An Outsider’s Trip to the Heart of Big Blue NationPosted by dnspewak on February 28th, 2013
Danny Spewak (@dspewak) is an RTC Correspondent. He covered College Gameday and Missouri/Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday.
Kentucky’s intro video is long. It’s not even the only intro video — there’s a hipper version that plays right before the public address announcer introduces the Wildcats’ starters. The first one isn’t as hip, though. It’s nostalgic. It’s a full two minutes (possibly an NCAA record for intro videos) of grainy, black-and-white video from the Dark Ages set to the tune of Bittersweet Symphony.
It is awesome. As the shots move at lightning speed from frame to frame to frame to frame, you see Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Pat Riley, Jamal Mashburn, Patrick Sparks, Tayshaun Prince, Frank Ramsey, Tony Delk, Sean Woods, Kenny Walker, Dan Issel and all the other Kentucky legends this state has embraced for almost a century. Tubby Smith makes a few appearances. Rick Pitino does not. For 120 seconds, Big Blue Nation stands and claps in unison to the beat of Bittersweet Symphony, and you realize whatever’s about to start in a few minutes isn’t just a basketball game. It’s some sort of religious experience, something that’s bonded the 24,000 people in the building together for decades.
I met a man on Saturday morning who told me he’d been driving 75 miles from Northern Kentucky to watch games at Rupp Arena since 1980. I met another woman from Bowling Green, Kentucky, who said she’d had season tickets since her teenage children were toddlers. These people exist at every level of college basketball and in every single arena across the country, but here, there are thousands of them. It’s just a little different in Kentucky, and you can feel that the second you walk into Rupp and see the eight hundred million banners in the rafters. There are so many retired jerseys, it’s a wonder they haven’t run out yet.
And even though the 2012-13 Wildcats aren’t living up to the hype as the defending national champions, the fans weren’t about to discard this team with College Gameday in the house last Saturday and the Missouri Tigers in town. Instead, it was the exact opposite: Big Blue Nation knew its team needed it, so it came to the rescue. “This was as good a crowd and as impactful a crowd as I’ve coached in this building,” head coach John Calipari said following UK’s 90-83 overtime victory. “This team needs that.”
That’s the thing that impressed this outsider the most about the venue and Lexington this weekend. I grew up in St. Louis, but I’ve always said I wished I grew up playing football in Texas or basketball in Indiana, North Carolina or Kentucky. When I arrived in Lexington after a seven-hour drive, I thought I knew what to expect. I knew they loved basketball more than life itself in this state, and I knew I’d run into a rabid fan base with insanely high expectations. I also knew the combination of Nerlens Noel’s injury, Kentucky’s struggles and even Missouri’s lackluster road performance had taken a lot of the anticipation out of the College Gameday match-up. This was a game between two unranked teams. I figured Rupp would be loud, but I wasn’t expecting some sort of epic atmosphere.
It was not humanly possible for me to be more wrong. The second that Bittersweet Symphony intro played, I could feel the wrath of 24,000 fans trying to will their young team to a win. When Kentucky misfired on its first 108 three-point attempts (slight exaggeration), you could feel the frustration in the building, but you never felt a “woe is me” attitude. Missouri led by 13 points midway through the first half, but folks there don’t expect to unravel. They expect to win. So when UK began to inch closer as halftime approached, the building exploded with every basket. They’re not happy to be sitting on the bubble in late February, but they’re darned sure not going to let this team play in the NIT. Not after the Billy Gillispie disaster.
The second half was a treat. It was a game between two unranked teams, sure, but the desperation of Kentucky and its fan base made this feel like a national championship. The Wildcats didn’t want to win— they had to win, because if they miss the NCAA Tournament this season, there’s no doubt the sun will definitely not come up in the state of Kentucky the day after Selection Sunday and perhaps well into March.
It turns out, Kentucky did just enough to win. Archie Goodwin grew up in the second half. Willie Cauley-Stein stepped in for Noel and manned the paint with his shot-blocking ability. Julius Mays and Alex Poythress hardly left the floor and led the team in scoring, and after forcing Phil Pressey into a few late mistakes in regulation, the Wildcats persevered for a season-defining victory. “The biggest thing is they had a collective will to win,” Calipari said. “They all went after balls, and tried to defend and do what they could do.” Missouri’s Frank Haith certainly noticed a different attitude. “They’re an aggressive team,” Haith said. “They got to every loose ball, every 50/50 ball, and that was the difference in the game.” That’s all thanks to the people populating Rupp Arena Saturday night.
It’s now time to remind you that Missouri is 1-7 on the road this season. In Kentucky’s grand history, this victory probably does not rate even in the top 500 home wins, but that’s why the atmosphere stunned me so much. I was almost perplexed as to why these people were taking this game as if it were life or death, but that’s exactly why I wish I grew up playing hoops in this state. Even when your team needs to beat an unranked team at home just to sneak into the Big Dance, there’s nothing more important than basketball in Lexington. Make fun of the Big Blue Nation all you want – and I certainly did myself, especially the woman behind me screaming at Digger Phelps for three straight hours – but they really care. That’s cool to me, and I respect the heck out of it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have driven seven hours to visit them.