There comes a time in every young Kentuckian’s life where the abstract sounds originating from a radio start to turn into something recognizable. When that happens, it’s usually the voice of Tom Leach that first comes into focus. Outsiders should know that a love affair such as this is not by chance. Instead, it is a systematic indoctrination of superiority. An assembly line of cookie cutter members of the Big Blue Nation. Delusions of grandeur shaped not by the outside influence of television or other media but molded by the members of our household; the individuals who teach us right from wrong. So decade after decade, a new generation is bred to stand guard and hold a collegiate sports program to an impossible standard. Constant banners. This is Kentucky Basketball. The University of Kentucky is the most successful NCAA division I basketball program in history, with both the most all-time wins and the highest all time winning percentage. UK has a total of 54 NCAA tournament appearances, 120 tournament wins, 41 Sweet 16 appearances, and 36 Elite 8 appearances. The Wildcats have played in 17 NCAA Final Fours, and hang 8 (should have been 9, in my opinion) NCAA title banners in Rupp Arena. In 1946 and 1976 Kentucky won the NIT, making it the only school to notably win both the NCAA and NIT titles. Kentucky also leads all schools with 59 20-win seasons, 14 30-win seasons, and 6 35-win seasons.
UK basketball’s absurd success has spawned arguably the most hostile, spoiled, loyal and outrageous fan base in the history of any sport. The Big Blue Nation is a conglomerate of tried and true, die hard fans who encompass what being a sports fan is about…both good and bad. Loving UK basketball, and being a member of BBN is both a blessing and curse, let me explain.
For those of us born and raised in Kentucky, UK basketball has been ingratiated into our psyche from the moment we were able to make one singular thought. Since we were able to recognize color on a television (for some of you, read the word “Kentucky” on a uniform) we Kentuckians were taught to cheer louder, boast more arrogantly and become completely educated on the season’s team and coaches. Not only is this widely expected from Kentucky youth at a very young age, but it is essential. One must know the current starting line up as a young pup, and one must also pick out their favorite player and stick with him come hell or high water. We cringe with every injury. We hold our breath for every three. We check KSR like our lives depend on it. We scour every scouting report, analyze every up and coming recruit. We huddle together in living rooms, bars, and basements around the states to watch our Cats. We buy house rounds when they do well and we buy house rounds when they are doing bad. We throw remotes and kick in dry wall when they lose, not mention the intense period of scowling that will last all week until the next game comes along. We are raised to recognize the evils that are Arizona, Tennessee and South Carolina. But none are as loathsome or detestable as the blue devils, and even my four year old could spout you off a few choice cuss words and some face reddening insults about Coach K and his famous ball club.
Why? Because it’s all a part of this unknown, unpublished set of guidelines you inherited automatically when the good Lord blessed you by allowing you to be born in Kentucky, thus be born a part of the greatest tradition in college basketball.
This is how we grow up; believing we are the best. We are raised believing that we are superior to every other ball club, and during many seasons and many times we probably are. (Another arrogant rambling of a completely biased UK fan, of course.) That is also the problem. A big problem, and one that often leads to heartbreak when the season doesn’t exactly turn out the way we planned, or hoped, or expected. As I said earlier, you will never find a fan base more spoiled than BBN.
I cried myself to sleep last March when KAT and his band of brothers fell to Wisconsin in one of the most notorious losses in UK history. A time when I was definitely glad that Kentucky had historically perfected the art of distilling Bourbon, but even the stoutest Bourbon couldn’t quell the gut wrenching agony of BBN’s shattered expectations of UK’s perfect season, made complete only by hanging banner number 9. Here you have the curse. A feeling that is rooted down in your being so deeply that often times during losses or disappointments you’ll find yourself blaspheming the very person who indoctrinated you as a child (or maybe an adult) to the world of UK basketball. The struggle is very real, never more so for a UK fan than when the March shakes are fast approaching and as Hunter Thompson would say, the “big dance” is on the line.
The immense pressure that we as a fan base put on our players and coaches is completely unrealistic at times, but we can’t seem to stop, or realize that most of these kids are 18 year old boys. Boys who have never, or can never realize the sense of celebrity they will experience just by simply being a starter or a member of the University of Kentucky basketball program. Until they are in Lexington right in the middle of it. Like Coach Calipari said:
“You people are crazy.”
And it’s completely true. We are.