State Of The Big Blue Nation: Mood Indigo

Posted by jstevrtc on March 2nd, 2009

(OR, Why Rick Pitino Is Like School On Thanksgiving)

John Stevens is a featured writer for Rush The Court.

Kentucky basketball fans are wondering if they might have built their new state-of-the-art basketball practice facility on a Native American burial ground.

(credit:  Kentucky.com)
(photo credit: Kentucky.com)

As if the Wednesday night emasculation at South Carolina and yesterday’s home-court disappointment against LSU weren’t enough, two pieces of news are currently at the forefront of the collective mind of the Big Blue Nation, as Kentucky fans are known.  First, it looks like Louisville Cardinals head coach Rick Pitino has decided to take a giant crap on any good will he had left in the non-Louisville part of Kentucky by profiting off of one of the worst moments in Wildcat basketball history.  We’ll get to that in a moment.  Second, in addition to the growing possibility of watching this year’s NCAA tournament from their dorm rooms, this weekend the team and their supporters have had to deal with this now well-publicized incident in which sophomore forward A.J. Stewart, sick of watching from the pine as his team loses more games than they should, told everybody where they could go a few days ago and actually quit the Wildcat squad for about 24 hours after the aforementioned South Carolina loss.  He’s obviously been reinstated by his team, since he played in the home loss to LSU yesterday.

Reinstatement or not, Kentucky fans have to be wondering — what on EARTH have we done to deserve all of this?

“This” all started two years ago, specifically when Tubby Smith decided he’d had enough of (whether warranted or not) the second-guessing in Lexington and hit the road for Minnesota, which might have well been any place, as long as NCAA Tournament bids and occasional Sweet Sixteen appearances are acceptable goals there.  If you recall, it was at this time that the one coach in the country that just about every Kentucky supporter considered their Heir Apparent, Florida’s Billy Donovan, flirted very seriously with the Kentucky job before actually accepting the same position with the Orlando Magic…only to back out on THAT commitment 48 hours later to stay at Florida.  At that moment, Kentucky fans had to know — something was up.

Enter Billy Gillispie, not exactly the program’s first choice but a good selection for them since he had earned the reputation as the New Resurrector after his stints at UTEP and Texas A&M.  He made friends early by ensuring that the Tubby Smith-recruited Patrick Patterson would still attend UK, but then dropped games to the likes of Gardner-Webb and San Diego (both at home), causing much head-scratching.  Despite a tough season with injuries and personnel-juggling, Gillispie’s first UK team battled back, made the tournament (and it looked bleak for a while), and Gillispie won co-Coach of the Year honors in the SEC.  About twelve seconds after their first-round loss, Kentucky fans were looking forward to the next season, knowing it would be better once everyone was healthy and some new bad-ass recruits came into the fold.  The Billy Donovan snub was virtually forgotten.

One of those players returning to health in that off-season was versatile point guard Derrick Jasper.  Having gotten over all the physical and mental hurdles that come with microfracture surgery of the (left) knee, the 2008-09 edition of the Wildcats was his to lead.  Jasper was poised to be the floor general of one of the storied programs of college basketball.  It was to be “his” team.  But instead, in a move that nobody saw coming, after a mere two years of living in Lexington — citing “homesickness” — Jasper bailed on his chance to lead the program, choosing relative obscurity over an amazing opportunity.  He transferred to UNLV and left Kentucky high and dry with point guard problems that Gillispie hasn’t been able to solve with junior Michael Porter and freshman DeAndre Liggins.  How big was this loss?  Considering that the point guard handles the ball 60% of the time for any given team, is it a coincidence that Kentucky is 338th out of 341 Division I teams in turnovers per game?  Probably not.

Only 1 of these three remains at UK.  (daylife.com)
Only 1 of these three remains at UK. (photo credit: daylife.com)

Then came the home loss to VMI earlier this year, an inexcusable loss given the Gardner-Webb debacle from the year before and the alarming talent disparity between the two teams.  With that loss still stinging, a few games later (in a game Kentucky still won), Liggins refused to re-enter a close game against Kansas State in a protest about playing time.  For a day or so it looked like Liggins’ status with the team was tenuous at best, but (just like what’s happened with the current A.J. Stewart situation) the players voted to reinstate him.  This had to remind Kentucky followers of the Alex Legion strangeness from the previous season; Legion was a prize recruit with a nice outside shot, and who they were going to count on for some serious point production…but he didn’t even make it to Christmas in his first year at UK, leaving because he (and his mom) felt he wasn’t getting enough PT.  And now — this weekend’s situation with Stewart.

