Redemption and University of Kentucky Basketball
Not everyone understands University of Kentucky basketball. More accurately, some people despise the team. It’s the fans that draw most of the ire. In an article published the week before the NCAA 2014 Final Four, Mac Engel of the Fort-Worth Star Telegram called UK fans “the single most obnoxious, self-congratulatory, priority-skewed fan base in a nation full of them.”
I would like to explain to Mr. Engel that loving UK basketball isn’t about arrogance or priorities. It isn’t about Coach Cal, the number of recruits who are McDonald’s All-Americans or which players will be NBA draft picks this year. In a state that, despite advances, still struggles with poverty, adult literacy and related issues such as substance abuse, the love arises from a sense of redemption: even shared triumph temporarily makes the day-to-day hurts and humiliations a little better. Or, at least they are more bearable. Maybe that proposition holds true for the fans of any basketball, baseball, soccer, professional, college or high school team. But, for the poor, the functionally illiterate, the often-ridiculed, feelings of triumph are that much more difficult to come by. For these fans, the games themselves are a bright spot. Something to look forward to when things otherwise aren’t going well. And when UK wins, well, that is something beautiful.
So when the score was close in the final minutes of UK’s NCAA tournament games against Louisville and Michigan this year, I found myself whispering behind my clenched hands, “Please, please, if you can, win for me.”
First, win for yourself and your families. Without doubt, each young man on the UK basketball team bears burdens and deserves to experience the albeit brief respite that comes with individual triumph.
Then, please, win for the fans in and Campton and Frenchburg and Salyersville. Many who are watching UK basketball games in these and other Kentucky towns experience, from one source or another, hopelessness. And stigma. Because it is still socially acceptable to poke fun at and stereotype rural America, particularly characteristics associated with rural poverty. Joy is hard to find when the world thinks you are stupid, barefoot and lazy.
Win for the young boy in Whitley City who loves to wear his secondhand UK basketball tee shirt, with only a small hole in it, to school on game days. Win for the young girl in Booneville who dreams of attending the University of Kentucky and studying to be a doctor even though no one in her family has gone to college.
Win for my Daddy who died in 2012. He lived almost all of his life in Hays Crossing, Kentucky. He was handsome and strong and smart. And burdened. So very burdened. He kept a half pint of whiskey in the glovebox of his truck, some days taking only a few sips, but, other days, feeling shamed and angry even when the bottle was empty. Win because when he was fourteen he quit school to work in logging to support his mother, brother and sisters. Win because once he had the strength of character to pick up his paycheck off the floor after his boss threw it at him. Win because he was a brilliant poker player. Win because, despite his deep flaws, he always fed his family. Win because we loved watching UK basketball games together.
Win for my little brother seven years my junior. While we didn’t know each other very well as children, his friendship was a gift that I received later in my life. He takes care of my mother who has frontotemporal dementia, which is an ugly, mean-spirited disease.
Please win for her, too. My mother was one of 11 children; only she and one of her sisters graduated from high school. She got married when she was 16, started college when she was 36 and earned a bachelor’s degree when she was 42. She was a social worker in eastern Kentucky for many years and, later, worked with veterans in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Now, it is hard to imagine that the person who inhabits my mother’s body is my mother. She won’t ever make fried apple pies again. She won’t ensure that an overlooked veteran receives the benefits to which he or she is entitled. She won’t watch a UK basketball game with my brother and our families.
And, finally, if I can, I would like to ask you to win for me. I left Kentucky when I was 17. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was giving up something I would never get back. I would always be placeless. I live in California now, but a “freeway” will always be an “interstate” to me. My daughter, born in California, says “I guess;” I say “I reckon.” I think Thomas Wolfe was right: we can’t go home again. But, sometimes during the NCAA basketball tournament, I feel connected once again and less lost.
I have heard Daddy say many times during the final minutes of a UK game, “Boys, you have to make your free throws.” He understood that chances to win in basketball, and in life, are hard to come by. Daddy was right. If you give up the easy points, there is no guarantee that you will get another shot.
So, as you look towards next year’s basketball season, remember to make your free throws, boys. And, please, if you can, win. Win for me.