Only in Kentucky

Elisha Justice.

Elisha Justice.

Whenever anybody asks me to try and explain the significance of basketball in the state of Kentucky, there’s always one story that instantly pops into my head.

I was working at a law firm downtown in 2009, and on this particular day I was watching the front desk while the receptionist took a break. A family of three – a mother, a father and a young boy — were waiting to meet with one of the attorneys.

After 30 seconds or so of silence, the mother, in as stereotypical a Southern drawl as you can imagine, spoke up.

“How do y’all like your new player?”

I had never met this woman, nor had I met either of the family members she was sitting next to. I was wearing khaki pants and a button-down shirt, nothing which would give away anything about who I am or what I enjoy. She was wearing jeans and a blouse, and the same thing held true for her. Given the circumstances, it was about as insane an opening line as you could ever deliver to a stranger.

Except I knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Elisha Justice?”

“Yes sir.”

Justice, who would go on to win a state title at Shelby Valley and be named Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball later that year, had committed to walk-on at Louisville a week earlier. The woman explained that she and her family were from Pikeville and that they had watched Justice play since he was a little boy. We talked basketball for a good five minutes before the family was finally called back for their meeting.

The woman had one last thing she had to get out.

“We’ll be rooting for y’all and Elisha now, you know … except for on that day.”

There is nowhere else in the world where this happens. This woman had no idea that I was a Louisville fan or that I even knew the slightest thing about basketball, and yet she was still confident enough in the likelihood of both facts that she deemed it appropriate to ask just about the most vague question possible to a complete stranger. And naturally, her confidence was validated.

This is Kentucky. This is the place where, unless otherwise specified, every single conversation about sports is assumed to be centered around either UofL basketball or UK basketball…or both, of course.

This is also the place where we feud over slogans, brands and Twitter hashtags as much as the actual games between the two programs.

In late 2012, the University of Louisville introduced “L1C4” (“Louisville First, Cards Forever”) as a brand and Twitter hashtag for the entire Cardinal fan base to rally around.  Not a day has past since where Kentucky fans have not mocked the slogan.

That may no longer be the case, however, as earlier this week, UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart announced that the Wildcat athletic department would now be utilizing the phrase/hashtag “BBNFirst” in an effort to unite its fan base. Proper mocking from the red side of the rivalry immediately commenced.

Further proof wasn’t required, but this is the latest piece of evidence that Louisville and Kentucky will clash over absolutely anything, especially in this digital age where so much emphasis is placed on branding.

Before the 2010-11 season, Rick Pitino announced that his team would be adopting “Louisville First” as its chief slogan and brand. Kentucky fans, naturally, took this as a direct response to John Calipari and the immense success he was having at UK with his “one and done” philosophy. Big Blue Nation laughed and continued to laugh while they watched their Wildcats defeat the Cardinals in the 2012 Final Four and claim their eighth national title two days later.

Things changed when Louisville won their own national championship and Kentucky was relegated to the NIT one year later.

Suddenly, Calipari announced plans to release his own book, “Players First: Success from the Inside Out.” A few excerpts were released, and they immediately caused a bit of a stir.

In the book, Calipari states that he does what he does for the players he coaches, and not the program or the community he represents. The book includes the line: “I coach for the names on the back of the jersey-not the front.”

The list of programs that would make a fuss (or care at all) about statements like these is small, but it’s topped by Kentucky. No fan base celebrates, or is more proud of, its tradition than Big Blue Nation.

That being the case, Louisville fans unsurprisingly took great joy in watching a Wildcat coach almost brazenly dismiss the notion that his motivation should be, at least in some part, to strengthen the legacy of Kentucky basketball. That Calipari sees any such strengthening as nothing more than a byproduct of his primary goal of sending players to the league didn’t sit particularly well with a faction of Big Blue Nation for the bulk of the up-and-down 2013-14 season…and then he beat UofL in the NCAA Tournament again and guided the Cats to their third Final Four in four seasons.

Just like that, “Players First” was back on top of “Louisville First,” and it was cool with the fan base again. Calipari was able to talk at the Final Four about his desire to change the phrase “one and done” to “succeed and proceed,” while UofL fans were forced to store “fail and bail” back in their derogatory rivalry phrase attic to stay for at least another summer.

While “Louisville First” vs. “Players First” has never been quite as simple as Louisville vs. Kentucky, it’s also silly to dismiss the notion that the rivalry isn’t the primary fuel here. Each side thinks they have a hook that is superior to the other’s, and as a result they’ve chosen to play it up, much to the delight of a pair of fan bases perpetually ready to strike at the other.

And now the latest chapter in the tagline war rolls on, with “BBNFirst” and “L1C4” set to take center stage for the bulk of the endless sports Summer. Only in Kentucky.