Kentucky fans are left wondering what has happened to the culture in their program.  Their obvious Heir Apparent in Billy Donovan declined to return even though he had been groomed for the job since the Pitino years; with inexcusable losses to comparatively talent-bereft teams (and not too many surprising wins) Billy Gillispie is starting to look like a good example of the Peter Principle; some important players have jumped ship, seemingly preferring oblivion over recognition and opportunity, and others choose unproductive ways to protest lack of playing time; and despite having two lottery picks on the team and some hard-working young role players, the Wildcats find themselves sliding down the bubble’s surface this season and are giving the tournament selection committee every reason to leave them off the bracket two weeks from now with these stretch losses.  This is a program that didn’t exactly weep when Tubby Smith left town; I’m not even saying they’re wrong about that, since after Smith’s 1998 title run with the Wildcats, he never returned to the Final Four in his next nine seasons — would UNC, Kansas, Duke, or UCLA fans put up with such a streak these days? — but keep in mind that, for unknown reasons, Billy Gillispie hasn’t even signed his contract at UK even though he’s basically got two seasons under his belt, now.  Many folks in Lexington wonder if he should even bother, with UK’s performance this year, even if the team slips into the tournament somehow.  And to make matters worse, if Kentucky fans have to watch this tournament without their Wildcats for the first time in 17 years, this is the time of year that a certain shot by a certain former Duke player gets played over and over again…

Oh, but if only that were the end of it for the Big Blue Nation.

pitinocomm

(h/t: kentuckysportsradio.com)

The photo you see above is from a commercial that the benevolent, hangover-curing people at Vitamin Water are shooting, to be broadcast during this year’s NCAA Tournament coverage.  In this commercial, Rick Pitino has to put up with Christian Laettner showing up at Pitino’s Louisville home repeatedly making “The Shot” in daily-life situations, tormenting Pitino.  I’ve yet to see it, but it’s supposed to be funny, though the prospect of having Christian Laettner randomly popping up around your house should fill you with a deep, dark, bone-marrow-curdling horror.  And to be honest, unless you’re a Kentucky fan, it probably will be funny.

But my Lord…could Rick Pitino disrespect Kentucky fans any more?

UK fans didn’t appreciate Pitino leaving in 1997 to take on (and utterly fail at) the job of rebuilding the Boston Celtics, and they DEFINITELY didn’t appreciate it when he returned to the Bluegrass to coach the Louisville Cardinals, considered at the time to be the biggest slap in the face that Pitino could award the Big Blue Nation.  But this…this is bordering on evil, even to impartial observers.

Pitino has always been a man who enjoys shock value and hyperbole, often in tandem.  I mean, there’s this whole white suit thing.  But think about it — if you once coached the Kentucky Wildcats and can even take credit for bringing that program back from the abyss, if you decide to become a college coach again, if you have any respect for and understanding of Kentucky basketball, what is the one job that you cannot take?  Maybe the Louisville position?  Pitino took it.  And if you’re going to make a funny commercial about a moment in UK hoops history, which moment can you absolutely not choose, especially since it happened on your watch?  Exactly.

Pitino’s response to any detractors in this affair will be to say something paternalistic to the effect of, “Kentucky fans are the greatest in the world, but it was 17 years ago, they need to move on, they can’t still be mad, they need to get a sense of humor, there’s a whole big world out there.”  Well, Sir — I have many friends who are Kentucky basketball fans.  Yes, they can be irrational, but so can anyone else who loves something so much (including vociferous fans of other programs), and so unconditionally.  Their passion and emotion for their team is beyond question, and almost beyond belief, because it’s part of the very fabric of the place, of the entire state.  They gave you their allegiance, but you used it, then cast it aside, then came back and spat on it.  If you ever learned one thing in your time in Lexington, you should know that to Kentucky fans — in terms not only of basketball, but in all of sport — there are no other worlds.

