Essay on UK Basketball

For 6 months beginning last September, I played the role of “Maggie the Cat” at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway, and I was always highly entertained during my curtain calls when I heard shouts from the audience of, ‘Go Big Blue!, Go Cats,’ and the like (they were more frequent than you might think!). I even saw homemade signs, raised by theatre goers who wanted to joyfully express our mutually held passion for college basketball of a certain ilk as well as see Tennessee Williams’ great play. But, while I treasured my opportunity on that stage, interpreting one of the greatest roles of all time, I deeply lamented that it prevented me from attending any and all games played by my beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats. That is why in February, when during about my 150th performance I severely injured my left foot, the first thought I had after, “OUCH!’ was, “Lord, I can probably catch the rest of the games.” And indeed, very shortly after I had surgery, I begged my ortho for permission to take a short flight (“But Dr. Ferrell, it’s so close! And I’ll keep it elevated the whole time!) to South Carolina (82-62, UK), where I blissfully watched my Wildcats absolutely dominate the Gamecocks on their Senior Day (sorry fellas, we do that to Florida a lot, too).
People often ask me to try to explain why Kentuckians are so nutty about UK basketball, like I wear the Fetish of Abidos and should know these things. I can only speculate that it is because the Commonwealth is so diverse, from the mountains of the east, from where my family hails going back many generations, to the Bluegrass, where we have our proud tradition of raising the world’s best Thoroughbreds, to the west, where the soil is so fertile and our crops are raised, and that basketball provides one single thing to unite us all (hmm, this sounds like the one true ring in “Lord of the Rings!), of which we can all be proud, about which we can all dialogue (endlessly, I might add). And as a state that has had its hard times, basketball has given us something to distract us from hardships, from coal mines and strikes and poverty, and given us something positive about which to dream. And that dreaming is universal: a pilot once told my Nana that when he flies over the state, he can tell when UK is playing. The roads are empty.
I was blessed to grow up in different parts of Kentucky, with both my heritage and the bulk my of my time having been spent in the eastern part of the state, of which Coach Rupp said, “I will lift up mine eyes to the mountains, from whence commeth my help.” (That’s about the steady stream of boys from the mountains who during 100 years of UK basketball have made this program what it is, people.) I took basketball for granted; it was always just there. The school I attended in the 12th grade, Paul G. Blazer, which was earlier called Ashland High School, won the state championship many times, and the National in 1928 (*check for possible other nationals titles!*); the wonderful Larry Conley, with whom my dad played junior high ball, came out of there to famously become the heart and soul of Rupp’s Runts. I loved hearing my Aunt Margaret talk about Papaw Judd taking her and other kids, some of whom died before I came along, to Memorial Coliseum in Lexington to see games, driving on old route 60 as the highway hadn’t been built yet. And I know that while I was in school elsewhere, my family watched the games on TV with the volume turned down to listen instead to Caywood Ledford’s radio broadcast, and I dream of them doing so. When we moved to Tennessee in 1979, I used to wait endlessly on Saturday mornings for the SEC games to come on, and I’d sigh when I saw Rupp Arena, wistfully reckoning I knew half the people in the gym. That’s a lot of people for a 13 year old to know, but I was homesick.
Kentucky basketball helps keep 3 generations of my family actively in touch. My great aunts and uncles in Lexington join me for what games I am able to attend, and they send me charming letters accompanying local press clippings about my team, with reminders that our rooms at their houses are still ready and waiting for any spontaneous trips my husband and I might be able to make. My Uncle Mark, whom I adore and revere, and I talk shop; my Aunt Middy told me recently she occasionally gets out their tape of the ’98 Comeback Cats defeating Duke, just to watch it again for renewed pleasure. My dad and I talk about Kentucky basketball both practically and poetically, and when he works CBS games he calls me so we can bitterly complain (again) about ACC Billy. This time we spend together on the premise of Kentucky basketball leads to my not only treasuring my relative’s company but to an ongoing education about my family’s history and fond recollections of those who have gone before us.
