Go Big Blue

TALKING TO MYSELF: 5 April 2014  In the spirit of open disclosure, I need to reveal up front that being a UK Wildcat fan was necessary for membership in my family. Every boyfriend that ever came courting had to pass Daddy's interrogation, and several were promptly discarded when they dared express admiration for Cincinnati's Big O (Oscar Robinson) or suggest that UCLA's John Wooden might be a better coach than Adolph Rupp. Daddy's brother, my Uncle Woodrow, refused to take his last gasp in ICU until the buzzer sounded, and he knew that UK had won a close game. I've always worried, too, that my father's fatal tractor accident was caused in some part by his eagerness to get back to the house to watch UK play on TV. In the 1957 UK versus Temple game that I write about in "Go Big Blue," former Lexington city commissioner, William Baughn, died of a heart attack in the final seconds of the game.  http://www.bigbluehistory.net/bb/statistics/Games/19571207Temple.html

So please Wildcat fans be careful to take your blood pressure meds today and keep a brown paper bag handy, too, in case you hyperventilate. We're understandably nervous about UK's match up with Wisconsin in tonight's Final Four semi-final game. We didn't expect to be here, after all, and indeed we wouldn't be were it not for wow-zer last moment shots like Aaron Harrison's.  The more things change, the more they stay the same, however. The UK Wildcats have won a lot of games on their way to eight NCAA championships with shots that shouldn't have gone in. They've lost some, too, as Duke fans will remind us until the end of time. However the game goes tonight, remember there's no future in giving up. "There's always a chance to prevail, if not now then next season, and that's not a bad way to live a life."


           Every year, I come down with a case of March Madness.  You see, I absolutely love the University of Kentucky men’s basketball team.  If my Wildcats get knocked out of the running early for the championship, the salt goes out of living. If they do well in tournament play, euphoria lifts my flat feet until I fancy I could dance on rooftops.

            The funny thing about this obsession is that I know next to nothing about other major sports.  While my peers were paying attention and learning the rules of football, baseball, tennis and golf, I had my head stuck in a novel.

            I also have a low kinetic I. Q.  That’s educator-speak for the clumsy students who get chosen last for playground teams.  I actually flunked the vocational-physical aptitude test that the state Department of Education administered to high school seniors.  The Commonwealth of Kentucky declared me too uncoordinated even for unskilled factory work. 

            Remembering the old adage that those who can’t do, teach, I set off for college to become a teacher.  But for the mercy of C. M. Newton, I might not have graduated, at least not with my grade point average intact.

            C. M. went on to fame and fortune as a Division 1 basketball coach and big-time athletic director, but he got his start at tiny Transylvania where he had to cope with the likes of me in mandatory physical education classes.  Despite my dismal performance in four different sports over four semesters, he gave me A minuses. Extra credit, he said, for never cutting classes, showing up early and dressed to play, and for something he called my good attitude.  That could be code for groveling, but I prefer to think that Coach Newton saw past my physical awkwardness into my basketball loving soul. 

            However, according to an article in “Psychology Today” by Dr. Allen R. McConnell my klutziness could be the reason I’m a Wildcat fan-atic.  He writes that fans like me are Basking in Reflected Glory or as he phrases it, BIRGing.  And I admit that when one of the Cats dribbles all the way down the court in a nano-second and slam dunks the basket, I BIRG quite a bit. For a moment, I feel “kinetically gifted” as if this old body had soared in the air too.

               Although I don’t have the degrees in psychology that Dr. McConnell has, I would suggest that BIRTHing, however, rather than BIRGing turned me into a Wildcat basketball fan.  Daddy and his four tall, lanky brothers smudged by DNA with Kentucky Blue and claimed my heart for roundball long before I was born. 

            With a full family team, Daddy and the Uncles took on all comers in the barnyard league, playing pickup ball wherever someone had hung a hoop.  For a decade or more, the Green Brothers were also a force on the old New Liberty High School team, intimidating opponents each new season with yet another “Green boy.” 

            Daddy and the Uncles came of age in the 1930s when a young coach named Adolph Rupp was beginning to build the University of Kentucky into a basketball powerhouse.  Rupp led UK to four NCAA championships and a bushel of other titles, and holds the second highest winning percentage in the history of college basketball coaching. 

            Following Rupp’s teams on their radios, I suspect Daddy and the Uncles did do some BIRGing.  Growing up poor during the Depression in one of America’s poorest states, UK’s success made Kentucky farm boys like them proud and gave them hope that they, too, could compete, not necessarily in basketball, but in life.

             They became, literally, die-hard UK fans for the rest of their lives. Uncle Woodrow, in his 80s, lay in a coma for days waiting for death. The night he died, a UK game was playing on the TV in his hospital room, and it was a close one.  Finally, UK made the winning basket at the buzzer.  Five seconds later Uncle Woodrow coded.  We all believe he put off dying until he knew how the game turned out. 

            My own earliest memories speak to me in the voice of Cawood Ledford who broadcast the UK games on radio for decades.  Cawood’s rapid-fire voice, pitched high with excitement one moment, filled with scorn for bad officiating or a player’s error the next, brought Wildcat basketball into every holler in the state. 

            At our place, no obligation interfered with game-time.  In the tobacco stripping room, in the car, or around our kitchen table, Daddy, Mother and I would mark off the winter days listening to the Wildcats.  I think I saw the games more clearly on Cawood’s radio than I do on today’s 100-inch screens.

            Dr. McConnell worries about the flip side of BIRGing, the loss of self-esteem when a fan’s team loses, as my Wildcats have been known to do in important games. I would tell him about the night in 1957 when Daddy and I had “standing room only” tickets in old Memorial Coliseum to see UK play Temple.  It turned out to be what reporters then called “the longest game in UK history.”  Kentucky’s Hatton hit an amazing 47-foot shot at the buzzer to tie the regulation game.  UK eventually defeated Temple by 2 points, but in a triple overtime. 

            Even though my feet were hurting, I learned a lot about not giving up that night.  There’s always a chance to prevail, if not now then next season, and that’s not a bad way to live a life. 

*Correction: Since writing "Go Big Blue" several years ago, additional research indicates that Vernon Hatton tied the regulation game with two foul shots. His 47 foot jump shot tied the first overtime session. UK defeated Temple, 85 to 83, in the third overtime.

©Georgia Green Stamper