OK, that was obvious as Kim Jung Un at a screening of The Interview.
But contrary to conventional wisdom, pathological prevaricating is not part of the DNA of the genus politicus. Such as with most human fabrication, political lies mostly involve self-preservation (“No, I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky”) or social courtesy (“No, you don’t look fat in that outfit, Michelle”).
My most embarrassing dishonesty involved both flavors of fibbing: pretending for over a decade to root for the Louisville Cardinals basketball team.
Of course, I was simply playing my part in a decades-long passion play. Ever since Governor John Y. Brown, Jr. wore that ridiculous half-red, half-blue blazer to the original “Dream Game” matchup in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky politicians have tried to posit a kind of moral equivalency between the state’s top two basketball squads.
Current Governor Steve Beshear thankfully broke that tradition by proclaiming his full allegiance to his Big Blue alma mater. But even those who’ve followed in his footsteps still proclaim that Louisville is their second favorite team. Cue the clichÃ©: “I root for the Cardinals in every game but one a year.”
Like most of the political class, I might have publicly cheered for the Cardinal Five; but deep down in my soul, I was cursing the Dirty Birds. Only once in my memory can I remember ever sincerely supporting Big Red, and that was in their 2013 Big Dance rumble with the Satanic Duke Blue Devils — and only after Kevin Ware broke his leg.
Indeed, I have really, really tried to like the Cardinals. I understand both as a matter of civic pride, as well as an engine for economic growth and development, that it’s a good thing for the state to boast two elite athletic programs. Some of my best friends are Louisvillians. I love the city, the restaurants…OK, now I’m sounding like I’m relapsing out of political recovery…but while I earnestly and genuinely adore Louisville, I can’t stand their hometown university’s basketball team.
And I am far from the exception. One of the most fascinating phenomena I experienced when I first started to travel the state in my former life was that the farther away I’d venture from Lexington, the more passionate devotion I’d find to the Wildcats, and the more acidic animosity I’d witness against the Cardinals.
Why the hate?
In an intense Commonwealth culture driven by resentment against out-of-state elites — we despise outsider intervention so much that we joined the Confederate cause after the Civil War was over — why is our house so divided over a sport that gives us so many bragging rights? Why can’t we embrace a second Kentucky team, especially in those rare years in which ours finds itself in the middle of a Robert Morris meltdown?
For many of us, our unshakeable contempt for Little Brother Louisville is completely irrational. But our inability to Let It Go stems from several deeply-rooted sociological, political, psychological, and even spiritual factors:
Big City Blues
It’s a tale as old as time — the Beauty of the countryside battling the Beast of the big city. Whether it’s the Big Apple versus Upstate, the Windy City against the Downstate, or Philly fighting the Keystone heartland, most American states feature bitter internecine battles between their urban centers and the more rural areas that surround them. As chronicled by former Herald-Leader columnist Bill Bishop in his brilliant 2008 The Big Sort, these rivalries have become more pronounced in recent years, as people of like cultural values, political proclivities, and economic sensibilities have relocated to live together in their own discrete communities, exacerbating our nation’s societal separation with a literal physical separation. Just take a gander at the new congressional district red-blue map to witness how pronounced the rural/urban divide has become in the political sphere.
As a result, some Kentuckians simply don’t consider Louisville to be a legitimate part of social or cultural Kentucky — just another big Midwestern city that only embraces its southernness on the first Saturday in May. It’s no wonder that we’ve never elected a Governor born in Louisville (and why pre-merger Jefferson County native Lawrence Wetherby went to such lengths to claim Middletown as his home when he was elected Governor in 1950). Indeed, to much of the Big Blue Nation, the Cardinals are the outsider elite, interlopers falsely claiming the mantle of the Bluegrass State as their own. UK is the state team — the Cards are merely pretending.
A Matter of Faith
As I’ve preached on several occasions in these virtual pages, there are millions of Kentuckians who share a near-religious devotion to our cager Cats. Our shaky bonds of community become deeply intertwined and even resilient during March Madness, when we live or die with the exploits of our team. Even for the majority of us who never stepped foot in a university classroom, the Wildcats are as much a part of our souls and identities as our own extended families. Even in difficult hours when our state lags the country in meaningful quality-of-life criteria, when we become frustrated by our lot in life or our political leadership, we can still boast THE GREATEST TRADITION IN THE HISTORY OF COLLEGE BASKETBALL.