To Kentucky fans, the man in the white suit wears the blackest of hats.  (usatoday.net)
To Kentucky fans, the man in the white suit wears the blackest of hats. (photo credit: usatoday.net)

At this time, I feel the need to speak directly to Kentucky supporters:  I know he arrived at your darkest hour in 1989 and gave life to a flat-lined program to which last rites had been administered.  I know how he brought a type of basketball to the Bluegrass that people there hope will return every year.  I know how Pitino has publicly stated that it was a mistake to leave the Kentucky job for that chance with the Celtics in 1997.  But given everything he’s done since then (if I may paraphrase Brad Pitt from Fight Club), I think you have to consider the fact that Rick Pitino does not like you.  In fact, he probably hates you.  Why else would he treat you like this?  Taking the Louisville job was insult enough.  Now this.

I think the UK program can have the last laugh in this business, though.  I think it can make a move that has some shock value of its own.  Didn’t Kentucky hang a banner with Pitino’s name on it in the Rupp Arena rafters because of his achievements at UK?

I say go get it.

If a program can hang a banner to commemorate and honor someone’s actions as coach, it seems to me that they could take down the banner if they don’t like his actions toward the program after he leaves.  People will push you around only as long as you let them, and if the Kentucky basketball program wants to show that it means business about this, they can send that message by removing Pitino’s name from such heights.  The only way to show Pitino that you’ve had it with his insults is to hit him in the only place you can hurt him, in a place he cares about more than anything — his legacy.  And boy, you talk about heating up a rivalry.  If Kentucky pulled Pitino’s banner, the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry would suddenly make Duke-Carolina look like an episode of Mister Rogers.

Rick Pitino doesn’t need the money or face-time that teaming up with Christian Laettner for this TV commercial will get him.  He knows the anger it will create among the Big Blue Nation, a legion of fans he says he’s always cared about but obviously doesn’t.  So why do it?  Because he thinks it’s funny, or cute?  I can only predict what UK fans will think, but Pitino’s participation in this commercial shows me, at least, that he may have led the Kentucky program at one time, but he never really understood what it all meant.  For someone who claims to know basketball, he obviously never realized how much that program meant, and continues to mean, to Kentucky fans.  Pitino is a man who likes people to look at him and see someone who carries and conducts himself with a great deal of class.  To insult one of the leviathan programs in the history of our game in the ways that he has — a program that he once led — and to do it while actively working as a coach for another team…well, that shows me that in the aforementioned class department, he is completely lacking.

Will they be happy on Selection Sunday...or ever again?  (daylife.com)
Will they be happy on Selection Sunday…or ever again? (photo credit: daylife.com)

But, as noted above, this atrocity is the smallest problem that Kentucky basketball fans have to worry about these days.  Whether or not they’re in the dance this year, like the economy right now, Kentucky basketball needs one heck of a stimulus package to bring it back to prominence.  Because it’s Kentucky, it will probably happen at some point.  The question is — when will it happen, and what form will it take?

jstevrtc (547 Posts)


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7 Responses to “State Of The Big Blue Nation: Mood Indigo”

  1. Bill says:

    John, You have written an excellent article that captures quite a bot about the heart and feelings of the UK fans. One aspect that remains unsaid about Billy Gillispie is that to many fans he is not representing the true “Kentucky gentlemen” off the floor. We Kentuckians do pride ourselves in being polite and well mannered. Billy’s two unfortunately halftime interviews with Jeannine Edwards have left a very sour taste in our mouths. Kentuckians are not rude (at least not on purpose). Stories also abound that this was not just a slipup by Billy with one person but that he’s like this with almost everyone. Being comped meals at local restaurants but then stiffing the waitor on the tip. Being condensending to others in TV stations. The list continues to grow. As a lifetime fan, I can accept that two years are not enough time to decide a coaches fate on the floor. But if you are a jerk to everyone and poorly represent the state on a national medium, then you are viewed very dimly in my book.

