LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- There was, low in the sky this past Friday night, a moon of orange hue. I noticed it while driving, and as took it as a sign. When I rolled to a stop and saw the tops of trees formed a kind of net to hold its lower half, my decision was a slam dunk. Doubt the vision if you will, but anyone around here who saw the moon low on the horizon will tell you.
A good many national observers have been talking about the coming of basketball season to these parts, with our brightest university stars aligned -- 1. Indiana; 2. Louisville; 3. Kentucky -- into some kind of college basketball constellation.
Media have been canvassing the populace, surveying local experts and popping into roadside haunts to gauge the mood of the region like some kind of journalistic magi come to learn about this strange phenomenon.
I'd been putting off my own thoughts about the same subject, and what this confluence could mean, until moved by the aforementioned lunar event.
These thoughts are not organized. They float around at times like clouds.
But I don't need to ask anyone what it means around here to be heading into a basketball season with the anticipation as keen as this one. I grew up here. I know what it means for these teams. I know what it means for many of us, or at least, a version of it. The dates and places my differ for many around here, but the pegs the memories hang on are the same.
College sports have increasingly come to mean college football in this country. In Kentucky, they mean basketball.
Football is a sport of brute force and sheer numbers. We don't have numbers in Kentucky. What we do have is a kind of innate toughness and resourcefulness that seems to manifest itself well in this simple game, where only five can play at a time. You don't have to be rich to play it. You just have to love it, like Lancaster Gordon and his brother shooting socks into the clothes basket in their Louisville home, or little 6-year-old Kelly Coleman playing on an outdoor goal in the coal-camp town of Wayland, Ky., where he would launch his legend that would leave him always remembered in this state as "King Kelly."
Several have written in the past couple of weeks about the response of University of Kentucky fans when pieces of the 2012 national championship court were offered for sale. That was fandom, of which we in Kentucky and Indiana have extreme examples. This is love: When UK had to pull up the original floor from old Memorial Coliseum, word leaked out that the pieces were being thrown into a dumpster out behind the building. Soon, Wildcat fans descended silently upon the scene, crawled through the trash and picked them out board by board, taillights stretching down Alumni Drive, then took them home where they are treasured all over the state, some fashioned into picture frames, others displayed as heirlooms, all of them testament to the fierceness with which people here hold onto their hoops history.
My first full-time newspaper job was in Southern Indiana. I once broke up the interminable drive up the length of the state on U.S. 41 from Evansville to Chicago by counting basketball hoops. I ended up at 137. Bob Knight paced the IU sidelines, and every middle-aged man in the southern half of the state seemed to wear the same red sweater Knight wore. I think they issued them at the border.
Years later, when Butler University made a Cinderella run to the national title game in Indianapolis, I drove up to a little church in Brownsburg, Ind., where star forward Gordon Hayward attended sunrise service on the Sunday before the title game. Inside, after the service, congregants quietly asked Hayward to sign their church bulletins. On the sign outside were the words, "He is Risen, Go Butler."
Basketball isn't a religion in these parts. But it is very close.
It is, at the very least, woven into the culture. My dad, when he would tell me about listening to Claude Sullivan or Caywood Ledford on UK radio broadcasts, talked about listening to them with his grandmother, who would sometimes talk at Adolph Rupp's "boys."
Rupp himself, as much as any figure in the state, served to give it an identity and point of pride. Not being the millionaires they are today, coaches often had various sources of income, and Rupp sold hail insurance during some summers in Kentucky. Can you imagine the Baron of the Bluegrass showing up at your front door on a summer day to sell insurance? His longtime assistant, Harry Lancaster, once told my dad during a long drive amid a particularly dry summer, that Rupp turned to him and exclaimed: "You know what this state needs? . . . . A damn big hailstorm."
In Rupp's waning days, my dad, then a journalist in the state, would stop in on him, just knock on the door and go on in. Rupp would recite from memory long passages of poetry, his mind as active as if he were on the sideline.
These things are basketball to me in this state. Playing on a dirt patch in the yard. I could shoot, and hit, from just about anywhere. But unlike the kids playing in town, who honed their games on playgrounds in competitive environments, shooting is all I could do. I remember the first time I ever got cut from a basketball team, riding the school bus home, stunned, ignoring the questions about why I hadn't stayed to practice. Or, on my last attempt, being pulled from a Spanish class to be given the news by a coach that they couldn't keep me. At 5-7 and maybe 120 pounds, I just wasn't physically strong enough. I'd practiced a month or so with the team that year and done all right. Then the football players joined the workouts and that was that.
Turns out, to play basketball I'd had to shift my class schedule, so I missed out on Elaine Waits' English class, which no doubt would've been more useful. As it was, it took Susie Clemmons, Ernestine Jennings and Melissa Matthews most of three years to repair the damage.
Back at home, we still played. We even fashioned a hoop above a door in the dining room and staged mini-games. And when I say "staged," we not only played them, but my brother, now a morning show radio host in Seattle, called the games, even did his own postgame show with interviews. He still has the tapes to prove it.
