UK-UofL: Sport’s Best Rivalry

When they last met, Kentucky defeated Louisville 73-66 in Rupp Arena.

When they last met, Kentucky defeated Louisville 73-66 in Rupp Arena on Dec. 28, 2013.

For all the (mostly deserved) flack the network gets, the 21st century sports fan is still forever indebted to ESPN for everything it has done over the past 30 years. The worldwide leader is the driving force behind the modern fan: the man or woman who can gleefully devote any given weekend to watching 48 hours of coverage pertaining to their sport of choice.

But when any person, idea or organization grows so large and powerful, people are bound to find fault with it. I, like most, have developed numerous issues with the four-letter network over the years, but none greater than its uncanny ability to somehow convince the vast majority of the country that what it says is the unquestioned end-all be-all.

Each Winter you’ve got every ESPN personality with an ACC degree subtly mentioning 37 times a week that Duke/North Carolina is the best rivalry in college basketball. You’ve got the Devils and the Heels right alongside the Yankees and Red Sox and Ali/Frazier in a four-times-a-year SportsNation poll question asking “which is the best rivalry in sports?” You’ve got Dick Vitale belittling anyone with a reasonable opinion that differs from his own by boasting time after time that there is “absolutely no doubt” that UNC/Duke is “far and away” the best rivalry in college athletics.

What choice do us voiceless pawns watching from home have but to lay back and accept this? ESPN is like the NASA of sports. This is what they do. Someone has researched this. There’s a formula. It’s right. It has to be right.

Coach Rick Pitino and John Calipari spoke before the game at Rupp Arena.

Coach Rick Pitino and John Calipari spoke before the game at Rupp Arena.

It’s not right.

Louisville vs. Kentucky is the best this sport has to offer, and with the Tar Heels and Blue Devils already in off-season mode, the rest of the sports world will be forced to take notice Friday evening.

Basketball means everything to people in the state of Kentucky, and I think it takes more than a glance at the attendance numbers or television ratings to truly realize that. It takes living in the Commonwealth for an extended period of time and fully immersing yourself in the madness, something the vast majority of national writers who attempt to describe the rivalry have never done.

North Carolina and Duke get to play a minimum of two games every season. This is a rare treat (or torture) for UofL and UK fans.

Typically, when the final horn blows in the Battle for the Bluegrass, an entire fan base is instantly forced to come to grips with the terrible truth that they will now be heckled unmercifully for an entire year by friends, co-workers, family, teachers, etc. whom they would undoubtedly stab in an exposed appendage if it weren’t so frowned upon.

Don’t get it twisted – there is no intended exaggeration or hyperbole in this column (except maybe the stabbing part…maybe). In 1998, nary a college basketball conversation took place on the hallowed grounds of Holy Trinity Grade School where myself or one of my trusted allies refrained from bringing up the fact that the same UofL team which had finished the regular season 12-20 had defeated the national champions from Lexington 79-76…in Rupp Arena. While the “national championship > no postseason” argument would seem like an effective retort to the uneducated outsider, being able to claim victory in this rivalry is like a one-year unlimited get-out-of-jail-free card.

The use of “hate” is excessive in almost any context, but this rivalry brings the utilization of the word closer to the cusp of appropriateness than any other. In fact, just about the only time you will ever see red and blue people unite is when someone makes the claim that another pair of rivals dislike one another more.

Without delving too much into the issues, there is a definite disconnect between the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky.

Though relatively insignificant in the eyes of the rest of the country, Kentuckians outside of Louisville view the Derby City the same way someone from upstate Vermont views New York City: prostitutes parading around the KFC Yum! Center, muggers behind the doors of every store in the local mall and gang-bangers residing in each and every high-rent neighborhood home.

The differences between the two might be best exemplified through the basketball rivalry.

A conversation about Louisville with a Kentucky fan that doesn’t include the use of the words “class,” “trash,” and “thugs,” is one that never took place. And Cardinal fans are just as quick to toss “redneck” and “racist” around when the other side is brought up.

Louisville’s heroes are the “Doctors of Dunk” (led of course by Darrell “Dr. Dunkenstein” Griffith), whose electrifying style of play set the standard for “Phi Slamma Jamma” and the “Fab Five.” The high-flying 1979-1980 national champion Cardinals are also credited with either creating or popularizing (depending on who you talk to) the high-five.

Kentucky’s heroes are still the small, gritty likes of Richie Farmer, Jeff Sheppard and Cameron Mills. John Calipari coaching in the Ivy League is more likely than the banner dedicated to The Unforgettables coming down.

Adolph Rupp.

Adolph Rupp.

If you want to get a Wildcat fan worked into a tizzy, simply state that Adolph Rupp being a racist is indisputable. Whether it’s fair or not, there is no question that race was at one point a defining issue between the two programs. Thanks to Glory Road, just about everyone knows that the 1965-66 Texas Western team was the first to start five African-Americans and make it to the Final Four. Less known is that Louisville was the second program to achieve the feat.

People don’t like what they can’t understand, and these two sides certainly don’t seem to understand each other. The result is cultural warfare in the form of a 40-minute college basketball game. Take all of this and toss in the fact that the two met in the Final Four in 2012, the history between John Calipari and Rick Pitino and the fact that Friday night’s winner just may become the favorite to win a national title, and this whole thing becomes borderline Shakespearean.

There are no moral victories in a Kentucky/Louisville game, and there is no next time. There’s only a euphoric winner and an inconsolable loser. That’s especially true when a loss means the end of a season and a win means moving one step closer to a national title.

It absolutely means more than any game should to a group of human beings, but I suppose that’s what you’d expect from a sport’s top rivalry. If you haven’t been around it, you just can’t understand.