John Clay: Players appreciate Kentucky-Louisville rivalry but don't feel its fury

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 29, 2012 

Kentucky Wildcats forward Terrence Jones (3) joked with Doron Lamb as #1 Kentucky talked to the media on Saturday March 24, 2012 in Atlanta, GA. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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NEW ORLEANS — The rivals are arguing. The rivals are trash talking. The rivals are fighting in dialysis centers.

The rivals are living every minute of every day as if their very lives depend on what happens at 6:09 p.m. on Saturday.

The fans are rivals.

The players are not.

The players for the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville are competitors, yes. They want to win this upcoming Final Four national semifinal for a berth in Monday night's championship game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

"Inside the lines, we're going to hate each other as much as possible," said Louisville guard Peyton Siva on Thursday during interviews at the Superdome.

But off the court?

"Off the court," Siva said, "we know that our friendships are more valuable."

That's right, these guys are friends.

Louisville's Russ Smith and Kentucky's Doron Lamb played on the same AAU basketball team in New York.

"I was talking with him last night," said Lamb on Thursday.

Louisville's Siva, a native of Seattle, has known Kentucky's Terrence Jones, a native of Portland, since fourth grade.

"I've known him like all my life," said Jones.

Both from Chicago, Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Louisville's Wayne Blackshear are tight.

"Our families both know each other, love each other," said Davis on Thursday.

There is a YouTube video from last year's McDonald's All-American Game in Chicago. Sitting together are Louisville signees Blackshear and Chane Behanan, along with UK signees Davis, Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Kyle Wiltjer.

The six are interviewing each other, talking, laughing.

One thing you might notice: None of the six was born in Kentucky. The same will be true when the 10 starters walk onto the floor Saturday night.

They did not grow up as Cat haters or Cardinal haters. They grew up as basketball players.

Behanan, a Cincinnati native who played high school basketball in Bowling Green, nearly signed with Kentucky.

Teague, whose father played for Rick Pitino at Boston University, nearly signed with Louisville.

Between the two teams, there are seven players from our state — Twany Beckham, Darius Miller, Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood for UK; Zach Price, Tim Henderson and Elisha Justice for U of L.

"Fans get into it a lot more than they usually would," said Louisville senior Kyle Kuric, who grew up in Evansville, Ind. "It's just another game for us, and we're going to look at it like that and play as hard as we would in any other game."

Is that difficult, considering the proximity of not only the schools, but the fans?

Is that difficult when supposed adults, who should know better, are fighting in a dialysis center?

"I don't think so at all," Siva said. "Russ Smith and Doron Lamb are real good friends and they talk every single day. Us as players, we don't really mind the fans. We don't listen to them, whatever they say."

They would rather listen to each other. They know each other from camps, from AAU games, from AAU tournaments, from all-star games, from recruiting trips.

Friendships form. Bonds are developed. They text each other. They tweet to each other.

"I know a lot of players that I have friendships with," Jones said. "They're down the street. We don't have any type of rivalry, really."

"I was real close with (Terrence) and his mom," Siva said. "I always tried to act like, 'Hey, can I come down here and spend the night with you guys?' You never got to get that far away from home, and Portland was just enough to say you were on a magical vacation."

Last year, Siva and Darius Miller were thrown together at an NCAA function.

"I had never met Darius Miller," Siva said, "but he was the coolest guy I ever met. Just his personality and the way he carried himself.

"So I don't really think the players let the fans get the best of them. We're out there. We're playing basketball. That's what we came to the schools to do. Everything else is a bonus."

To the players, Saturday is a game, not a rivalry.

"We play," Jones said. "It's not the same."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv.

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