From Rupp to Ruprechtskirche: Adventures in the Big Blue Nation

“…So please, be tolerant of those who describe a sporting moment as their best ever. We do not lack imagination, nor have we had sad and barren lives; it is just that real life is paler, duller, and contains less potential for unexpected delirium.” – Nick Hornby, Fever Pitch

I’ve discussed my upbringing as a Kentucky football fan on this blog before. Yes, that was a big part of my childhood, and it started my intense relationship with sports. But my relationship with Kentucky basketball is where my real fanaticism lies. This post has been on our schedule since mid-December; it’s hard to escape college basketball when you grow up in Louisville, KY, and with the NCAA tournament now in full swing we knew we would need to address it. I was the obvious choice, since my fanaticism for sports has always outstripped Zelda’s (except when it comes to baseball, which I just don’t get [Note from Zelda: Red Sox for life!]). When the time came to write out my feelings about my team, however, I found myself almost unable.

Scout: I can’t do it. I can’t. If I do it and they lose it will be all my fault

Zelda: No it won’t. May I remind you that you are not on the team, and have no actual impact on the outcome of any game? Besides we can have a blog about being from Kentucky and not talk about March Madness

Scout: BUT [this has been redacted due to Scout’s superstition] I’ll jinx them! I can’t do it! YOU DON’T KNOW!

Zelda: *exasperated eye-roll*

Basically, it comes down to this. I haven’t talked about my team’s season on this blog yet, and I was (and still am) afraid to, because it would mean a change in my activities related to my team, and my team’s doing REALLY WELL this season, so why would I want to change anything? (I’ve been known to stay in the same position while watching the Cats play if something particularly good happened when I moved to that spot. I once squatted behind a couch for a whole game for this exact reason.)

So I guess that fanaticism is really what I need to talk about — the fact that writing this post a different way would have been sacrilegious to me, and the lengths to which I will go to support my team. Because even though Kentucky football is a part of my culture, and an important one, Kentucky basketball is deeper than that. Sometimes it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the fun of it, right? It doesn’t have to make sense to matter.

The Momma and I at Rupp after a win.
The Momma and I after a win.

It is virtually impossible to grow up in Louisville without having some relationship with college basketball, and for me this relationship is all about the Kentucky Wildcats. Growing up, it put me in the minority at my small school (most people who live in Louisville tend, like Zelda, to be all about the Louisville Cardinals). This was particularly hard because the Cats were at their lowest point of my lifetime during my adolescence (we don’t discuss the Billy Gillespie years in my house), but my enthusiasm, even if it was coupled with disappointment, was not out of place. Everybody, even the least sporty among us, picked a side and made a bracket. That’s just what you did in March. In recent years, the Cats have been back on top (and though I’m somewhat iffy on the whole “one-and-done” method, I’m not going to complain if we’re winning). But win or lose, every year the people in my life have to watch me descend into March Madness fever. And for new friends, who don’t hail from basketball country, this can sometimes be…alarming.

See in Louisville, it’s easy to maintain your enthusiasm for those three weeks in March because it is the norm. The whole city is on board (more than any other spot in the country — it’s a fact!), submitting willingly and eagerly to the insanity. The 80 hours between Selection Sunday and the start of the first round are devoted to discussing brackets and upsets and possible Cinderellas, and you can’t walk into a bar without spying the day’s game playing somewhere in the background, no matter who the teams may be. In high school, we’d even convince the more sympathetic study hall proctors to turn on the early games during class, just so we could keep track of how our brackets were doing.

To be fair I am amongst good company. Famous Fans include: Josh Hutcherson, Ashley Judd, Drake, and I saw Jay-Z at a game once. (Via PanemPropaganda)
To be fair, I am in good company. Famous Cats Fans include: Josh Hutcherson (Above), Ashley Judd, and Drake, and I even saw Jay-Z at a game once. (Via PanemPropaganda)

When I went to college, that little cocoon of mass fanaticism disappeared. The other students at my tiny Maryland liberal arts school couldn’t care less about college basketball, and while my dedication to my team never wavered, it wasn’t the same. I still made brackets for myself (Actually, I always make three: head bracket, heart bracket, and crazy bracket. One for what I think will happen, one for what I want to happen, and one for all the upsets that would be amazing but are never ever gonna happen). I watched all the games. But sitting alone in the student union, yelling at a television until either someone shushed me or a rare kindred spirit sat down to join in the fun, just wasn’t the same. My friends all knew that once the tournament started, if the “Scout is…” sign on my dorm room door was switched to “Watching Basketball” I was not to be bothered, and they generally respected my madness, but they didn’t get it the way people at home just got it.

