Kentucky Basketball – Sweet & Sour Edition
Thump. Thump. Thump. Squeak-thump. Thump-thump-squeak-thump. Thump-thump. Squeak-grunt-clang. Squeak-grunt-grunt-gasp-squeak. Thump-thump-thump. Squeak… swish.
拦住他! 别让他投篮! – hai, lan zhu ta! bie rang ta tou lan! (“Hey, stop him! You can’t let him have that open shot!”)
The sound, the rhythm of the game of basketball, is the same everywhere.
I am sitting on my balcony in Liuzhou, China listening to the cacophony of the game. It is a cool, sunny, breezy afternoon. Actually, more reminiscent of one of those perfect, blue-sky fall afternoons of my Kentucky youth than a spring day in Southeast Asia. Think “football weather”. The music of basketball hangs in the crisp air around me, wafting up from the outdoor court 22 floors below. As I glance down I can see a group of teens playing a spirited, if not talented game. They go at it hard and loose with no finesse other than whatever natural athletic ability God gave them. There are no picks being set. No one bothers to block out and passing is as rare as a Rush Limbaugh apology. No, the game below is not pretty. It is primitive, frenetic and punctuated with turnovers. Still, the sound. The sound is the same.
I fell in love with that sound, the sound of basketball, when I was just a stick of a boy growing up in Winchester, Kentucky. Today, at 51, the thump of a basketball bouncing still gets my pulse racing. It is somehow part of me, essential to my makeup. The sound triggers some sort of Pavlovian reaction, calling to me. It is for all intents and purposes, my heartbeat. My heart pumps UK blue. I have written about this before and I know it borders on the insane but if you are not from Kentucky, well…
“…most folks can’t begin to understand the obsession that is The University of Kentucky basketball. As a kid growing up in Kentucky, UK basketball was a near religious experience for me and countless others like me. I can’t even begin to count the number of days I shot hoops alone outside on a frigid winter day, imagining myself a future Wildcat hero, counting down 3 – 2 -1 before swishing a 20 footer from the wing. The summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school, I played basketball every day at my friend Doug’s house until dark. EVERY day. That wasn’t practice mind you, that was just kids getting together and playing in the heat and humidity for the love of the game. Gym rat? Certainly. Obsessed? That doesn’t begin to cover it.”
For me, the basketball season ended somewhere in the midst of the four game losing streak that closed out the regular season. In order to preserve my sanity I decided to write the season off and reluctantly begin to look forward to next year. In fact, it’s been a tough couple of years to be a Wildcat fan. I can not imagine any other fan base to be more demanding or to have, year in and year out, higher expectations. As Kentucky fans we are beyond spoiled. No one knows that now as well as Coach Gillispie. Yes, Billy Gillispie is gone and once again we are (all too soon) “starting over”. I always had my doubts about Billy Clyde, it’s documented in this very blog. I was never convinced he was the right guy for “life in the fishbowl” at UK. In the end it looks like it was his obstinance, not his coaching, that did him in. I am not going to say “I told you so.” No, the truth is their is plenty of blame to pass around (read Mitch Barnhardt) and almost certainly the guy deserved at least one more year to “adapt”. He didn’t get the chance. The reasons are being discussed and dissected in the media and on message boards everywhere so there is no need to re-hash it from my lofty perch here. Through it all I’ve tried to maintain a sense of humor (see here) but it has not been easy. I don’t really feel sorry for Coach Giliispie, he’ll get a nice payday and he’ll land another major conference job soon enough. I am certain he’ll be successful. I also appreciate his demeanor of late, taking the high road in his dealing with the media as his blue sock unraveled. Fact is, had he demonstrated something more along the lines of what he’s shown the last week he may have still been the coach.
I can’t watch the games on TV here in China and streaming on the Internet with my connection is impossible. Undeterred, I “watched” EVERY game this season, no matter the unholy hour, via the ESPN ticker as it refreshed 30 seconds at a time. I can imagine any true Kentucky fan doing the same. I haven’t actually seen a game in more than two years but I’ll always be a UK fan and do my best to be supportive in both the good times and the bad. That being said, I hope the good times return soon.
The question now of course is, “Where do we go from here?”. There are names aplenty being bandied about, some more realistic than others. It’s complicated. It’s difficult to attract most of the top-tier talent in the coaching ranks when your program has developed a reputation of being, well, a little bitchy. That’s right, we (the UK program) have a “new” reputation. The crown is tarnished, no longer is it the storied reputation of arguably the best program in college basketball. It’s complicated because no one (aside from perhaps Travis Ford and John Pelphrey) seems to be clamoring for the job. I figure the most realistic of the big names is John Calipari but is he really the right guy for UK? Travis Ford? Isn’t it too early really? John Pelphrey? I mean I love that guy, but he hasn’t exactly set the basketball world on fire over there in Fayetteville. Ford and Pelphrey certainly fit the mold of UK ambassador but man, are they ready to coach at UK? See, like most of you, I don’t really have the answers. I am pretty good good at the questions. UK basketball, a sweet and sour dilemma.
I am only hoping Mitch Barnhardt, Lee Todd and Mike Pratt (wow, there’s a name from the past) can somehow right the ship and get the program back on course. In the meantime…
Thump. Thump. Thump. Swish.