The National Championship Game — A Recap in Tweets

UK vs. Wisconsin, A Tweet Recap (SPOILER ALERT: Bad jokes ahead)

The biggest shot taken in Dallas since Kristen winged J.R.

 

Cory Collins: Battling Broadway — Confessions of a Big Blue Nation expatriate

Note from John Y. Brown, III: Thanks to Randy Ratliff and Eric Crawford for drawing attention to about the best piece of journalism I’ve stumbled across in a long while.  The piece, by Cory Collins, is a heartfelt and wrenchingly honest and humble personal piece asking probably the most unpopular question in central Kentucky this week on the eve of the NCAA Final Four; namely, Are we making too much of UK college basketball?  Collins’ piece succeeds where so many pieces like it before have failed because it is not a disconnected and predictable scolding for misguided priorities but a sentimental and bittersweet journey of one thoughtful man who has been personally intertwined in the debate for many years and from many different vantage points. And who has reached a very thoughtful conclusion and desire to express it at precisely the moment when no one else in Kentucky really cares to hear it, including me. Which makes it all the more important that we do. And why I am glad I took the time to read it and respond to it just now.

(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Allow me to bestow remembrance, lest you forget the Battle on Broadway, circa 2013.

I was sports editor of a publication you’ve undoubtedly encountered on newsstands, somewhere between USA Today and The New York Times on the rack. For the uneducated, unwashed masses, lest you forget my work, it was The Rambler, Transylvania University’s student newspaper, circulation: 1,000.

And there was a basketball game. A preseason exhibition. A storied crosstown Lexington rivalry that none of your kids will talk about: the Kentucky Wildcats hosting the Transylvania Pioneers, my Division III institution that stands just a short Conestoga ride down Broadway from the sacred walls of Rupp Arena.

As you might imagine, hype was high, even if trash talk proved difficult. Something about “Hey, UK! In the 1800s, you were our AG SCHOOL! And we reap what we sow!” didn’t exactly elicit fear in the hearts of seven-foot Wildcats.

We lost. I’ll spare you the bloody details. But Pioneers could take pride in a 30-second spot on ESPN’s SportsNation, where our own Brandon Rash (sort of) posterized Willie Cauley-Stein. The reaction was predictable, only lacking the low-hanging fruit that is a joke about Dracula.

The host, Colin Cowherd, mocked the name on the chest, as if to ask, where the hell is Transylvania?

It’s hard to blame him. For in the world of sports, we were Atlantis, lost in the Lexington, Ky., sea of blue.

Cory-Collins_avatar_1387822758-190x190Perhaps we wore crimson because we often acted as a vein pumping blood into the heart of Big Blue Nation. We had our fair share of duel-fandom, students who wanted Transy diplomas but UK basketball T-shirts. We had Matt Jones, who became the host of Kentucky Sports Radio. We have current senior Ben Lyvers, who helps lead a Pioneer cheering section but wore blue to the Battle on Broadway.

And we had me. Stubborn, hipster me. Adamant that I had picked sides. Adamant that I had put my heart into Transylvania and a critical eye on Kentucky.

What I saw: it wasn’t that simple.

***

I don’t know when I became an outsider.

Before Cory Collins waxed poetic about the problems with big-money college athletics and referred to himself in the third person, Cory Collins played basketball on a plot of packed mud, a basketball hoop nailed to a tree. For hours, he played. And when the names taking the shots weren’t imaginary, they were often Wildcats.

I was just a rural Kentucky boy with a dream, and like many children, I loved things unconditionally and disproportionally. I loved shooting the basketball. And of all Wildcats, I loved Wayne Turner, and the way he shot free throws like he was mean enough to throw a baby backwards but kind enough to put a hand behind its head. I’d mimic the motion, because a swish is just as sweet when its origin makes no sense. And it made me smile. Why isn’t motivation always so simple?

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment that boyhood admiration for Big Blue disappeared. I turned into that typical creative, heady kid who seeks to assert himself. I dreamed beyond the boundaries of Kentucky, and thus, I cheated on my childhood and fell in love with new groups of young men playing ball games. I loved Texas’s baseball squad, UCLA’s color palette.

But these were fleeting fancies. In the end, I went to Transylvania, years after I discovered that a late-bloomer who has a way with words does not a scholarship athlete make. I thought my choice was made, my allegiance assigned. I’d left behind that Kentucky boy.

Instead, I found myself in an epicenter.

