A Contemplation of Acolytic Fandom

For most hoopaholics around here, when their teams meet, the blur begins at tip-off.

For the victor’s rooters, it doesn’t end until the triumphant euphoria ebbs somewhat and they can relax, switch on the replay to see the details in a state of calm. The defeated eventually shake it off — more or less — deal with their grief, and move on to what normal people call real life. They could not care less about the stats. The big plays, even those that were valiant but not enough, couldn’t mean less.

I’m speaking here of the true believers, the acolytes. The gal in Cherokee Triangle pulling her No. 31 Unseld throwback off the shelf, making sure it’s laundered and ironed for the game. The plumber in Somerset who spent hours at a paint store making sure he was buying the exact shade of Big Blue for his man cave. The fellow in PRP who has been flying Cardinal flags for a month on his red F-150. The grandmother in Maysville who places good luck candles — blue, of course — in front of her cherished photo on the mantle, the one of Baron Adolph Rupp in his brown suit with Dan Issel.

For these fans of the Cats and Cards, this annual rite of winter, these 40 minutes — or more — are most often just a blizzard of imagery and sound. Surging strobe flashes of red and blue, punctuated by cheers, moans and squeaking hardwood.

Welcome to Hooparama!

Welcome to Louisville vs. Kentucky.

This is our cherished aggravation, the epicenter of the commonwealth’s year.

It is pure emotion. The details are for later. Who scored what, who grabbed the key rebound, who let the ball slip from his grasp at crunch time? Those contemplations come only in the aftermath.

When it’s game on, there is total nail-biting, hand-wringing, hallucinogenic infarction-inducing immersion in the flow with only vague awareness of XXs and 00s, shooting percentages and defensive switches.

It’s we score. Yes!

They score. Oh no!

Rare is the Cardinal fan who at the buzzer could recite any details of what they call the Samaki Walker Game on New Year’s Day ’95, when the pivotman’s triple double led U of L to an improbable 88-86 win. (Walker tallied 14 points, 10 rebounds and 11 blocked shots.) Few Cardinal supporters paid attention then or later to the players on the forgettable 12-20 team that won in Lexington in ’97. (The leading scorers on that, the worst team of the Crum era, were Nate Johnson, Alex Sanders, Marques Maybin, Tony Williams and Cameron Murray.)

Only some Wildcat boosters kept a scoresheet of Rex Chapman’s exact numbers in his epic performance in an 85-51 decimation of Freedom Hall in December of 1986. (He was 10/20 from the field, including 5/8 from beyond the arc, with 4 assists and 2 steals. It just seemed during that Big Blue blitzkrieg that he scored all 85.)

This annual basketball brouhaha between the Wildcats and Cardinals is the donnybrook that gives meaning to the commonwealth’s moniker, “Dark and bloody ground.”

You are either or Red, or you are Blue.

There are but a very few Kentuckians who switch allegiances.

The stories of change they tell are disparate. Perhaps it was circumstance. A Louisvillian, feeling the Wildcat spirit after matriculating at UK. A Cat fan in youth who, through coincidence, befriends some Cardinal luminaries. Yet their stories are similar in one regard: Once the metamorphosis is complete, their loyalty 
is inveterate.

And, yes, there are some odd few, those quirky souls who say they truly cheer for both teams, that all they want to see is a good game.

Don’t believe them.

Perhaps those “dispassionate” observers can watch the action with some acuity. For the rest of us, it’s all a haze when the game clock is ticking.

But beforehand, for the last few weeks and the next couple days, until the noon New Year’s Eve tip, it is all about assessment. (Except, of course, on the message boards, which continue to be safe harbor for the most inane, often vile regurgitation of smack.)

Coming into this season’s renewal of the rivalry, there are more questions than answers. Making it arguably the most intriguing, difficult to decipher match-up of this decade in which UK holds a 6-4 edge in victories.

There have surely been some close encounters in recent tussles, especially here in Louisville. The Cats won by a deuce in 2001. And again in 2004, when Patrick Sparks knocked down those controversial free throws at the tilt’s end. In 2009, Louisville had the game in hand, did its best to give it away, then snatched it back when Edgar Sosa nailed a winning trey.

Who, if anybody, is ready to imprint his name in the lore of the series like Sparks and Sosa?

Can Rakeem Buckles check Terrence Jones? Will Coach Rick Pitino actually give him the opportunity?

Does neophyte Gorgui Dieng have enough savoir fair to perform capably in the unique intensity of this game? Does it matter against Eloy Vargas and Josh Harrellson?

Who has the wherewithal to seize an advantage at point, Brandon Knight or Peyton Siva?

Who from beyond the arc will knock down the long ones in this first meeting of the rivals at the Yum! Center, Doron Lamb or Mike Marra?

Which of the supporting actors brings an award-quality performance to the big stage, Kyle Kuric, DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller or Chris Smith?

Will Cats fans get their wish: Jon Hood as surprise hero?

Is Preston Knowles ready to impose his will in a battle of this magnitude?

Which of these poor free throw shooting squads will tally important charity tosses?

Will UK’s tougher schedule early in the season aid its cause?

Which of the coaches, John Calipari or Rick Pitino, the bitterest of rivals, bests the other in strategy and in-game adjustments?

Under the Big Top, amid the numbing tumult and emotional delirium, these are the questions that will be answered Friday afternoon.
For the most ardent of diehards, the game itself will speed past as if chimera. The Yum! will be a carnival; the arena, a neon pastiche of primary reds and blues (too much of the latter, frankly, for the home folks).

Put the ball through the hoop and win a prize for the lady!

One joyous side leaves with a stuffed panda; the other, disconsolate, with empty pockets.

Only later, during endless retellings, win or lose, will the details come clear.