There are two times during the year that are particularly dear to Kentucky Wildcats fans. One is around the ides of October, when the Big Blue Nation marks the birth of a new college basketball season in a raucous celebration of extravagant joy. The other is around the ides of March, where the basketball season begins its orgy of intensity culminating in a national championship. The latter is greeted equally in the Bluegrass by joy and concern, anticipation and nervousness, trepidation and elation. For Kentucky fans, it's pure magic.
The game of basketball is woven into the fabric of Kentucky life like hunting and fishing, coffee in the morning, the Kentucky Derby in May, and the bluegrass itself that gives the Commonwealth it's nickname. Like football in Tennessee or Alabama, the spirit of basketball is everywhere, even during the off-season. In any gym in the state with a hoop and a ball, you will find the game happening year round with adults and kids alike imagining themselves as one of the Blue and White-clad youngsters taking the court in the fall. The game is pervasive, and year-long. Basketball in Kentucky is an obsession.
Kentucky basketball is there on the tee box of every golf course during the summer, where you will find Wildcats talk mixed in with discussions of club selection and who gets how many strokes. They talk about next season, about how recruiting is going, about beating the Louisville Cardinals and the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils. Yes, there is football talk too, but only a little. Basketball is the game that made Kentucky famous, just as a man with the curious first name of Harlan made his Kentucky-bred version of southern fried chicken famous as Colonel Sanders, and the people of the Commonwealth have claimed both as their own.
Basketball was not invented in Kentucky, but the college game was immaculated here under the guidance of coaching legend Adolph Rupp, and in that perfection has grown an ardor not just for the game itself, but for the exceptional, the outstanding, the superior -- not just in results, or in box scores, but in execution. The bottom line is very important to Kentucky fans, but flawless precision in implementation is just as important. In short, college basketball fans in the Bluegrass demand not only results, but good basketball. Ugly wins are accepted, grudgingly. Beautiful basketball is appreciated even in defeat.
So what about these Kentucky fans, who draw both praise and derision from those outside their ranks? The fan base of the Wildcats is among the most economically and culturally diverse anywhere. From the impoverished, hardscrabble eastern Kentucky mountains to the urbane Ohio river cities, Kentucky fans are as far from the elitists of the North Carolina Research Triangle as they are from culturally sophisticated Los Angeles or New York. The Big Blue Nation is deep, wide, and inclusive, requiring only adherence to true faith for membership.
Kentucky is a poor and largely rural state that is only gradually and almost resentfully moving into the 21st century. There are many places in the Eastern mountains that would recall a time long past. Home junkyards still dot the outskirts of small towns, the rusty hulks of cars of every decade lying haphazardly hither and thither. In much of Kentucky, time seems to have stopped at varying degrees, and the farther you ride out of town, the farther back in time you go. In many places around the Commonwealth, the Internet is something Not Invented Here, and not needed to feed the family or bring the Wildcats to life in homes and cottages.
Many Kentucky people, like Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari himself, have seen their family ravaged by black lung disease. Even more have seen another famous (or infamous) Kentucky product, tobacco, claim the lives and health of their loved ones. The Commonwealth has suffered much from the ravages of agriculture and mining. Yet October through March, they put aside their difficulties and live the Wildcats.
Kentucky fans, by and large, have grown up with their fandom. They have huddled season after season in their living rooms with friends and relations watching or still now, listening, to the Wildcats play. Kentucky fans in the Commonwealth are born to their Big Blue partisanship almost out of the womb, which is why Kentucky boys with basketball talent are so coveted by the Wildcats faithful. Kids that grew up with a love of the Wildcats know that Kentucky basketball is not just a game, not just a winter pastime, not just entertainment -- it is a way of life, a common cause, a shared experience that connects people across miles, class, race, and politics. When the Wildcats are playing, none of the things that divide Kentucky fans matter. There is only college basketball. There is only the Great Game.
With every squeak of a sneaker on hardwood, with every bounce of the ball, with every pure jumpshot, Wildcats fans know that the climax of another basketball season has arrived when the grass begins to green and the buds begin to show. Teams are playing at their peak. Upsets will happen, conference champions will fall, high seeds will suffer close and competitive games, and even season-ending losses against teams widely regarded as inferior. But as the old horse race saying goes, these teams don't know they're inferior -- they only know that if they get to the end of the game with the most points, they win. That's what drives every team this time of year in this merciless, unforgiving format. Survive and advance. Lose and go home. There is no reprieve, no do-over, no second chance.
Wildcats fans are all too aware of this reality, with its joys and bitterness. In 2004, the 2nd-ranked Wildcats were upset by the UAB Blazers in the second round. In 2003, the #1 ranked, #1 seed Wildcats were upset in the regional final by the Marquette Golden Eagles led by now-NBA star Dwyane Wade. Last year, disappointment came in the form of Bob Huggins' West Virginia Mountaineers in the regional final.
But seven times in the last century or so, Kentucky fans have known the rapture of absolute victory. Many more times have they known defeat and disappointment. But disappointment lasts only a little while in the Bluegrass, while hope springs eternal. Wildcats fans go into this tournament, as they have every year for over 100 years, with hope. But even if those hopes are dashed short of the goal, new buds of expectation for next year will replace that disappointment, just as the green growth of spring drives away the withered remains of winter.
That green you see growing brighter outside can mean only one thing -- It's March in the Bluegrass. The Madness has begun.