So when Denny Crum dared to inject a rival superpower into the in-state mix and started to amass wins and gather championships, the Big Blue Nation took intense offense. Sure, UCLA owns more NCAA titles, and maybe if we had a couple of bad years, Kansas might temporarily pass us on the overall victory meter. But it would be unfathomable — unconscionable even — if our I-64 rival would come anywhere close to approaching our historical hegemony. UK’s national supremacy is sacrosanct; so we must be especially vigilant to root against any in-state team that undermines our inviolable status.
This might unleash an avalanche of invective — and I’m hopeful that John Calipari erases the following sentiment over the next few years — but Rick Pitino is undeniably history’s most important and consequential University of Kentucky Wildcat coach and not named Adolph. Beyond his 1996 title and the 1998 championship that Tubby Smith won with the team he recruited, Pitino’s signature accomplishment was rescuing the program’s reputation — and indeed, the Big Blue Nation’s self-image — which had plunged to unimaginable depths during the Eddie Sutton scandal and probation years.
Yet, even when he was winning, it always seemed as if he had one foot out the door, his head askance toward greener pastures. How could Rick not understand, as Cal continually testifies, that he owned the greatest job in sport? His indifference infuriated a population already suffering from an inferiority complex toward the elite Eastern Establishment. And then, when some of us gave him the benefit of the doubt that he and his family would be happier in their northeast homeland, he comes back…to Louisville? Outrageous!
Many of us have mellowed on Rick as personal and professional struggles brought out a hidden humility — and as most of us assume that Pitino must realize by now that he did blow it by leaving UK. But the scars have not healed sufficiently for us to root too hard for any team that he captains.
The Internet Tubes
Much of my early distaste of Cardinal basketball was due to my close, longtime friendship with a mild-mannered Cincinnati pediatrician named Scott Steinberg. Without any hyperbole, I can attest that Scott is one of the kindest, most compassionate human beings on the planet. But come game time, he is an unbearable Cardinal enthusiast and Cat hater. And I had the excruciating, forever-searing experience of enduring that horrific 1984 Final Four UK/Georgetown tragedy at Scott’s Louisville family home. How can I cheer on the Cards when I know that victory would be followed by more of Scott’s taunting and teasing?
Every Cat fan has a Scott in their lives. But with the Internet, we now have instant access to thousands of Scotts, each sharing their anti-Wildcat bile in real time. While some had hoped that social media would bring us closer together as a nation, we’ve discovered that more often than not, the Web is more a repository for anger, resentment and insult.
Now, of course, the acrimony is not one-way — Scott would certainly argue that he must endure an abrasive Jonathan — and indeed, our beloved KSR may have perfected, if not invented, the new online UK/UL paradigm. But whatever the source, as my Twitter feed continues to be flooded by anti-Wildcat and anti-Calipari slurs from Louisville fans, it becomes harder and harder for me ever to find solace in a Cardinal victory.
Before you explode into anti-liberal screed-ing, I’m not suggesting that UK fans are racist. But it is undeniable that some of the historical roots of the UK/UL rivalry can be found in our centuries-long struggle with skin color. We can debate the societal context, but the fact that Adolph Rupp’s teams were all-white until the very end made a strong impression on many African-Americans who grew up in Louisville. And despite UK’s complete 180 in recent decades — with an African-American coach, a series of star-studded mostly-black teams, and a fandom that embraces their hip-hop sentimentality — there are still some families who would never send their kid to UK. (Just like many Jews will still never buy a Mercedes.)
Fortunately, in an era where Rick Pitino can joke that he “played four white guys and an Egyptian” to avoid a blowout win, overt racism no longer rears its ugly head on the court or in the stands. But beneath the surface, the scars of old continue to inform animosity. And it might take a a few more years of Calipari’s extraordinary mentorship of young black ballers to bring these sentiments to full closure.
Tomorrow afternoon, I will be in the belly of the Yum Beast — wearing blue and my KSR hat, of course — tweeting out smart-ass bon mots about The Game. If you want to follow or tweet back at me, you can find me at @RecoveringPol.