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Papa Hemingway's "The Prodigal Son Also Rises"

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This is the first in a series of guest commentaries from world-renowned authors and statesmen on some of the most memorable moments in Kentucky sports history ... Today: UK 60, UL 58. December 18, 2004.

 

"It wasn't always this way. What began far afield before -- in smaller gyms, in front of smaller crowds -- had come full circle. It was here, now. This moment. This man.

He had been born for it. Raised among the flat land and dying coal mines of Western Kentucky, the boy had grown up now, lost the look of home and of the soft familiarity of innocence. No, he had seen it now, the best and the worst, the exodus and the glory each.

The ball felt light in his hands.

What had started in bitterness, obscurity and some unrequited love, had now turned, a bulb in full bloom, a heart laid bare on the battlefield. No more rain, no more slow march. This was why he'd made the sacrifices, the lonely nights.

The roar of the masses was silence in his head.

Second chances. The revival after the tumult and now he was here, and it was good. A sea of blue, punctured by blood red. How far had he walked? How many steps had he taken? It did not matter. Nothing mattered except the long night and the rain on the roof and the ball in his hands like a child in need of deliverance.

It is his time.

What they would say about him, remember. The only thing he could give back was everything. The moment you pray for, and dread, and cherish all. Those forgotten nights at the gym, with the rain pounding the old roof, the smell of the dust in your nostrils and the knowledge, deep-seated, innate, that the moment will come, and you must be ready when it does. And so he was.

The sly grin and then the turn to face forever, immortality. The ball just another part of his calloused hands, the fear gone now, replaced by thoughts of the end. And the rush. The slowness and the fluid shot. The net does not move. It sits silent.

One more moment to go, and it's all over.

There were times when it seemed too far away. When old dreams were replaced by new ones, by acceptance and even newfound pride. And then it all changed, and uncertainty returned to his life, the boy now a man in his own right, no longer just the coach's son, the gym rat, the one too slow, too small and too far down the trail of displaced dreamers. But he was here despite all that, or because of it. It was what he was made of, an only thing. A sublime piece of the soul, his grandfather might have put it back then, on those humid days along the low-lying rows of corn and soybeans. All the heat, and dreaming of being alone no more.

But the lonely nights mattered. They had to. In the end, they were all that was true, and the continuity became his reality, so much so that where and when no longer mattered. Only the feel of the leather, the smell of the dust and the slow pound of his heart as the final shot goes through.

And then he heard it. Slowly at first, then all-encompassing. It took him over. And it was there, the dream fulfilled, realized in that roar once more.

Oh, God. That roar."