***

To live in Lexington with objective eyes is to see it: the big money program, the John Calipari car commercials, the burning couches, the fandom that does not border on obsession but defines it. I’ll admit that I was disenfranchised by its surround-sound persistence.

In 2012, when Big Blue raised its eighth banner, I was there as chaos hit State Street and Limestone. The success of selfless superstars like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist begat something much different — a mass self-indulgence. The destruction, the binge drinking, that’s what you’d see if you look no further than the six o’clock news.

So on the surface, it looked like everything that is wrong with the Kentucky fan base, what some may call the Alabama football following of the hardwood. A group that stands on a self-built pedestal, downgrades the outsider, and takes criticism as personal affront. But if that’s all you see, you miss a bit of beauty in Big Blue Nation:

You miss the fans that have nothing else to hold on to, not just in the streets of Lexington, but in the mountains, on the farms, inside the trailer parks where, without Big Blue, hope is a penny stock and they can’t afford it.

You miss the bond Big Blue perpetuates. As the aforementioned Mr. Lyvers explains it, “It just gives you chills. I’ve high-fived so many strangers in the past two weeks I had to ice my hand. It’s unifying.”

You miss the rare moment in the 21st century when something has the power to send people from their digital screens and screened-in porches to celebrate as a community.

But it should be said: if you only skim the surface of Kentucky basketball, you miss the dangers in the undertow.

***

When this culture surrounds you, so too does its flaws.

There are the obvious problems that you can find on the Twitter accounts of Jay Bilas of ESPN (@JayBilas) and Steve Berkowitz of USA Today (@ByBerkowitz) — Calipari’s unbelievable salary, the marketing of young men, an infrastructure so out of touch with its fan base that it sometimes feels like basketball’s McDonald’s, letting its poor indulge on unhealthy expectations until they are full.

But there are other things you see up close. There’s the way Kentucky basketball defines a city, despite a burgeoning culture of art, of inclusion, of creativity that fights to compete with its significance.

There is a dangerous dependence where identities, days, and moods are determined by wins and losses. It isn’t fandom, it’s a civil war, the difference between Kentucky being a national champion and a national punch line.

There appears to be a value system of athletics over academics, despite Calipari’s insistence to the contrary. UK is a team, in some eyes, before it’s a school. The school’s own official Twitter account, after 2012, led off its description promoting itself as the home of basketball’s best team. There was, surprisingly, no mention of its music program.

There is the onslaught of one-and-done, which has created a distance between fans and players. A veteran like Patrick Patterson is now the rarity. And while these fans understand better than many that dreams are fleeting, and that winning has a way of healing the hurt, they engage a coping mechanism. They decide the latest bunch will soon be gone, lament the loss of the old days and discard the new ones.

As an observer, as a liberal arts student and millennial hippie with cultural sensitivity and ingrained skepticism, this troubles me. But then I dare to look beneath the extremes. Beyond the ugly sides of fandom and into the beautiful in-between.

***

It was only two years ago when Kentucky represented the model for how youthful superstars could coalesce into something spectacular. It was only two months ago when Kentucky seemed to offer proof that no number of high school All-Americans could overcome the intangible necessities of experience and chemistry to succeed.

Now, the Wildcats are only two games away from potentially reclaiming the crown.

And on one hand, I dread it. I dread the fed beast that is the Big Blue Nation. I dread the calls to sports radio that will cement stereotypes of a Kentucky mindlessness that sees basketball, but misses the point.

But on the other hand, I can see it. I can already envision the sights of the state I called home. And some of it is beautiful.

I can see my Aunt Becky, as she battles cancer, for a moment able to stand strong, a tear in her eyes, a blue shirt over her heart, the words “our boys” on her lips as they dance across her television screen, victorious.

I can see the streets of Lexington, swarmed in jubilation. And beneath the binge-drinking, the danger, some student just happy to be there will hug a stranger, or take a selfie on Limestone Street with no intent to destroy, just to remember.

I can see a boy, somewhere, in the woods on a mud-packed court, running outside like I did in 1998, counting down imaginary seconds, perfecting Andrew Harrison’s follow through. Just a boy in the middle of nowhere that can dream of being somebody.

And yes, I can see the sight of freshman boys beneath confetti, a farewell party where their parting gift is the title, “National Champion,” smiling while we damn the system. The system that, God forbid, lets these boys of basketball leave to do what they love.

That’s when I’ll realize: who am I to damn the dreamers? Why should I, an outsider who can see the inside, fault the Big Blue Nation for its happiness?