  2. chris says:

    John… i must say agree you’ve written a very good article. The only consideration I wish you to take up is about the Pitino commercial. I remembger the one with Coach K and Rick P at the drive in which aired several years ago during the NCAA’s. I actually liked it. It’s great that so many people still look to that moment and, in elation or dissapointment, fans remember where they were… who they watched the game with… how they felt… one of the most emotional moments of sports history. I believe that even though fans say they hate seeing that moment over and over in the highlight intro’s and promos… we need it to remember how much we love our cats. There’s nothing like a constant reminder to keep you from getting over the one you lost. I believe this only makes Kentucky more passionate. I believe that master mind Rick Pitino still knows this, too. It wouldn’t matter to him, otherwise. He relishes it, because it’s still his tie to the Greatest College Basketball Program in the country. I believe the crap he spits out about coming to Louisville because it’s the next best thing to Kentucky. I see many of his comments (over the years) as a slap in the face to UL. Like during ESPN’s gameday a couple of seasons ago when Jay Bilias asked him which team was better… UL’s final 4 or UK’s 96… he said without any reservation UK… and took a booing from the UL faithful. I think Pitino still knows he left a place in the making of his own empire and simply still wants to be associated with UK.

    Just another perspective.

    Chris Jessie

  3. Tony says:

    Great article up to the point where you started bashing coach Rick Pitino. He’s gone already. He left UK for Boston which if I recall correctly nobody blamed him for doing when he did. He left UK in great shape. A whole lot better shape than what he started with. He left UK with a class act for a coach in Tubby Smith who in turn won his own national championship too.

    This commercial is not that big a deal in my opinion. It’s been 17 years and that game is STILL considered the single best game in college basketball history by most everyone who has an opinion on it. Pitino and Laettner will forever be joined at the hip over those last 2 seconds which Pitino admits to making a mistake by not putting someone in Grant Hill’s face on the inbounds pass. That game will live on long after we are dead and buried. It’s a part of history and there had to be a loser. UK as a program has accomplishmed so much that it doesn’t tarnish the legacy by placing a shiny moment on one if its historic losses. That’s what makes it special. Only someone hate filled with anger would look at this as a slap in UK’s face. What’s everyone supposed to do? Forget the game was ever played? Where’s the justice in that?

  4. UKfansblowmeninRuppsbathroom says:

    This is the most patheic cry baby rant I’ve ever seen. This is a perfect example of why the UK fan base is the laughing stock of the entire NCAA. You try to blame anything bad about the UK program on someone else: “It’s Tubby’s fault”, “It’s Pitino’s fault”, and now “It’s Billy Clyde’s fault”. What a majority of you “fans” (and I use that term loosely with UK supporters) fail to realize, is that you deserve everything bad that life has to offer. It’s called karma and it’s been coming for a long time. UK fans are the most uneducated, loud, ignorant, insane, bandwagon, and redneck fanbase that has ever been assembled. You guys fly your Rick Pitino championship flag from your car window in the middle of summer. You bash other fan bases, especially U of L, IU, Duke, North Carolina, and Tenn whenever possible. Ask any fan of another school about who has the most obnoxious fans, UK is the answer 99% of the time. You guys had some good years back in the 90’s, but that time is over and it’s never coming back.

    You thought that the UK program was always going to be on top and no one could stop that. Well, you have stopped yourselves. No coach wants to come to your program because of unrealistic expectations and a rabid fan base that only cares about winning. No player wants to come to a university that yells at them to shoot the ball when they are open, yell when you miss a shot, and then boo you at the end of the game on your own “home court”. To top it all off, the rest of the college basketball world is laughing and enjoying you fall deeper and deeper into irrelevance. If you are looking for someone to blame, you only have to look in the mirror.

    Rick Pitino wants nothing more than for you to take his banner down during the next U of L/UK game. It will provide more evidence and reason #245 for recruits not to go to UK. Idiot fan base, childish behavior from what is supposed to be grown adults, and a place that is supposed to be meant for higher learning supporting this kind of attitude.

    UK is a joke and the rest of the basketball world is looking forward to Selection Sunday and seeing UK left out. You will never live this down and a reminder of Laettner’s fantastic dagger in all of Kentucky’s hearts will be the least of your worries. Don’t you love March?

