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Friday, May 6, 2016

It's Not a Game -- It's War

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Last weekend, while you were looking at seed catalogs or watching the hunting channel or listening to Cardinals baseball, the most important basketball game ever was going on in New Orleans.

No, I'm not talking about the NCAA basketball championship game. Because of my press deadline, that Monday night game hasn't even been played. And, anyway, who cares?

The game that mattered was the Saturday night match up -- the first-ever Final Four meeting between arch-rivals: the UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY AND THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUISVILLE!!

What's so important about that you say? Well, you live in north central Arkansas or southern Missouri, so I guess I understand that attitude.

But for anyone who lives in Kentucky or for someone, like me, who lived in Kentucky for 26 years, it was BIG.

As the Louisville Courier-Journal banner headline said on Monday, after the UK vs U of L clash was set: CIVIL WAR!

Since I lived in Louisville, I must admit to being a U of L fan. U of L Cardinals basketball was once a little team which provided a diversion for "student athletes." But a nice man and a great coach named Denny Crum put it on the national map with two NCAA titles. For the past 11 years, Rick Pitino has kept U of L on the radar screen.

But for all of its accomplishments and acclaim, UK's basketball tradition goes back much further. It has won seven national titles, beginning in 1949, and it is admittedly Kentucky's state team.

Just as Arkansans rabidly follow the Razorbacks -- no matter where they went to school -- most Kentuckians bleed Wildcat blue, following UK teams' every move.

So the Saturday game was a lot like the real civil war. A small band of upstart fans in Louisville, taking on the whole state.

Rick Pitino, who coached at UK for eight years before later landing at U of L, even admits Louisville has as many UK fans as U of L fanatics.

"It ends up with a lot of bad marriages. You have a Louisville (U of L) woman and a Kentucky (UK) man and it always ends bad," Pitino recently joked.

UK Coach John Calipari admits he and Pitino don't exchange Christmas cards, but he played down reports of conflicts between the two. He has even suggested that the UK Nation root for the Wildcats, instead of rooting against their opponents.

"lt's going to be a hard game for them, for us. Don't worry about them -- lets just worry about us," was Calipari's advice.

Good advice or not, there was plenty of drama and head-butting among fans the week before the big game.

At Georgetown, Ky., which is close to Lexington -- UK's hometown -- a U of L fan and a UK fan got into a fistfight. The reason the dust-up made national news was, the men were patients at a dialysis clinic when the disagreement ensued.

"Did we win the fight?" Pitino laughed at a news conference, although he added he was disappointed to hear the Louisville fan may have struck first.

The Zanzabar, a restaurant and music club near the U of L campus, touched off a huge controversy in its attempt to avoid U of L - UK fan ugliness. It suggested that U of L-fans only should reserve tables on game night to view the game there.

A "boycott Zanzabar" movement was quickly launched by U K fans.

The discussion on Zanzabar's Facebook page was angrily hilarious:

"Is that even legal?"

"Maybe you could put UK fans in the back room? Have them drink from their own water fountains? Use separate restrooms..."

"Please reserve me a table. I'll be there with all U of L fans."

"Total failure -- must have gotten their business management degree from U of L."

"I feel sorry for the waiters and waitresses. U of L fans are known to be terrible tippers."

"What if you dislike both teams?"

"Can I reserve a table for my dialysis to insure there is no fighting during it?"

"Nice call, you probably lost half your business."

Finally, a possibly panicked Zanzabar owner weighed in: "This whole thing is getting silly. All I was trying to do was avoid all the bickering and fighting during the game. Everyone is welcome to come watch."

As you can see, the bantering is usually lighthearted and all in fun. Sometimes, UK and U of L fans cross the line and seek peace and unity -- if they get desperate enough.

U of L senior Chris Smith described an encounter with a UK fan at the mall, who asked him for a ticket to the game. "She said if I give her a ticket to the game and we (UK) win, that she would run on the court butt naked." Smith declined the offer.

Maybe I'm prejudiced, but UK fans can be especially short tempered. During this year's NCAA tournament, UPS, which has a big hub in Louisville, ran a commercial playing off its claim that its deliveries are faster because of "logistics."

The commercial began with old video of one of the most famous basketball games ever -- when Duke's Grant Hill threw a ball downcourt to Christian Leitner, who grabbed it with just 2.1 seconds left in overtime, hitting a miracle shot that beat UK. The grainy shot took seconds, and the commercial quickly cut to a college classroom where a professor is dissecting the shot to show how the game was won, because all the Duke players did their job to perfection -- logistics. The commercial ends with the professor being interrupted by a UPS deliveryman giving him a package.

Clever. But not to UK fans. A Kentucky State Senator was among those who demanded that UPS pull the commercial immediately -- since it had the nerve to bring up that awful defeat 20 years ago. UPS and U of L were accused of a conspiracy to besmirch UK's good name.

Like I said, this is not basketball. This is war.

UK fans don't extend their wrath just to U of L fans. A few years back, a good friend of mine, who lives in Louisville but grew up in Jonesboro, scored a ticket to a Wildcats -- Razorback game at Rupp Arena -- the holy cathedral of UK basketball.

The problem was, Dave took his seat wearing an ever-stylish plastic Razorback hat. UK fans around him took offense. He endured a long game of taunts and jeers and objects being thrown at him. But Razorback fans are stubborn and he stuck it out.

All this kind of makes me long for the good old days, when two teams went head to head in tight shorts, played their best and shook hands, as spectators cheered the winner.

Now, top college teams hire coaches who don't always follow the rules. The coaches seek instant success, signing players they know they will keep for a year, maybe two, before they move on to big paychecks in the NBA.

In reality, it is not a game or a war anymore. College basketball is more about marketing and big business -- just like the pros.

But March Madness is still a mandatory ritual for millions of basketball fans who cheer their team on, razz opponents' fans and talk for months about "next year."

-- In case you didn't hear, Kentucky -- the larger, more talented team -- won the game, 69-61. But Louisville came back from several big deficits and never stopped scrapping to make a game of it.