October is a great time to be a Kentuckian.
Although the football team has usually imploded by now, the autumn days turn pleasantly cool, the fall foliage is fantastic, Keeneland is in session and the melodic sounds of bouncing basketballs soothingly reverberate throughout all of Big Blue Nation.
During the other months, Kentuckians don’t have a whole lot to be proud of. Our commonwealth traditionally ranks near the bottom in terms of education, health and commerce and we’re one of the poorest states.
However, the one thing that unites us and gives us undeniable bragging rights is our basketball team — part of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Everywhere I’ve traveled, I see fellow Wildcat fans proudly donning the blue. It’s more than just a game to us, it’s our lifeblood and we all live and die with the fortunes of our University of Kentucky roundball heroes.
I’m old enough to remember the Dan Issel years. I was nine at the time and cried uncontrollably when UK’s all-time leading scorer fouled out on a bogus call as we lost to Jacksonville in the NCAA regional finals. I was depressed for months after the Christian Laettner shot against the Unforgettables nearly two decades later. I still haven’t recovered from the questionable shot-clock violations that ended our hopes for an undefeated season just two short years ago at the Final Four in Indy.
If you’re truly blue-blooded, then every loss hurts, burrowing deep into your gut and curling your hair like a bad Eddie Sutton perm. Although we’ll never forget the losses, we’ll always remember the wins — especially the title years —’48, ’49, ’51, ’58, ’78, ’96, ’98 and ’12 branded into our brains as if personalized passwords to our online bank accounts.
A record 2,205 total victories, 17 Final Four appearances, 53 All-Americans — all part of our proud regal heritage. Nobility such as The Fabulous Five, Rupp’s Runts, The Goose, Sky Walker, Monster Mash, Boogie, The Unibrow and Karlito rolling off our tongues as a natural part of our Big Blue lexicon. Icons such as The Baron, Cawood, Oscar and Mr. Wildcat are stamped as part of our royal blue lineage.
The unrealistic demands of perfection require that this current team win every game by 20 points while cruising toward 40-0 and another national title. By the way, let’s also beat, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana and Louisville just for good measure.
Coach Cal says we’re a “players first” program. That may be fine and dandy, but those words ring hollow without some additional championship hardware to go with them.
Kentucky basketball is not just about recruits getting to the NBA or even about total team victories. It’s about the hopes and dreams and pride of our entire state ultimately riding on the untested shoulders of kids named Zaaay, Bam, Dom, Tai and company.
To those outside Kentucky, this all sounds so foolish. If, however, you were born and bred in the commonwealth, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s October: Get in line for No. 9. Let the madness begin.
John Huang of Lexington is a retired orthodontist. Reach him at www.huangswhinings.com.