I am critical. Of the money, of the culture, of the insensitivity and ignorance that can sometimes flow from a fan base so devoted to winning basketball games that it forgets that there are human beings beneath the jerseys, both the opposition’s and the one’s that spell “Kentucky” across the chest.

And there will be a time to revisit the one-and-done. To reconsider the explicability of recruiting players to use their university as a stepping stone to greatness, of sacrificing a sense of continuity for a sense of contention. To rediscover a game that used to be a Kentucky pastime before it became a Kentucky corporation.

But it is not just a cliché, in Kentucky, to miss the forest for the trees. So many problems dot the landscape that it’s easy to lose the scenery, to overlook the beauty.

I couldn’t truly see it until I left. I had intended to write about living within the city limits of Kentucky’s evil empire for four years, of lamenting how Kentucky ball courts became cult cathedrals.

But then I remembered that, beneath the burning couches, the hateful words on talk radio and the complicated racial relationship between player and fan (all of which still boils my Kentucky blood), there was happiness. There were smiles.

Because yes, we do have teeth in Kentucky. There’s just not always much reason to show them.

There’s a reason that a recent study from Gallup Healthways ranked two areas in the Commonwealth among the nation’s ten most miserable. For many, times are tough.

And if it takes millions of dollars, a basketball and a miracle run to bring those smiles back to Big Blue Nation — if it takes two Harrison twins and one coach with a car salesman’s smile — on some level, just maybe, it’s worth it.

Or maybe I’m still Wayne Turner in the wooded back yard, and I’ll never have a proper grip.

John Y. Brown, III: One UK fan’s reflections

The 2013-14 UK Wildcats men’s basketball team started the season ranked first in the nation and started the NCAA tournament unranked and noteworthy primarily
for what they hadn’t done this season.

But that was a very long time ago—at the beginning of the tournament —and with 68 teams competing.

A couple weeks have passed and now there are just four teams left, including the team of destiny that became the team of disappointment before they became again the team of destiny.

And vanquished the Duke ’92 demon that had festered for 22 years…..before avenging the Michigan Fab 5 loss that had lingered for 23 years…..all while playing 120 consecutive minutes of the steeliest and most exciting basketball in perhaps Kentucky’s storied college basketball history…and who still haven’t played to their fullest possible potential…but have one last chance in Dallas next week to do just that.

And is a team that will never be accused of disappointing their fans or their followers and is now on their way to Dallas because they have a date with destiny…and only themselves left to prove something to.

jyb_musingsWe, the fans, are privileged to be along for this special ride–of the 2013-14 UK basketball team —a team that will not go down as the greatest, or most unforgettable, or most invincible UK team ever….but will be remembered quite possibly as the damnedest team in modern UK basketball history. And certainly one of the most special.

Good luck navigating your destiny the rest of the way. It’s on you, fellas.

Just know your fans are proudly behind you –every single last step of your blessed way.

The UK/Michigan Insta-Classic — A Recap in Tweets

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John Y. Brown, III: Wildcats > Wolverines

 Amazing some of the things you can learn on the internet…..Something to think about today prior to the University of Kentucky Wildcats vs Michigan Wolverines game (From Wikipedia, mostly)

Wolverine /ˈwʊlvəriːn/, Gulo gulo (Gulo is Latinfor “glutton”), also referred to as glutton, carcajou,skunk bear, or quickhatch, is the largest land-dwelling species of the family Mustelidae (WEASELS).
The Woverine is a dumpy, uncoordinated and unathletic creature that preys mostly on insects because it isn’t fast enough or strong enough to catch “real animals” (e.g. Lions or Tigers or Wildcats).In fact, Wildcats are known predators of the lowly wolverine weasel, especially in late March in the midwest United States, preferably after the weasel creature has feasted on Tennessee Volunteers.

Many cities, teams, and organizations use the wolverine as a mascot. For example, the US state of Michigan is, by tradition, known as “the Wolverine State”, and the University of Michigan takes the wolverine as its mascot. Michigan students overwhelmingly voted to be called “Wolverines” because they mistakenly believed a wolverine was the shape-shifting character played by in the Twilight movie series by Taylor Lautner.

jyb_musingsThere was controversy at the time over the decision because the Michigan men’s basketball team overwhelmingly preferred Robert Pattinson’s fictional vampire character over Taylor Lautner’s werewolf character. Mostly because it was easier to spell “vampire” than “werewolf.”

