I was born in Kentucky, near Lexington. Therefore, I have always been a Kentucky Wildcat fan. As such, it is almost written into your DNA that you must hate Louisville and Duke when it comes to college basketball. Oh, I don’t mean real hate, I mean sports hate. That silly form of contempt that you only plug into when the college basketball season comes around. It’s no different than Dallas Cowboy fans hating the Redskins, or Celtics fans hating the Lakers. For the most part, it’s not a living thing. It certainly isn’t a mature one, but most sports fans have it. I am no exception.
In the state of Kentucky, you do have to choose between Louisville and Kentucky. You really aren’t allowed to like both even though they are within the same commonwealth. This phenomena exists in other states too. Just ask a Michigan State Spartan how they feel about the Michigan Wolverines. The answer is unlikely to be polite. The Wildcat dislike for Louisville was upped a few thousand notches when former UK savior and coach, Rick Pitino, returned to college basketball and the state of Kentucky after a failed stint with the Boston Celtics, but not to the University of Kentucky. That simply is not done. In spite of the fact that Coach Pitino had resurrected the UK basketball program after crippling sanctions due to recruiting violations and restored the Wildcats to prominence over 8 years–culminating in back to back National Championship games–he was quickly seen as a Benedict Arnold. There could be no forgiveness for choosing Louisville over Kentucky. Something he didn’t really do, by the way. Kentucky had a fine coach in place (Tubby Smith), and that job wasn’t even open. As I said before, this isn’t about maturity, but there it is.
With Duke, it’s a little different. There really are no regional reasons for the dislike. No, the real reason why Wildcat fans hate the Blue Devils is all over one game. A game whose final shot we have to endure in seemingly every March Madness promo from here into eternity. That image of Duke’s Christian Laettner making a jump shot just above the free throw line to defeat Pitino’s underdog Wildcats in the regional final in 1992. A game commonly referred to as the best ever by fans and media alike. Yeah, try telling that to us Wildcats fans who have to see Laettner’s preppy face hit that jumper over and over again every season. See there? I’m doing it again…sports hate. It’s stupid.
Never was I more aware of how idiotic it was until today. This afternoon, the Louisville Cardinals and the Duke Blue Devils met for a place in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four. My Facebook status today was this:
“Louisville vs. Duke. Is there a way they both can lose?”
Because I love the tournament, I watched the game, if somewhat casually at first. It’s a strange feeling to root stringently against both teams at once. You take pleasure in one team’s misfortune only to have that feeling mixed with a bit of ambivalence because the other team you sports hate just benefited from it.
Then something awful happened late in the first half that changed everything. While defending a jump shot taken by Duke player, Tyler Thornton, Kevin Ware flew by Thornton and then off my TV screen. Only a split second later, I saw Thornton make an odd face for someone who just scored a basket. He looked like someone punched him in the gut. The camera panned back over to the other end of the court where the shot was taken, and multiple Louisville players were laying on the court and all those upright wore expressions of genuine anguish like a mask they couldn’t take off. What the hell happened, I wondered? CBS then showed a replay that they mercifully did not repeat. When Ware flew by Thornton, he landed awkwardly and his leg bent in an unnatural fashion, It’s the sort of awful sight that makes any person wince when they see it. However, that was just the beginning. As his leg rolled one way, for a split second it seemed to stabilize, then it bent back the other way. It is the most gruesome injury I have ever seen on a basketball court. It was so grotesque that I had to set aside the delicious home made chili my mom had brought me for fear that I would only see it come back up. The only thing I could compare Ware’s injury to was the horrible compound fracture Joe Theismann suffered in 1986 against the New York Giants.
Teammates and people in the stands were crying. Some of the people weeping were wearing Duke blue. It was horrific.
Ware laid on the court for over 10 minutes. His fellow Cardinals were in shock, trying to comfort each other and generally walking around in disbelief. Pitino was red faced and wiping his eyes. Opposing coach Mike Krzyzewski looked on respectfully from afar with nothing but concern written across his face. The only thing anyone in that arena cared about was that poor kid laying on his back with a leg that was practically mutilated while doing something he had surely done thousands of times…jumping.
At that moment, all of my stupid sports hate went away and like everyone in the stadium, all I cared about was Kevin Ware. How bad was it? Will he ever be able to play again? Hell, will he ever be able walk normally again? I sure hope so.
While they were treating him, I wondered how they were even going to be able to finish the game. Even the Duke players looked devastated.
I later learned that as they were getting ready to take Ware off the floor and to the hospital, that he asked Pitino to bring his teammates over so he could tell them something. He said “Don’t worry about me, I’m good, I’ll have my surgery tonight. Go win it for me.” That’s one tough ass kid.
And win it they did. The Cardinals played with great skill and intensity in the second half to move on to the next round. I can’t imagine how hard it was for those young men to perform after Ware’s injury. It was so much worse than the usual sprained ankle. It’s the type of injury that makes you worry for a person’s quality of life afterwards. Will he ever be able to run and jump normally again? There is some good news on this front. Ironically, former Louisville Cardinal running back, Michael Bush, suffered the same injury and went on to make a full recovery after a year of therapy. He actually plays in the NFL for the Chicago Bears now.
There is a lesson in all of this. Sports can be a great thing. When done right, it teaches you discipline, teamwork, and in my own experience, I have seen it counter racism. It’s hard to hate a kid of another background when you are playing beside him and working toward the same goal.
Sometimes, sports can be a bad thing too. Not only on the field, but for fans as well. You put a game played by others over more important things, like a young man’s welfare. That’s what sports hate does to you. I am not very proud of myself today. It appears I have some work to do.
Does that mean I will be rooting for Louisville against Wichita State in the Final Four? I doubt it. I do know this, win or lose it’s time to put my hate aside. Even if it’s only sports hate. It serves no decent purpose. I wish Kevin Ware would not have had to break his leg nearly in half for me to be reminded of that.