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Kentucky Basketball: The Calm Before The Storm, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hate

There is a storm coming, and its coming straight at your face, dear Kentucky fan.  You have about two more months before it strikes, and strike you it will -- right in the heart.  Pain?  Oh, yes, there will be pain.  It will test your fortitude and your fanhood right down to the Blueness of your Wildcat-loving soul.

What am I talking about?  Hatred.  Yes, that's right.  You have seen this already on the boards, the blogs, the newspapers and the major sports outlets.  The hatred of Kentucky basketball, as well as a resurgence of love from its fans, is about to commence.  I am here to tell you that is a harbinger of good, and not evil.  How can hate be a positive force?  Read on, grasshopper, that you might understand.

Nobody hates a loser in the sports world.  Nobody.  The term "lovable loser" was coined for a reason.  Losers are easy to love.  It's easy to appreciate the epic struggle of losing teams for respectability in the face of long, even desperate odds.  America, above all else, loves underdogs, the little guy, the unknowns who labor in obscurity for years and even decades for that one shot at glory.  It is Hoosiers, Major League, and The Natural all wrapped up into one lovable package.

"But what," you ask, "about the old saying, 'Everybody loves a winner?'"  We all know that saying is false.  The only people that love winners are the fans of the winner.  Everybody else is jealous, and jealousy is the mother's milk of hatred, not only in sports, but also in life.  Oh, non-fans and even some rivals may respect and even admire some aspects of the winner, but most just hate.  It doesn't matter how classy, or how above-board a winner is.  If there is nothing bad to say, somebody will make something up.  We have seen this thousands of times.  Nobody loves a juggernaut like the Yankees, or Florida football, or a resurgent Kentucky basketball.

Take Kentucky football, for example.  Nobody hates Kentucky football, except perhaps Louisville, that that is only a very recent development if it exists at all.  For years, Kentucky football was just that -- a football, to be kicked around by everybody but the lowliest teams either in the throes of down years or simply too small to win.  Even now that Kentucky's football team has clawed it's way to a modicum of respectability in the nation, it is still not respected in the SEC, nor should it be.  But it is not hated anywhere.

Fans of teams like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and even Tennessee have little bad to say about Kentucky football, because they have no reason to fear or be jealous of UK.  In order to do that, UK would have to actually defeat these guys enough times for the matchups to be competitive, and currently, that is simply not the case.  No fear, no jealousy -- ergo, no hatred.

On the other hand, we have Kentucky basketball.  Over the years, UK has pummeled virtually everyone in the SEC as though it was their birthright (which, of course, it is).  UK has won more SEC and national championships by accident than the whole SEC combined has won on purpose.  When Kentucky's recent run of success was at its zenith in the late 1990's, loathing of the program among the fans of virtually every other school in the top 100 or so, plus all of the SEC, was at an all-time high.  But that is nothing compared to the coming fusillade of animosity.

In the last four years, Kentucky basketball has been irrelevant nationally, and largely irrelevant in the SEC.  Hatred of UK basketball has waned to an unprecedented level, with rivals sometimes making complimentary noises in the direction of UK fans, and most of the national vitriol has been directed at Billy Gillispie's strange behavior.  Not much hate there, though.  Nobody hates a loser.

Duke University has, up until recently, experienced a very strong run of success not just in basketball, but in avowals of undying love from divisive and loudmouthed sports announcers (I hope you can puzzle out who I mean), commercials from credit card companies, U.S. Olympic exposure and endless streams of "leadership" missives and messages directed to and about their coach.  The resulting overexposure has lead to a backlash that has drawn article after article wondering why so many people dislike Duke.  The reason is simple -- success and exposure breed fear and jealousy, ergo hatred.  Add to that the perception of a rich, white-bred school and the unfortunate lacrosse business, and viola!

Duke is about to get a break, because it is very likely that Kentucky basketball will replace them atop the pantheon of most loathed college basketball teams in short order.  Consider this -- Not only does UK have a gaudy history replete with all sorts of success, they just hired a coach who is quite possibly the most shameless self-promoter in all of college sports, a man who loves the camera (and the camera loves him back), a man who is quotable, approachable and never misses an opportunity for exposure to promote himself and UK. 

John Calipari will be the new and better Coach K, in your face every minute of every day that goes by, and his name and face will be on the lips and video screens of every ESPN SportsCenter during basketball season and beyond.  Commercials, appearances, and endless interviews will keep Kentucky front and center, and Calipari will not allow them to fade into the background.

All this will lead to jealousy, not just from rival fans but also from rival coaches.  Calipari famously has an astonishing number of coaching rivalries, and that will only grow more intense as the beatings commence.  Every coach in the country is suspicious of his prodigious recruiting success, and if you think you have heard every possible allegation of impropriety about that, I must warn you to fasten your virtual seatbelts because the ride just gets bumpier from here.  The combination of John Calipari and UK is unquestionably the most volatile and powerful cocktail of a sports brand and coach in modern college history, far exceeding the Urban Meyer-Florida combination or even the North Carolina-Roy Williams amalgam.

Add to all this the unfair but seemingly deathless accusations of racial bias during the Rupp years, and you have recipe for unprecedented and far-reaching jealousy, fear, and general loathing.  No aspect of the Kentucky program will be spared, including reminders of past NCAA indiscretions amplified by the context of suspicions, however unjustified and lacking evidentiary support, of Calipari's success and close association with past NCAA incidents.  All this taken together represent the perfect storm of hate, with UK fans right in its path.

What is this, "good," I mentioned from the negative emotion of hate?  It's simple.  To me, hate smells like victory.  Nobody hates a loser, and Kentucky's days as a loser are about to come to an abrupt, conscience-shocking end, and I love the smell of fear, jealousy, and loathing in the morning.

So if you think it's bad now, you are in for a shock -- in the immoral immortal song lyric of Bachman Turner Overdrive, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."