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the entire men’s basketball team agree “Breaking Dawn” the episode narrated from the perspective of Taylor Lautner’s werewolf is the best movie of the entire Twilight saga.

This is an important fact to remember whenever watching the University of Michigan’s mens basketball team play.

(Note: Even though Robert Pattison’s vampire character and Taylor Lautner’s wolf character are tough in the Twilight movie series, the movie is fiction —and in real life both Robert and Taylor are terrible at basketball and believe Duke University is the best college basketball program ever, especially during the early 90s.

imageAnd neither can beat Bella, Kristin Stewart, in basketball, who believes the University of Kentucky Wildcats are the greatest basketball program in college basketball history –and much, much better than any team with a weasel for a mascot. And she believes Christian Laettner looks more like a pasty member of the fictional Cullen vampire family than a real college basketball player.

Sunset in Kentucky

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Photo by Rudolph Tobbe

John Y. Brown, III: College basketball, fan participation and magical thinking

NCAA tournament basketball is about as competitive as sports gets—and takes a full team effort. And when you get to the Sweet Sixteen round that team effort includes the fans. Especially if it is UK vs UL.

In fact, as much as last night’s historic game was a test of collegiate basketball skills at their highest level, it was also a test of fan participation behaviors at their highest (and potentially lowest) levels.

Sure the young collegiate superstars on the floor last night for UK and UL had to be at the top of their game—and were for both teams. But what isn’t as obvious to the unsuspecting eye is the crucial role the fans play in helping their team get those small but important advantages that can make the difference in a close tournament game.

Last night my son Johnny and I were amidst a sea of “mixed” basketball fans. Some were for UL and others were for UK at about an equal ratio. It was the perfect formula for a fight to breakout at any given time and I even whispered to my son before the game, “I hope I don’t get involved in a fist fight tonight….I tend to get hurt badly in those situations.” Johnny agreed and we vowed to be on good behavior for as long as we could.

The most active UL fan in our orbit was seated, of course, directly in front of me. He was clearly a UL fan because he was middle-aged and wearing a red shirt with a cardinal logo and kept making the “L” sign with his right hand (along with his wife, or UL co-fan) for pictures he asked others —sometimes UK fans—to take. I think the hand “L” sign is clever but kept wondering if it shouldn’t be limited to just one hand so it doesn’t get confused with a “J” hand sign. But couldn’t figure out if it should be the UL fan’s left or right hand (outward looking or looking toward).

I was an obvious UK fan. Middle-aged. Not thin but no longer heavy either and wearing blue jeans, a blue shirt and a blue blazer. He had a slight advantage over me because I did not have a wildcat logo on my lapel and, let’s be honest, there is no way to smoothly make the letter “K” hand sign with a single hand. I did come up with a way to make a lower case “k” using both hands but decided against attempting since it was my first time and it was something that would need practice before going live with.

The first half went smoothly. No indications of a fisticuffs breaking out on the floor between UL and UK players or in the stands between UL and UK fans.

Things started surprisingly subdued. In the first few minutes I mumbled, “Let’s go UK” where it could be heard by my son but no one else. I essentially whispered it in his ear. Johnny quickly chastised me my pointing out facetiously, “It sure is good for UK that there’s a man in the crowd of 41,000 fans who is whispering “Let’s go cats.”

I explained I was just trying to communicate with him and not the team, but he had made his point. Meanwhile, my UL nemesis was starting to cheer not just out of normal fan pleasure but to also make a point to the UK fans around him that he not only was “for” UL but was starting to believe they were going to win. He would say things like, “Pull away, Cards!” And the worst part was that they were. It was 18-5 and I had no choice but to up my fan game –before it was too late.

I shouted “THREE” and not long after that UK made an important 3 point shot. Thank goodness. UK was turning around the momentum—and –importantly– doing so in conjunction with their fans.

The Cardinal fan in front of me countered my “THREE!” by reciting numerous player names. He obviously knew his stuff. He also would show off that he knew the hand gesture for official calls trying to do the gesture himself before the officials (whenever the call would benefit UL). This was all good showmanship but my “Go Cats” coupled with another correct “THREE” closed the point difference to 3 at half. My point being at UK we are about winning. Not showing off.

During half time, like the players themselves, I needed a break and headed out to the concession stand before returning to position myself behind and “checking” my UL counterpart as we both prepared for an intense –and potentially historic—second half of play. Both teams came out strong but my UL fan was quieter than I expected at first. I tried to watch the game but couldn’t help staring into his bald spot and starting to really resent what he represented –and what was at stake for both of us.

