LOUISVILLE — In the commonwealth's never-ceasing battle between Wildcats blue and Cardinals red, the front line is easily identified. Jefferson County is the epicenter of the conflict.
On the week of our state's ultimate hoops Armageddon, this is life in a divided city.
Jason Sullivan is a Kentucky fan.
Andy Paul roots for Louisville.
After it became apparent last weekend that the Wildcats and Cardinals were going to stage an intrastate rumble on the grand stage of the Final Four this Saturday, Sullivan and Paul — who work together as managers at Angels Rock Bar in The Ville — got caught up in the moment and made a crazy bet.
If UK wins, Paul, the Louisville fan, has to get a Wildcats tattoo of at least 4 inches in size on the small of his back.
But if it is Cards over Cats, then it is Sullivan, the Kentucky backer, who must get a similar-sized Cardinals tattoo on his back.
"That can't happen, can it?" Sullivan said Tuesday of U of L beating the Cats. "That just can't happen. It just can't. Right?"
With UK and U of L set to stage the first intrastate Final Four meeting since Cincinnati beat Ohio State in the 1962 national title game, the national media have taken to describing the rivalry between UK and U of L as basketball's version of the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry.
Well, yes and no. In the commonwealth, there are not enough U of L fans "out in the state" to create Bama-Auburn-level friction.
Inside Jefferson County, however, fan conflict is plentiful because there are plenty of fans of both Cats and Cards.
"I moved up here from Bowling Green to go to law school," said Wade Yeoman, a Louisville attorney and a Cards backer. "I was like, 'What's up with all these Kentucky fans? I thought we were in Louisville.'"
On this week like no other in the sports history of our state, it seemed appropriate to check in on the front line.
Sammy Rider is a U of L student — but a Kentucky fan. On Tuesday, he wore a UK windbreaker to his Louisville classes. "When I'd walk by, I'd hear a lot of 'Go Cards!' " Rider said with a smile.
At the Cardinals Hall of Fame Cafe, an eatery whose decor is all U of L sports memorabilia, hostess Courtney Kruer reported Tuesday night that there was a small crisis brewing.
"A couple of our employees are UK fans," she said, dropping her voice to a near whisper. "One of the waitresses is threatening to wear her UK shirt Saturday night. I'm not sure that is going to go over."
For decades, Kentucky fans have liked to boast about the strength of their numbers in the home base of their archrival. For U of L fans, the presence of a column of UK backers in their hometown has long grated.
What is the breakdown between Blue and Red in Louisville now?
The UK Alumni Association has 24,739 members in its Greater Louisville Club. "I think most people outside of Louisville fail to realize the fan base (UK has) in Louisville," wrote John Wedding, president of the UK alumni in Jefferson County, in an email. "I would say that the fan base for UK and U of L is about equal."
Terry Meiners, the longtime WHAS radio afternoon disc jockey, is a one-time UK student, a current U of L fan and a member of the FOP — Friends of Pitino. "The Blue-Red battle of Louisville is teetering about 50/50 today," Meiners wrote in an email. "A UK championship will blast blue all over this town."
Both Yeoman, the attorney and U of L fan, and his boss, Larry Jones, a UK fan, put the Cards fans/Cats fans ratio inside Jefferson County at 60-40 in favor Louisville.
As of Tuesday, the energy in the city of Louisville was electric and the mood between Cats fans and Cards fans convivial.
"It's been real good-natured," said Michelle Brown, a U of L fan who was selling UK and Louisville Final Four shirts in a tent set up outside a Hurstbourne Lane convenience store. "People will say, 'Oh, you don't want to buy a blue one,' but it's all been in good fun."
It will be interesting to see how things are in Jefferson County as the game draws near and the tension mounts. Or how inter-fan base relations will be Saturday night after one group has tasted defeat (and, one suspects, some lubricating substances) and has its victorious rival's fans right in their faces.
In the county where UK-U of L really does approach Alabama-Auburn in terms of rivalry intensity, unease over what a loss Saturday would mean on a personal level is already percolating.
"Saturday's losing fans won't make a sound," wrote Meiners. "On Monday, they'll still be hiding under their beds, praying to a merciful God to at least let Kansas-Ohio State beat the devil from down the road."
If UK wins, Serkia Murphy, a Kentucky fan who was selling UK and U of L memorabilia in Oxmoor Mall, has a plan. "In our whole store, there are two Kentucky fans," Murphy said. "All the U of L fans are talking junk. But (if UK wins) I'm not saying anything. They think I will, but I'm going to kill them with silence. That'll get to them."
If Louisville wins, "my law partner is a huge U of L fan," said Jones, the Cats backer and attorney. "I'll never hear the end of it, I won't."
Should Kentucky lose, "I'll probably cry and turn off my cellphone for a couple of weeks," said Rider, the U of L student but Cats fan. "What you have to understand, my roommates are Louisville fans. They'll be brutal, and it will never let up."
If Louisville loses, Brown will have to pay off "a couple of hundred-dollar bets I have with Kentucky fans," she said. "I do NOT want to do that."
Most permanently, if Kentucky loses, lifelong Cats fan Jason Sullivan will have a 4-inch Cardinal bird tattooed onto his back for all eternity.
"I've already got buddies who are UK fans calling me saying, 'You can't bring that thing into my house,'" said Sullivan of his potential Cardinals tatt.
The stakes in any battle are always highest, after all, at the front line.
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com