Where basketball is religion and the gods are Wildcats

Ken Colston

April 02, 1993|By Ken Colston

Bellevue, Ky. -- NOW that the University of Kentucky basketball team is rehabilitated to national prominence, Kentuckians again have a reason to swell our tobacco-and-coal-perfumed chests. Other teams have fans. The Wildcats have true believers. I have never fully comprehended the quasi-religious attachment to teams, which even raw capitalism has been unable to extinguish, but what I have seen in UK believers passes all understanding.

I can remember, for example, my father's heroic struggles for radio and television reception when I was a boy growing up in northern Kentucky in the 1960s.

Sometimes on a wickedly cold February night when the transistor batteries were weak, he'd sit out in the driveway, run his engine and heater and listen to play-by-play announcer Caywood Ledford on the car radio. Against Vanderbilt on a Wednesday night!

He'd sit out there and risk frostbite and carbon-monoxide poisoning against harmless Vandy! Vroom! The motor would idle higher, and I knew that the Cats were on a 10-point run. Then he'd let up some on the pedal, and I figured we were down one with 10 seconds to go and a last possession.

Before cable and because Cincinnati television stations rightfully had other basketball to follow with the University of Cincinnati Bearcats and the professional Royals, we were never able to watch a UK game until late in the NCAA tournament, and sometimes even then we were blacked out.

It was envy and spite against briarhoppers, my father swore, although the record would probably show that it was rather because Ohio State was still alive in the tournament, and those running the stations knew their bread was buttered by buckeyes.

And so he'd rifle through the paper, tear out the door and head for West 22nd Street in Peaselberg. For some reason, Channel 7 in Dayton was carrying UK and Duke instead of Ohio State and St. John's, and with an hour's worth of fiddling, 10 yards of aluminum foil and a few choice imprecations, he could make my grandfather's 1954 13-inch set pick up the thinnest shadow of the game.

"The picture ain't going to hold," I'd say, with that impatience of the doubtful young.

"Have faith," he'd respond, as if more than two words would endanger the already meager reception.

The snow and static of the image made it seem as if Louie Dampier were shooting through a loud blizzard. The lights were out, the telephone was off the hook and the three of us were sworn to absolute silence lest we spoil the precious weak outlines of the backboard or the key. Adolph Rupp's three-man weave was a misty ice cloud, the one-three-one defense was lines smeared in slush, but, by great ocular willpower and unflinching faith we knew who had the ball. Looking for evidence of victory on a distant Channel 7 late in Lent was like squinting in an ice-berimmed sepulcher.

If I let out a war whoop or stomped my feet to cheer, the little Motorola black-and-white shook with winter-alert precipitation. My father would glare at me and then go baby the television, twisting its antenna like a little girl her braid, and patting its sides, as if to say, "Come on, sweetie, don't go out on us now."

Now, of course, there are ESPN and UKTV and the admiration of CBS's Billy Packer. My father can watch almost every contest, even those meaningless SEC blowouts against Mississippi State South Carolina, in the warmth of his condo in Bellevue, and the 25-inch Zenith color picture is as sharp as if Andy Warhol had painted it.

The scandals and penalties of the last few years haven't hurt him too much. He went through all that four decades ago, when he was a young man and dreams caused trouble. Now he is grateful to be simply watching without wasting gas or standing on his head. He never doubted that the Cats would rise again.

"What a job Pitino's done!" I told him long-distance last year when Duke edged out Kentucky in that epic battle. He didn't contradict me, but I knew what he was thinking: I was giving a country preacher credit for the Second Coming.

But the earnestness on his face is still there: the pallor when Kentucky is behind, the fever when it's sinking three-pointers. His legs rise up in knots and his fists are doubled, and even his granddaughter had better not interrupt him when the press is on. He rolls with the picks. His game face is the face of a man who has to see his team win or he'll die a little, and it's the face of a woman who sits up with her sick children.

It's a face stricken with fear and ready to resort to prayer. I've seen it in churches and hospitals as well as stadiums and family rooms. And all those years I thought the tension, the headaches, the eye-strain were owing to the poor reception.

As I say, I don't know what could turn a no-nonsense tobacco farmer into a silly sports fan. I can't explain why a Kentucky cousin, so I heard, shattered his picture tube with an unopened six-pack over one of Joe B. Hall's supposed blunders, or why I, on a cold February night in St. Louis and Annapolis, surrounded by the ivory towers of academe and the amused scorn of pointy heads, twice rushed out to Radio Shack for a copper Tantenna, turned off the lights, stretched out almost cross-wise on the rug and held my breath to hear Caywood, on WCKY, croon out the wide margin against Vanderbilt.

All I know is that the same mysterious foolishness blows the red embers of love and need and belief, and they can never be entirely ridiculous.

A frequent contributor to Other Voices, Ken Colston now teaches at his alma mater, Northern Kentucky University.

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