In fourth grade, the best days of the year were when the SEC Tournament tipped off its early session and our teacher, Margaret Miles, would turn on the television to let us watch. Didn't seem to hurt our educational development much. I remember that year they played it at Tennessee. I can still see that old tartan playing court in my head.
I can remember some of those games, U of L's championship games, some of its old Metro Conference battles, better than I can remember games that I've actually covered.
I remember covering U of L in the Elite Eight in Charlotte, N.C. I turned around to see, of all people, UK equipment manager Bill Keightley in the stands. I climbed up to speak to him, and he asked about my parents and talked some about Rick Pitino, then told me how much fun he had watching games when he "didn't have a dog in the hunt." Not much later, he passed away, after falling on his way into a baseball game.
Basketball in this state to me is Keightley's little training room deep in the heart of Memorial Coliseum. Scott Strickland, sports information director at UK at the time, was kind enough to let me walk around in there the day after Mr. Wildcat died. There were national runner-up trophies. There was a trophy they'd given the undefeated 1956 team that refused an NCAA invitation. And there were rolls of wrapping paper and tape, stacks of letters people had written, asking this or that. Keightley would've gotten to them, if he'd had more time. I remember his little post-it notes taped beside the door to leave as messages when he left, and the one that read, "In the building." He still is.
Basketball here is Denny Crum walking off the Freedom Hall court for the final time, up the tunnel and around the corner, then out onto the concourse where he was swallowed up by people, arms around shoulders, handshakes, embraces.
I walked behind him at a little distance, watching, never having dreamed of getting the chance to be in such a moment, close enough to watch.
As a kid, one Christmas night after the presents were opened and the excitement had begun to fade, I remember warming up a basketball by the fire and heading out to the barn, where there was an indoor goal, lit by just a drop-cord light. I could shoot until the cold left the ball rock-like and unable to bounce. I'd climb over a feed trough into the narrow middle section, and play until the cold stiffened the sweat on my face. It never occurred to me that I was right then, playing basketball beside a kind of manger.
Basketball is not a religion around here. But it is close.
In Evansville, I often did a radio show with University of Southern Indiana coach Bruce Pearl. A woman once called in to congratulate him on his team playing a "Christian brand of basketball." He thanked her and noted that the accomplishment was particularly impressive given that he is Jewish.
To national folks asking questions around the region these days, I'd remind them that the intensity with which people follow the Big Three around here is no less hot around small college basketball. Games between Southern Indiana and Kentucky Wesleyan are among the most intense I've ever covered at any level. When Bellarmine won a national championship two years ago, I looked into the stands to see people in tears.
Louisville won championships and changed the way this city viewed itself. Kentucky won them and forged a state's pride. When I was a kid, the only way to see the two teams play each other was a board game, with dice featuring little Cardinals and Wildcats and playing cards representing the players. This year when they play, it might be the biggest regular-season game in the nation.
I was in the locker room with the Bellarmine University basketball team for their pregame talk and prayer before winning the NCAA Division II championship. I remember the simple, straightforward basketball discussion Knights' coach Scotty Davenport had with his team. It was very similar to the talk he would give them at the beginning of the following season when they opened at Duke. "It's not about all the stars they have by their names," he told his players. "It's about us being better together than we can be by ourselves." That's basketball.
Bob Knight called my house once when he was the IU coach and I was working in Evansville. It was only to promote some leadership seminar he was heading up. I still thought it was about as big-time as I was going to get. When a kid I covered at Jasper High School was drafted into the majors, I remember thinking, "It's a shame. He could really help some college basketball team." Turns out, Scott Rolen did all right for himself.
I covered an IU team that could've won it all if Alan Henderson hadn't gotten hurt. I covered U of L's miracle comeback against West Virginia to make the Final Four in 2005, and I was in Phoenix with the Cardinals last season when Rick Pitino flashed a knowing look after U of L knocked off Michigan State in the Sweet Sixteen. He knew he was going back to the Final Four, and he knew Kentucky would be there waiting for him.
I sat at midcourt for their Final Four showdown. I sat maybe 20 feet behind the UK bench when the team won its eighth national championship. I remember Anthony Davis losing a contact and John Calipari walking down and imploring both Davis and the trainers to hurry it up in replacing it as Kansas inched a bit closer. That contact lens was about as much drama as the game would offer.
I only go to this length and depth of my basketball memory to conclude with this thought, for those looking for a perspective on the coming basketball season in these parts.
I've been around a lot of basketball and players in this area, and a lot of seasons.
But there has never been one that was more eagerly awaited by fans of all three teams than the one that is about to tip off.
Skip Prosser, the late coach of Wake Forest and Xavier before that, used to gather his team in a circle at the beginning of the season, toss a ball up into the air, let it bounce in the middle of them, then bounce again, then settle to rest, and then he would tell them, "One day, the ball stops bouncing for all of us. We don't play the game for ever."
To those outside who wonder what all this means to folks at Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky, come join this circle for a minute. The ball is about to start bouncing, and we are going to make the most of it.