The Big Game: Red vs. Blue

More eloquently than I, sportswriting doyen Charles P. Pierce has riffed on the difference between the Big Game and an important game.

The important game is of note because of an extraneous circumstance, say, a made-for-TV matchup, or perhaps because the winner advances toward some legit championship.

The Big Game is much more, laden with generational consequence. It is ritualistic, fraught with anticipation and conflict. Fans who bleed their team’s colors turn off the phone, don lucky underwear, eschew familial duties and, in the event of a loss, cocoon until the aftershock has passed.

Comity is not a trait common to the Big Game. Some Cardinal fans I know were to be out of town during a UK visit to Freedom Hall years ago. Ignoring karma, they gave their tickets to a friend who bleeds Big Blue. The UK fan was, let’s just say, emphatic in extremis supporting his victorious Cats. As a result, Freedom Hall ticket holders in that section promised the ticket givers they would lose their seats if they ever made the mistake again.

It is a Big Game when Trinity plays St. X in early autumn, a time when alums tailgate ritualistically. The Trinity-St. X match up months later in the state playoffs, however, is merely important.

Since the Feathers vs. Fur smackdown went annual in 1983, it’s been a Big Game. Blue fans buy season tickets at Freedom Hall that they give away just to have seats for you know what. Cards fans lobby Lexington connections 365 days a year for a spot in Rupp’s upper deck.

Since Gov. John Y. Brown mandated the series, none of the games have been really important. But they’ve all been Big, a cause for throwing shoes at televisions, divorce and the occasional sports bar parking lot brouhaha.

Before the yearly rite was instituted, there were two games: both won by U of L, both important, both Big.

In 1959, Kentucky won yet another SEC title and was ranked second in the land, while Louisville snuck into the NCAA tournament with a 16-10 record. The teams met in the Mideast Regional semifinals in Evanston after the Cards beat Eastern Kentucky in a prelim.

How much did it mean? Consider Mully Goldberg — a big Cards fan. A few years earlier, he’d helped recruit a couple of dirt-poor Jewish ballers from Brooklyn, one of whom, Don Goldstein, starred for that U of L team. Goldberg was suffering what would be his final illness, but he didn’t see how he could miss the game. Friends and family advised against the trip, but he went, accompanied by his attending physician, Harry Golde, also a fan.

The Cards, down by 15 in the first half, blasted UK by 23 in the second, winning, 76-61. After the buzzer, Goldstein recounts, he looked over and saw a couple of ushers carrying Mully Goldberg toward him. “Thank you, Don,” Goldberg gushed. “I felt like you were playing for me. Now I can die in peace.”

U of L went on to the Final Four here in Louisville that year. Goldberg passed away two weeks later.

UK’s loquacious Baron Adolph Rupp put his inimitable spin on the game. To his team: “You know what Louisville’s eating tonight? T-bone steaks. They’re winners. You guys get a dollar to eat hamburger.”

Now that’s a Big and important game.

So too is the one and only Dream Game. Mention the word “Knoxville” and Louisville fans think only of the 80-68 overtime beatdown of UK in the Mideast Regional final on March 26, 1983. More important than advancing in the NCAA tournament, the win cemented the red & black’s stature in the commonwealth.

But for all the personal angst and water cooler debates the series has generated since, for all the Big Games played annually, none have mattered at season’s end.

For example, U of L won 79-76 in December 1997. UK went on to win the national title that season, while the Cards ended up 12-20, the school’s first losing season in a half century. Kentucky prevailed 69-64 in December 1985. Louisville later beat Duke for the NCAA crown. Both Big Games, both of little consequence.

Not that it matters in anticipation of the upcoming battle Sunday, yet another Big Game between Red and Blue. Pull the lucky sweatshirt off the shelf and pass the Prilosec. But who wins will be of little import once conference play starts, when U of L reveals whether it will meet lofty expectations, and when UK shows if Billy Clyde’s really got ’em on the uptick.