The Kentucky basketball fanbase has, over the past half-century, garnered a reputation as perhaps the nation's toughest, most maniacal and most demanding collegiate rooting section. Most of the scorn tossed our way is earned, some of the nuttier stuff, too.
And however much the rational among Big Blue Nation would like to will away the radical fringe, it's there, and with the advent of message boards and talk radio, it's too often grist for the sports punditry mill. In the last few years, as Tubby Smith's tenure ground to a sad end and Billy Gillispie's got off to a clunky start, more and more columns and on-screen conversations turned to the peanut gallery and offered them up as proof that the Kentucky job was simultaneously the best and the worst job in college basketball, a place where you were treated like a king, so long as you never lost a game, never went your own way and listened to a few millions assistants when it suited them.
But a funny thing happened this season on the way to Gillispie's impending doom. What began as a test of wills between not only Billy's senior captains and himself, but also his Big Blue minions, turned into something different, something purer, dare I say something natural.
As the coach found his way, pushed his team past a seemingly endless string of injuries, inexplicable losses and headscratchingly luckless moments, the fans found their way to understanding just where this new coach was trying to take his fledgling program.
This phenomenon culminated on Sunday, when a bunch of Alley Cats -- befallen once again with a crippling injury, this time to the one player the team would seem incapable of losing this season in freshman Patrick Patterson -- managed to remind all of the Big Blue Brats that while victory is still the goal, there is more to the game than just the final score.
And in the process, what the UK fans have shown in the last 24 hours, is a remarkable display of grass roots enthusiasm and genuine love, the kind you don't find at even the other college basketball blue-bloods, the North Carolinas, the Dukes, the UCLAs.
In addition to the obvious outpouring of appreciation and pride for the team's heart and will in Sunday's loss to No. 1 Tennessee in online blogs and message boards, those temporal and fickle judges of the fanbase's pulse, I am speaking, in particular, of a hastily organized and executed plan to meet the returning team at their home at Wildcat Lodge as their bus returned.
What began as a suggestion by one anonymous fan on The Cats Pause, probably the most maddening and popular of the UK fan sites, quickly became a chorus of support. Within a few hours, fans had notified local television and found out the necessary information to show up as the players trudged -- tired and defeated after coming so close -- off their bus and into their liar.
While reports vary, it sounds as if a few dozen fans arrived on a Sunday evening in a sleepy town to welcome their boys home. And while a perfect end to this story would have seen several hundred, let's not burn the village to save it. This was something unique, something special, and it was enough.
Remember, this wasn't a 30-win team coming home from the Final Four. This wasn't a beloved group of seniors on their way to hallowed rafter status. This was a group of leftovers, banged up would-bes and afterthoughts coming off a late-season conference loss. And yet, there they were, a bunch of the faithful bedecked in blue and cheering on what has come to be an unforgettable bunch in their own right.
Because these Alley Cats don't have a constellation of stars, and they don't have that Unforgettables stamp of glory awaiting them. And in a lot of ways, they are more like you and I than most Kentucky teams -- regular joes thrust into a moment, asked to do the near-impossible. And for two hours on a Sunday in March, they almost did it.
And for that so-called unbending Big Blue Nation to take notice, well maybe that shows the world more about both them and us, about the special relationship between the UK players -- forever Wildcats they will be -- and the UK fans than any post-championship parade ever would.
There are still games to be won and lost, still chances to impress or depress in this season. And all too soon, some of the malcontents will try and sprinkle their doom onto the savory morsels of the well-wishers. But for now, for one day, the unforgiving UK fans forgave. They showed pride in a team that would not quit, despite the odds.
Remember that the next time Jim Rome or Doug Gottleib or some other hack with a shiny suit goes on and on about what UK fans are or are not. They weren't there, and they will never, ever, truly understand.