Kentucky basketball: Fans gotta believe

March 24, 1996|By John Eisenberg

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Church was in session here yesterday afternoon.

The church of Kentucky Wildcats basketball, an impassioned secular faith, held an alter call on the occasion of the NCAA Midwest Regional final.

From Paducah to Pikeville, churchgoers across the state got down on their knees in front of their televisions, held their breath and refused to exhale until the Wildcats had advanced to the Final Four.

If they turned blue, they turned Kentucky blue.

From the horse farms in the bluegrass countryside to the Appalachian coal-mining towns to the smoky bars on the University of Kentucky campus, the faithful begged the Rev. Rick Pitino to deliver them.

You could almost hear their cry rising into the sunny afternoon sky:

"Take us to the Meadowlands, Reverend Rick! Take us to exit 16 on the New Jersey Turnpike! [And hey, no laughing in the pews! This is serious business.]"

A Wildcats loss to Wake Forest yesterday in Minneapolis would have devastated the state as surely as a natural disaster, an economic depression or Bill Clinton's re-election.

For Reverend Rick's followers, it's national title or bust this year for a Kentucky team that has beaten 20 opponents by 20 or more points and generally resembled an NBA team toying with amateurs.

Fortunately for the church, the Wildcats won easily yesterday to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1993. Donations will rise. Pass the hat.

But no real celebration will begin until after the championship game April 1.

High standards? No one denies it.

"Since the season started, we've been looking to go all the way," said Stan Joyce, class of '82, standing by a big-screen television at the Two Keys Tavern, a campus hangout stuffed to the beams yesterday with hundreds of fans.

The tavern draws a crowd for every televised sports event, but Kentucky basketball games are different.

"These people are having a good time and all, but they're real serious about watching the game," said Jeff Rice, the doorman. "I listen to them talk. They think this is the year."

They also thought 1992 was the year until Duke's Christian Laettner knocked the Wildcats out with a jumper at the buzzer in the regional final.

"There were hundreds of people here that day, too," Joyce said. "The place went silent when Laettner hit that shot. Then people got mad and there were some fights. That was the day I decided I just couldn't be so serious about this stuff anymore."

It was a decision that few of his fellow church members made. Wildcats mania rose again in 1993 when Pitino took a UK team to the Final Four for the first time. Michigan's Fab Five knocked them out in the semifinals.

Last year, North Carolina blew them out in the regional final.

Few other coaches wade as deeply into the tournament bracket every year as Pitino, who was hired in 1989 to restore the probation-scarred Wildcats to their former glory. But the church wasn't built on coming close.

The Wildcats won four national titles from 1948-58 and another in 1978. Yesterday's win pushed them past North Carolina into first place on the all-time wins list.

"Things like that are important to Kentucky fans," said a caller on a pre-game talk show yesterday.

There are plans to open a University of Kentucky Basketball Museum next to Rupp Arena. A gift shop already is open. Eight different Kentucky basketball videos are for sale there.

Fans browsing through the shop yesterday stopped and studied an enclosed glass case exhibiting the shoes worn by guard Kyle Macy in 1978.

"Sure, the expectations are high all the time," said Bob Brown, a marketing manager watching the game at the Two Keys Tavern. But that's because of the tradition. Any good program is going to have high expectations."

Brown is a Kansas native and a graduate of the University of Kansas, a school with a fine basketball tradition itself. But the basketball mania in Kentucky blows Kansas away, he said.

"I didn't understand it until I lived here," he said. "It's a religion here, it really is. It's on the front page all year. People can't get enough."

The tradition has its roots in the days when the players were white and the fans spent snowy winter nights listening to games on scratchy radios.

Today, the racial composition is far different and the hype is borderline suffocating even though the last national title was 18 years ago. Yet the Wildcats are as popular as ever. City officials were warning fans before yesterday's game not to come to the airport to greet the team because no parking spaces were

available.

"Kentucky basketball used to be all serious and no fun," Joyce said. "It's a lot more fun now with the up-tempo style Pitino plays."

A lot more fun, but still serious?

"Oh, yeah," Joyce said, sighing.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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