  5. Scott says:

    Excellent article and I agree with the OP. I am an avid supporter of UK and while I would like to see BCG succeed, I have never witnessed one of our teams with so much inner turmoil. Of course there are and always be transfers, but in 2 short years we have lost Jasper and Legion; we have had 2 incidents where players show disrespect to the coaches or program; we have had 2 less than stellar interviews with people on NATIONAL TV. In addition to all this, when has UK displayed such horrible potential on court as when we lost to Gardner-Webb, San Diego and then after that happening to start the following year by losing to VMI. No offense intended towards these programs, but there is no way they should ever beat UK. I have thought from the beginning, after Donovan we should have sought someone who understands the importance of UK Bball and then only 2 names popped up…Travis Ford and John Pelphry, now their is also Darrin Horn at USC. Whatever the case, I will continue to cheer for Ole Big Blue, but I am tired of the excuses, smart remarks to reporters and issues within the teams.

    Sincerely

    Very Disappointed in Catland

  6. yournamehere says:

    A little history, if I may…

    Pitino’s best friend and brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, was killed during the Twin Tower attacks on September 11th, 2001. This was common knowledge in the state of Kentucky. A few months later when Pitino made his Rupp Arena debut as Louisville’s coach, several signs in the building compared him to American Taliban supporter John Walker Lindh. One of those signs made it to the front page of the Louisville Courier-Journal.

    I’d say that calling someone who lost a friend and family member on 9/11 a terrorist is a little worse than reminding the poor, fragile UK fan base of a basketball loss from 17 years ago.

  7. John Stevens says:

    I greatly appreciate everyone’s comments. Part of the enjoyment of writing for a blog is to see if any discussion is generated, so thanks for the opinions. As this piece was written from the perspective of an “outside” observer, it’s especially interesting to me — and I’d guess a great number of our readers — to see how people react. Keep it coming. I’d like to address some items from each of the commenters:

    Bill — I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Let me ask you this, since you re seemingly one of the Big Blue Nation. In the article, I don’t mean to necessarily impune Billy Gillispie for the recent substandard performance; he may, in fact, still be adjusting to the demands of such a job and bounce right back with another turnaround next season, who knows. My queries were more about the general culture of the entire program…Billy Donovan is groomed for years to take over the program, but doesn’t come back; recruits making protests and/or jumping ship; the lack of a good tournament run in several years, etc. Even UNC, Duke, UCLA, Kansas had a few “down” seasons, but they all kept their mystique and managed to stay in the rarified air. What’s happened in the Kentucky program’s overall culture, in your opinion, that has kept them from maintaining the mystique they once had?

    Chris and Tony — If this is the perspective of most Kentucky fans, then I have grossly underestimated them. Of the UK fans I know, there’s not one of them who takes that perspective, but maybe my sample size isn’t big enough. Interesting takes.

    The fourth poster — Out of curiosity, I’d like to know who you root for. I notice you left that out. I’m grateful for any comment, but I think some of the things you’re saying here probably apply to many of the elite programs. And I’ve never met a member of a fan base for any program that only cares about LOSING. So who’s your team? And yes, March is my favorite time of year and always will be.

    Scott — Again, same question I posed to Bill, above. Is it Gillispie? It wasn’t necessarily putting it all on him. Is BG’s behavior just part of this “culture change” I’m sensing around the UK program? Are the behaviors you mention a cause of it or a product of it?

    YourNameHere — Anyone who displays a sign like that should be booted from the arena for life. No question. But I have to ask about the defense you pose. True, the actions of fans that resort to that sort of tactic are simply abominable, but I think we can agree those people are on the narrow part of the curve. If someone is accused of something, it isn’t a defense to say, “But look what these other people did.” My question is…if you were a Kentucky fan (or even an outside observer), what would you think of Rick Pitino coming back to coach your arch rival and then profitting off of your program’s most disappointing moment? Would Duke fans take it well if Coach K left, came back and coached UNC, and then made a commercial about a sore point in Duke’s history? Would UNC fans tolerate a similar scenario involving Roy Williams? I don’t think so. I’d be here ripping them, as well. That said, what do you think of Pitino’s actions in and of themselves? How would you react?

    Again, thanks to everyone. I love the discussion.

    John Stevens
    Rush The Court

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