One unexpected aspect of my fandom that I love is my total equality with all Kentucky fans. I am not an actress, I am not a movie star, and I am Judd only insofar as people express pride in their native daughters. I can go to games alone, and have done so many, many times, even on the road. In 2002 I hopped on a plane to Florida, took a cab to the gym, and just walked in, afterwards returning to the humid night air chuffed with my team’s 70-68 win and feeling as free as I do when I walk the woods of our farm. At least at that game, however, Donna Smith was expecting me; she wasn’t when my brother-in-law’s car went out in the first 30 minutes of the 12 Hours of Sebring race and my husband and I suddenly found ourselves flying home much earlier than expected. I organized the plane to drop him off in Nashville and carry me on to St. Louis to see my Cats. There, I again I took a cab, and just walked the halls of the arena, exchanging hellos and hoots with the faithful, then surprising my friends at the team ticket table. They were able to cough up a ticket for me and I had conniptions of glee along with rest of the Big Blue Nation as we watched Tayshaun Prince score 41 points, just like Jack “Goose” Givens had against Duke 20 years earlier in that same gym to bring UK its 5th of 7 national titles. Fans want to celebrate Kentucky, talk about match ups, go over specific players and how they are playing (Cliff’s defense is awesome! Chuck and Erik pass like they are telepathically connected! How much do you love Ravi’s hustle? That Thomas is going to contribute big time next year! I got to meet Joe Crawford and Rajan Rondo!), not chat me up about what movies I have coming or where Salma is. You have no idea what an epic relief that is to me. And, knowing Kentucky fans the way I do, I must add: I am not the number one fan. Number One fans are many, we are legion. I am just a little more visible than most (except for our Elvis fan at the SEC tourney each year!).
I have had the pleasure of getting to know many teams and players. I get to go backstage, if you will, and enjoy the young men, their basketball IQ, their friendships and bonds, see residuals of game plans and X’s and O’s on the board, and the quality all-around life education Coach Smith and his exceptional staff are giving them. Not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but Tony Delk is still my favorite; that boy could flat out play, and while he was awesome to watch doing the obvious things which lead him to be MVP of the ’96 Final Four, he won me over with his defense and they way he could get any sucker in foul trouble. Tony and I went to Carnegie Deli in NYC after UK won it all and the team party had petered out, and we ate a hilarious amount of food and drank milkshakes, waiting for the papers to come out. Now, who else has a memory like that?
The 2002-03 squad came to our house (fan nirvana, anyone?) after they beat IUPI (***get score, can’t find my yearbook***) in Nashville and my friend Cathy, Aunt Dot, and I cooked for them. We were all mutually awestruck, so they ended up eating a whole heck of a lot less than the boosters who came over the next night and were far less numerous! Coach loved our countryside setting, and he kept trying to get the town boys to believe he wanted them to take a walk in the woods with a kerosene lantern. One guy was nearly hysterical at the thought (I’m not naming names!). I made a JuCo joke that Antwain Barbour and I still chuckle over. The fellas signed a wall that goes down to the basement with fond sentiments in addition to their names and numbers. That wall, which is also graced by distinctions granted to me by the people of Kentucky (Kentucky Colonel, National Arts Award, etc.) is almost as dear to me as my grandmother’s pearls. If I didn’t want our future families to be able to see it, I’d have it cremated with me when I go.
I really have far too many wonderful memories to even begin sharing, so I’ll leave you with my most recent. It’s also my most emotional. I went to Rupp for Senior Day, cast, sinusitis, bronchitis and all (84-62, UK). Each home game, during the first time out in the second half, our cheeleaders (12 time National Champions) slide around the floor spelling “Kentucky” and a special person from the crowd is asked to come out to make the “Y”, something I have done both alone and with my family. (Some actually say the way I fired up the crowd with my hyperactive Y in 2002 when we were down to Tennessee helped us come back to win! Mr. Wildcat was looking at me, mouth gaping and amusement on his face, even some of the players in the huddle couldn’t help but stare. But it ended up right, 64-61, UK). Anyhow, that day, cheerleader Jason Keough hoisted me onto his brave shoulder to carry me and my UK blue cast out to half court, and before the PA had even had a chance to introduce me, I saw that the entire gym (that’s 23,000 + people! Have you ever seen a picture of that place?) was giving me a standing ovation. It was the most extraordinary feeling, something you can readily see in my face in the photograph of me with my arms opened wide and eyes closed, soaking up and reciprocating the love and esteem my kindred were giving me. They knew I hadn’t been to Rupp all season. They know how much it all means to me, how much it meant to my Papaw Judd and Uncle Brian and all those others about whom I have told you. Back at the Music Box Theatre, at that very moment my play was closing without me, but I was having the best curtain call of my entire life right there in Rupp Arena, feeling adored by the people who mean so very much to me: The people of Kentucky.