, his college recruiter and coach, helming the opponent’s bench, Nazr served as a poignant bridge between two of our program’s greatest eras.
As the Big Blue faithful leapt to their feet for a sustained, standing ovation, I marveled at the dynamics of Nazr’s reception. While the nation debates Donald Trump’s proposal to affect “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” I wondered if Coach Cal deliberately selected to fete a devout Muslim – whose devotion to Islam is so strong that he was known to lose weight during NBA postseasons that coincided with his fasting for Ramadan.
Alas, as Matt Jones later reported to me, Nazr was chosen to serve as the Y “because he was there.”
Still, the very unintentional nature of the selection carried its own power. There was no controversy, no debate: I may have been only one of a few that noticed or cared.
Given our state’s and region’s struggle with race and religion, that’s quite remarkable. Indeed, Kentucky basketball has served as our Commonwealth’s most potent force for racial fence-mending. A half century since UK’s all-white “Rupp’s Runts” lost the national championship to Texas Western’s history-making all-black starting lineup – the whitest of all southern states has fallen in love with a series of teams composed almost entirely of African-American teenagers. We’ve reveled in their soul swagger and hip-hop sentimentality; we’ve danced with John Wall and Magic Johnson. Our society may not yet be colorblind, but the only hues that matter on game day are blue and white.
Just a year ago, in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, the gesture of an African-American athlete lifting up his arms took on a much different meaning. But yesterday, a black man…a Muslim, no less…brought us all to our feet to celebrate a tradition that unites us in a communal faith — a spirit of camaraderie, of sportsmanship, of affection, of meaning.
That, sports fans, is why college basketball really matters. And that’s why yesterday’s breathtaking victory over Louisville was made just a bit more special.