It's really easy, and even facile, to compare things that are completely unrelated in either time or importance. There are few watershed events that can really change a person's thinking, or inspire hope, or courage, or service, or even something as simple as joy. Inspiration is 50% timing, 50% delivery, 50% a hungry audience and 50% luck.
Yes, I know that's several 50%'s too many, so instead of holding me to mathematical precision, I ask you to grant me just a bit of poetic license. Sometimes, words transcend the mundane of everyday existence and reach deep into our hearts to find those extra 100 percentage points that otherwise don't exist. Often, we look for inspiration in world leaders, or political parties, in religious figures or in the great works of literature. Sometimes we find it in the most unlikely of places, like basketball coaches.
Of course, John Calipari's speech tonight was not for everyone. The Kansas Jayhawks, for instance, would have found it uninspiring. Likewise the North Carolina Tar Heels, or the Louisville Cardinals. In fact, I'll wager most of America would have found John Calipari's speech rather ordinary, even maudlin.
But for the men, women and children of the Big Blue Nation for whom it was intended, the new Kentucky basketball coach struck such a resonance as might threaten to rip open the fabric of time and space itself. The past. The present. The future. It was all there, in stark relief, reminding every Kentuckian by well-known recitation of past glory, by careful omission of recent failure, and by glorious hopefulness of future success.
You know, I and many who come here have been Wildcat fans a long time. We have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. We know great success, and we know abject failure. We have felt the overwhelming joy of grasping the brass ring, and the dismal misery of wallowing in darkness and doubt. It is all of these things, not just the success, that makes the experience of being a Kentucky fan a singular and wonderful one. Yes, many others may lay claim to all the above, but very few feel it so deeply in their souls, so forcefully or passionately as the brothers and sisters of the Big Blue Nation.
It is said that Kentucky fans have a unique passion and understanding of basketball because the state has so little else to inspire its people. Most often, that is said by people who do not recognize the beauty in a still, fall morning in the country with a brisk wind blowing in from the north and light fog just beginning to lift over the holler, or the sound of horses champing in their nose-bags, or the quiet beauty of a late summer sunset over bluegrass fields. Most of the urban sports watchers think Kentucky is a backward place full of prejudice and ignorance instead of home to a vibrant, passionate, fair-minded people who understand that art may be found not just in the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile or the gilded works of Shakespeare, but also in a smooth cross-over or the graceful arc of a well-executed jump shot.
It seems that Coach Calipari is more similar to us than not, despite his urban upbringing and his urbane lifestyle. Consider these words from his speech during Big Blue Madness:
I look at this team behind me and the passion in front of me and I see the foundation for MY VISION FOR OUR PROGRAM.
It’s a vision where we are THE GOLD STANDARD NOT JUST for College Basketball BUT FOR ALL College athletics.
THAT MEANS superiority in EVERYTHING FROM OUR ACADEMIC STANDARDS to our FACILITIES TO OUR LIVING SPACES. WE WILL be A PROGRAM rooted in INTEGRITY AND run with class and we will always remember that we represent this great commonwealth.
WITH those principles guiding us, we will earn the PRIVILEGE OF BEING HELD TO a higher standard both as players and coaches. AND THAT’S exactly WHAT IT IS – A PRIVILEGE to represent all of big blue nation in everything that we do.
These are words that reject unprincipled entitlement. These words do not speak to callous self-aggrandizement, or hubris, or the narcissism of which both Coach and Commonwealth have been recently accused. These words embrace excellence, not just in basketball but in all facets of life, as a responsibility rather than an option or a vain desire. These words demand the best, not just from the team, but from the coaching staff and everyone associated with the program, directly or indirectly. These are words, fairly spoken, that each of us would do well to embrace in our own lives -- the PRIVILEGE of representing the quiet grace and wonder of a rural state that should be proud of its nature, rather than ashamed or chastened as so many have demanded.
Even though Coach Calipari may not have intended it, this speech is a call to action for all of us who call the Commonwealth of Kentucky home. Even though he may not be one of us, it is clear that Calipari has comprehended, at least for the most part, what makes fans of the University of Kentucky tick -- not in a shallow or mocking way like many sports pundits and Herald-Leader editorialists, but deep down and sincerely. It isn't a validation of Kentucky's passion so much as an exposition of it for our own introspection -- something perhaps long overdue.
So in the end, perhaps the Big Blue Madness of 2009 will serve a larger purpose than simply rallying the Faithful to the Cause. Perhaps it will, in a small way, give us a better understanding of ourselves, of our state, and of our fellow-fans. Perhaps it will, by its implicit rejection of the vain and unprincipled entitlement mentality of the past, call us to emulate the demands he will make on the team -- family, fraternity, and kindness in the service of being the best we can be.
If he is calling on the team to reach these lofty goals, does it not follow that we fans are being asked to do the same?
In my opinion, the "privilege of being held to a higher standard" demands it.