My father, UK alumni and fan, passed away March 29th, 2008, two days before Bill Keightley
It seems appropriate that March 31st would provide UK fans with the first Final Four meeting between our Wildcats and our in-state rival, the Louisville Cardinals. Somewhere on an ethereal plane I can envision my father settling down in his leather recliner (off limits for anyone but him in our household...ala Archie Bunker) and requiring complete silence during the game. My father had been alive for every Kentucky championship run and never wavered in his allegiance, from the time he was 5 years old until his death. He would tell me of listening to the games on the radio; Cawood Ledford and Adolph Rupp had become legends in our household. Although my father and our family had moved to Oregon in 1969, he brought his love of UK basketball with him and one of my first memories was watching a game on my fathers knee...Dan Issel became my first UK "hero".
In the years that followed, as I grew older and more rebellious, I actually rooted for UCLA in the 1975 final...and was sent to my room, laughing as the game came to a close (a fact I would later regret). That quick turn didn't last long, as I became a solid UK fan during the 1978 title run...and as my relationship with my father became strained, it was our collective love of UK basketball that would always bring us back together. As I grew into and out of high school and college, UK had been passed nationally by Louisville, a fact that didn't bother my father as much as it had bothered me. He always reminded me that Louisville was still a part of Kentucky and was far too easy to root for them than UCLA or Carolina; except when playing Kentucky of course.
I remember watching the 1992 Duke game with my future wife at my parents house; an outsider who could not fathom the bond of a father and son predicated on a basketball team. What she failed to realize is for my father, UK represented his heritage and his own history; the one constant in his life of travel (he had met my mother in Greece during his stint in the Air Force) and the one connect between father and son that was handed down as heritage as opposed to fandom. Our lives hit the penultimate as both of us got to appreciate a championship (1996) as adults. We had just gotten to the point where our differences had been put aside and the past buried when my father suffered a major stroke in January of 1998. Kentucky's run to the title would be the last time my father and I could watch the game together; but the severity of the stroke had caused him to lose his sight...and each time I yelled at the TV, he told me to shut up. I had forgotten just how much he liked his quiet during the games...but in this instance, it was the only way he could "see" the game.
Time passed and my father had survived, but had been relegated to a wheelchair. All of his hobbies (fly fishing, hunting, wood-working) were now a thing of the past...everything except Kentucky basketball. Nine days before he died we watched our last game together...Kentucky losing to Marquette in the first round of the tournament. His granddaughters were 6 months old.
I keep thinking about him as March comes upon us...how he would have loved John Calipari and the kids that have come through (he would have loved DeMarcus Cousins and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) and the fact that UK will be constantly in the mix for Final Fours and Championships...so it's fitting that he died at the end of March; as the Madness dwindles down to the Final Four. I can't help but think that he would have loved to see UK play Louisville in the Final Four with his granddaughters (now close to 5...or the same age he was when UK won their first championship in '48). They wear their UK cheerleader outfits and yell defense when UK doesn't have the ball...of course, my fathers rule about being silent has since been quashed; they are their fathers daughters...and silence during a UK game is near impossible. If UK wins, it will have brought us full circle...from great-grandfather, to grandfather, to father, to daughters...and I still can hear him talk about UK playing Louisville in 83 and how he wouldn't miss that game for the world. I have to believe that he wouldn't miss this opportunity either. I have his leather recliner in the living room now...it will be empty of flesh but full in spirit. I may even try to be quiet during the game, but I doubt it. Kentucky is more than just a team to me...it's family.