Just when you think that the oft-fragile psyche Big Blue Nation can't get any, well, fragile-er, comes a news story that knocks your socks off. No, I'm not referring to another ESPN/Disney venture making Kentucky look like ground zero for racism, nor a piece on a former player whose love for a black woman prompted some bigots to show their true colors at the expense of the whole school's pride, nor even something as serious as a rape allegation or a fight between players.
No, this one is even stranger. Before we get into, though, a little background.
In most ways, Tennesee head basketball coach Bruce Pearl couldn't be more of a foil for Wildcats fans. He's loud, grating, outstanding at his job as UT coach and did I mention loud? He's also unabashedly ethnic in that uniquely showy Northeastern way (I live in NYC, so I'll paint with admittedly broad but well-founded strokes) despite having lived in the midwest and now the south for the better part of 20 years. For the mostly un-ethnic Kentucky populace -- and by that I mean that few I have known consider themselves part of any group other than Kentuckian -- such identity acknowledgement is tantamount to 'showing off.'
This latter fact wouldn't even be an issue if on prior occasions Pearl had not gone out of his way to really stick it to the citizens of the Bluegrass state, whose aforementioned tolerance in regards to being characterized as racist is understandably low.
Before being named national Coach of the Year at UT, Pearl was a head coach of the Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers. This after a successful stint as top dog at Division II Southern Indiana University. Then UWM head coach Pearl and his wife had this to say about their time in Evansville, Ind. (the town of my birth).
"It was way too close to Kentucky," says Kim. "I didn?t care for it. It was a little too red neck. Very red neck... My kids were the only Jews in their school. So when we had Jewish holidays, they had to go to school because school wasn't closed."
Having lived in Owensboro for a good portion of my life and having much of my family still there, I can see why someone from the area might take umbrage at such a statement. Given that Pearl has moved on to uber-cosmopolitan Knoxville, Tenn., the words ring even more hollow. Last time I checked, Tennessee was basically Kentucky without the bourbon, horses, attractive women or basketball. Memphis is barely in Tennessee and Nashville is Las Vegas lite.
Which brings us to the story at hand.
In the spring of 2004, Tubby Smith's recruiting was riding high. He had roped in not one, not two but three McDonald's All-Americans in swingman Joe Crawford (top 10), center Randolph Morris (top 10) and point guard Rajon Rondo (NBA draft pick No. 21 in '06), not to mention Parade All-American guard Ramel Bradley.
Despite repeated whining from a segment of the UK fanbase who were (a) intent on bringing in Kentucky's best player and (b) apparently not paying attention to the two Kentucky Mr. Basketballs whiling away on the UK bench, Tubby opted not to offer a scholarship to Mason County's sharpshooting guard Chris Lofton. Lofton had led his team to the state title as a junior and was far and away the best prep senior in the state. So, with no hard feelings -- he has said anyway -- he went to hated rival Tennessee instead.
Like many Kentucky high school hoops heroes, he was not an overwhelming athlete. Hidden in that frame, however, was the heart of a lion, and all Lofton has done is set the freshman record for threepointers in a season, average 17+ points per contest, win an NCAA game on a last second shot and earn first-team All-SEC honors. For much of Mason County, who think of Lofton as a collective son, it was sweet vindication.
So when Pearl came calling a second time, this go-around to establish recruiting roots with the newest Mason County superstar, things got a little weird.
Despite being in the bluest of blue areas of the Bluegrass, Mason County got its orange on. It presented Pearl with a hero's welcome, and honored him as a Kentucky Colonel (NOTE: Not to hurt anyone's feelings, but I know several Kentucky Colonels ... one is an RV salesman, another a barber ... my point? Maybe those aren't that hard to come by ... ). This royal treatment has irked some UK diehards, who, for whatever reason, feel betrayed by the actions of the Lofton-ites.
The irony here is that what is getting some Big Blue fans so irate is the sense of betrayal and disloyalty they feel. This is the heart of Wildcat Country to them. And going Orange, as it were, is as bad as going Louisville Red.
But loyalty is all this is, as a favorite son has found his calling on the other side of an imaginary state line. However gaudy and overzealous the people of Mason County's actions are -- and they are a bit much -- calls for action and letter writing only further cement in people's minds that Kentucky fans are an overly sensitive bunch whose passion could be easily mistaken for self-righteousness.
Perhaps most interesting is that Lofton himself has more or less absolved himself of the whole thing. After returning to Rupp Arena, the location of his greatest prep triumphs, to stick a dagger in the heart of the Wildcats with a 31-point performance that sent the Cats even deeper into a tailspin, Lofton was serene, not strutting. As usual, it was the fans getting caught up in the process, not the kids themselves.
For the record, Tubby Smith has expressed regret that he didn't pursue Lofton harder, but hindsight is always 20/20. One thing is clear, though. Tubby won't be making that mistake again.
He has already offered a scholarship to 2008 Mason County forward Darius Miller.