I didn’t realize the lengths to which I would go to watch my Cats play until my junior year of college, when I found myself inconveniently abroad in Europe during the month of March. The time difference meant that most games fell sometime between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., depending on the day. Thanks to the wonder of WiFi, I could still watch the games, and watch them I did. I watched the Cats play Ohio State while bent over a toilet in a cheap hotel room in Florence, fighting a nasty bout of food poisoning. I watched them play UNC on the tiny screen of my phone, huddled on a top bunk of a dorm in a hostel in Rome.

2011's Terrence Jones, Josh Harrelson, and Doron Lamb, part of the line up I cheered to the Final Four all the way from Europe (Via MTVnews)
2011’s Terrence Jones, Josh Harrelson, and Doron Lamb, part of the line-up I cheered to the Final Four all the way from Europe (Via MTVnews)

Then the Final Four rolled around, and UK was in it. I couldn’t not watch. (I’d also entered a pool with a bunch of the dudes on my program, so I had a lot riding on the outcome of the game), but I was in Vienna that week with my program. I spent most of it walking around the city with my friends, sporting a Kentucky shirt, and trying to figure out how or where I was going to get my eyes on the game. Everyone else kept waffling on whether or not they wanted to actually stay awake, that is if we could even find a bar that was showing the game. As the day dragged on, I was starting to give in, figuring maybe I’d just call it a day and head to bed because I was so tired. Then, in the middle of a street in Vienna, a voice shouted, “GO BIG BLUE!” I turned sharply to find another girl around my age sporting a UK jersey and a smile. “You watching the game tonight?” she asked, and I gave her the only response that was appropriate: “You know it.” With that, my resolve was back.

And that’s what being a fan is about for me. It’s about being halfway around the world, over 4,700 miles from Rupp Arena, and being able to connect with someone over your team. It’s a passion that transcends location, origin, gender, race, class, or creed. People talk about sports rivalries tearing people apart, especially in a city as fiercely divided as Louisville, where an interfaith marriage refers to a Cards fan/Cats fan union. But really, at its heart, what team loyalty does is bring people together. No one in my bracket pool stayed up that night with me. I sat alone in the hostel dining hall and watched as a Kemba Walker-led UCONN narrowly defeated us. But I was so glad I did. If crippling food poisoning didn’t stop me from watching my Wildcats, then there was no way a little thing like exhaustion would. That year, we hadn’t even been expected to make it that far, and I would see them to the very end. Besides, my head bracket that year had UCONN winning the whole thing, which they did, and I defeated all the frat bros from Division One schools in my tourney pool, so I felt pretty vindicated in the end.

Now I find myself in New York, which poses a whole new set of problems when it comes to watching UK play. I don’t have cable, so season games that aren’t on CBS require me to seek out a sports bar, something I am loathe to do if I’m not working in one. But even worse, during both of the March Madnesses I’ve spent here, I’ve been working multiple gigs, and my shifts tended to intersect game play. I’ve watched many a game on my phone under my desk during first Saturday at the museum, or checking the score while I seated people at the restaurant. I wanted so badly to be home last year, when Louisville and Kentucky met in the Sweet Sixteen, bringing my hometown to the brink of explosion (just the brink though: for actual volcanic eruption, see Final Four 2012). Instead, I was in New York, and I was working, relegated to watching via the March Madness app on my phone. Thank God for modern technology, or I’m not sure I would have seen much of it at all.

Aaron Harrison's game winning three versus Michigan last year (Via Sports Unbiased)
Aaron Harrison’s game-winning three against Michigan last year (Via Sports Unbiased)

That technology is also responsible for one of my crowning New York achievements in the area of “Giving Zero Fucks.” Last year, I was headed home from a shift at the museum and watching the Cats play Michigan in the Elite Eight as I waited for the bus. Time was running out as the bus approached, and Michigan surged back to tie the score 72-72. I climbed on the bus and situated myself between two other riders, ten seconds left on the clock. As we pull away, Aaron Harrison throws up a three with less than four seconds to go in the game. And we won. As soon as it swished through the net, I celebrated accordingly, jumping up and down and smiling something awful. I was officially the crazy person on the bus, and I could not have cared less.

That year’s team was easy to cheer for. We were an #8 seed — going into the tournament with a 24 – 10 record, a veritable underdog against Michigan’s #2 — and just making it to the Final Four feels like winning when you’ve spent the season not quite living up to your potential. There’s nothing to lose, and everything to prove. I like being there. I like having a few bad losses under our belt so the team knows their weaknesses, I like people underestimating us a little bit. Which brings us to this season, and why I cannot talk about the team that shall henceforth not be named.

I am a fan. And yes, sometimes that makes me crazy, and irrational, and superstitious to the point of lunacy. But it also means I believe in something bigger than myself, that I am part of a community and a heritage that stretches back generations. Now you might have heard there was a game last night. You may hear rumors there’s a tournament going on right now. But I haven’t talked about this season yet this year. That’s my role on the team. And I’m not about to drop the ball now.

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