And then it started, “He cheered louder for UL than any single play during the first half. My son and I retorted with an even louder yell besting our best first half shout out to UK by an even more significant margin. Hoping my UL fan was chastened, I soon found out he was instead embolden. I couldn’t make out what it was he was trying to chant at first. It sounded like he was saying “ewwww” and I even thought it was perhaps a foul on UL. But I soon discovered he was chanting “Luuuuukkkkkeeeee” and it just sounded like “ewwwww.” And, again to my dismay but growing respect, it was working! Within about a 3 minute stretch, Luke Skywalker (I’m guessing his last name…the fan in front of me seemed only to know Luke’s first name) made two three pointers and four free throws.

All I could think was, “Game on, pal!” And If it needed to get a little dirty on my end, I was willing to go there. I started with some major high-fives with my son with accompanying fist bumps and ecstatic “Yes! Cats!” A new shout I improvised in desperation that was obviously—and thankfully—working.

My UL counterpart went into overdrive high-fiving any UL fan within arm reach of him. I wasn’t willing to go there. Yet. And wasn’t sure what to do next to turn up the heat. I shouted my standard bearer “THREE” several times but the UL fans around me were on to me as obviously as the UL players –and no three pointers were made.

Somehow, I have to assume it was my son’s cheering because it wasn’t mine, UK pulled within 3 points. Which is when I knew we had moved to “No holds barred” fan tactics. UK was at the free throw line. I looked on knowingly –confident the free throw by Andrew Harrison was going in and I was shocked. Horrified actually. The UL fan below me was shaking his hands to put a hex on the UK free throw shooter. I had never seen this before and it was as creepy as you are imagining. And this guy looked was obviously no piker. He had cast spells before on free throw shooters and I was trying to pull myself out of shock and into some sort of counter-spell mode. I had never cast a counter spell and was momentarily frozen. All I could do was wait until UL went to the free throw line. I wanted to shake my hands menacingly while glowering at the UL shooter—but was afraid it wouldn’t come off as polished as my competitor fan. So instead I just concentrated really hard on the UL player to miss his free throws. I reminded myself from the first half that UK was more about substance over style in fan magical thinking trying to influence games. And it worked. Phew!! And worked again!

As the clock wound down to under 3 minutes, the UL fan’s free throw hexes became more pronounced and involved —and more desperate looking. And ineffectual. I grinned to myself and with 38 seconds to go went for the coup de grace when Aaron Harrison got the ball in the corner. “T-H-R-E-E” I erupted from out of nowhere. Nothing but net, baby! As uber-fan Dick Vitale likes to say.

The game was all but over. I did one last mental hex on the UL player who missed a key free throw needed to tie. It was over. We—the UK players and their magical fans—and pulled off a staggering come-from-behind defeat.

We UK fans congratulated each other –but not to gleefully. It was a close call and could have gone the other way —if we, the fans, hadn’t been on our A-game.

Feeling both grateful and magnanimous after the big win, I looked down on the court and watched the players congratulating each other. I figured that was the least I could do. I tapped my nemesis on the shoulder and offered to shake his hand which he took. And being every bit as much the gentleman said, “Good luck on Monday” as he walked off.

I looked at my son and said, “That was pretty cool, wasn’t it? Nice gesture.” And I thought to myself how glad I was I didn’t know how to put a counter spell on him after all to stop his spell on UK’s free throw shooters. Because he might have left with my spell still in tact. And on Monday night, if he was really serious about wishing UK luck, we could use his help.

A Twitter Summary of One-Liners from the UK/UL Dream Game

John Y’s Musings from the Middle: Who says basketball isn’t like life?

(Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

I want to go out of this world like the Wichita St Shockers lost to the University of Kentucky Wildcats yesterday in the NCAA tournament.

I want my last shot to be potentially the one I’ll be remembered for –if it goes in.

And all I ask for is three seconds and one good look at the basket.

And I only want there to be 0.2 seconds left before I realize it’s… all over.

jyb_musingsAnd I want to feel grateful for the incredible run I was privileged to experience

And I want to leave the floor knowing I did everything I could have done during the time I was in the game

And that I exceeded all expectations–not out of good fortune– but because I played with the heart of a champion and never gave up

And that I played pursuing what I believed was my destiny

And I want my loss to be remembered somehow as Kentucky’s gain.

I only ask that I not be in St Louis when it happens.

And that where I am going is someplace much better than Indianapolis.

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