Basketball isn't just a sport, it's mythological in much of rural America. With heads full of legends and broken hearts, we settle in for the Final Four.
Above all, we must abolish hope in the heart of man. A calm despair, without angry convulsions, without reproaches to Heaven, is the essence of wisdom.
Alfred de Vigny, former Frenchman
Every day is what a day.
Stu Aberdeen, former University of Tennessee assistant basketball coach
In my part of rural Kentucky, the best day of the year is the Thursday that starts the NCAA basketball tournament. What a day. There are ten hours of games on the television, 64 teams full of possibility, and you don’t have to wrap any presents. But then there comes the inevitable, the day your team loses, your bracket goes bust, and the team you hate keeps winning. There, in that despair our relationship to the thing we love is tested.
This week the final four teams assemble to play for the national championship in Indianapolis. West Virginia University just beat my Kentucky Wildcats to get there. They will play Duke. (Full disclosure: I hate Duke.) And on the other side of the bracket, perennial finalist Michigan State goes against everyone’s Cinderella team, Butler University, playing in their home city.
In the great American sports narrative, basketball has become the quintessential urban game, the way for young men to cross 110th Street and punch their ticket out. In the modern story you go from the concrete courts and chain-link nets of summer league, to Hoop Dreams High, then a brief stop in college on your way to the serious cash of the NBA. Everybody wants a piece of the player, and the player wants never to forget what it meant coming up on the hard streets.
But before there were hard streets, there were hard packed dirt roads, and the same Cinderella-at-the ball stories with power to transcend family arguments, political divides, and theological schism. Those stories were told in Appalachian coal camps, and on South Dakota Indian reservations, and in Southern black-belt farm towns too small to make it on the map. Here the game was not just a ticket out for the star, it was the community’s equalizer, the plot device that allowed country kids to show off their synchronicity in the big arenas, at the big dance. Hoosiers writ small.
I grew up in Hazard, Kentucky, hearing men retell stories about the 1928 Carr Creek team that played in t-shirts and cut-offs and lost the state finals in four overtimes. About the 1952 state champs, the Cuba High Cubs, with only 12 boys in the school and a team that trained itself in trickery by watching Harlem Globetrotter films. About the first racially integrated teams from the mountains surprising powerhouses from Lexington, Louisville, and the Cincinnati suburbs. And about all the times our little schools lost in the state tourney because they were cheated by slick city refs or tempted into failure by sudden access to urban vices: pretty girls, cold beer, and bakery fresh doughnuts (overconsumption of doughnuts, the accepted cause of Hazard High’s defeat in the 1957 state tournament, one day after they had murdered top-rated Covington Grant).
The University of Kentucky stories came out later in the evening through lingering cigarette smoke, told by confident witnesses who pontificated with a Pabst or Bud in hand, each can with punched holes and a pinch of salt balanced on the top. These stories started with the exploits of the original Fabulous Five; they won two national titles in the ’40s, led by a small-town point guard who had perfected his dribbling while locked away in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. There would be perfunctory mention of the point-shaving scandals that followed, and nodding agreement that the team should have never gone to New York, where all those gamblers were. Then it would all drift back to the more prosaic tales from the ’50s, like the seven-footer from a tiny town in Georgia playing in a gym heated by a coal stove just beyond one basket. He was recruited while playing in his socks because the town had no sneakers his size. Alas, when he got to UK, he became an All-American; then they got him for point-shaving, too, though the men telling the stories would all say no one could prove it.
One commonly told story was about West Virginia University guard Jerry West, the man whose image is now incorporated into the NBA logo. Before he was the brand itself, he was a sickly boy on Cabin Creek, a coal camp near Charleston. He developed an uncanny skill shooting on a lumpy dirt court at a hoop nailed on the side of a building. The story the elders told was that at WVU he got his nose broken playing against Kentucky but came back to score 18 points in the second half and get the win.
West’s son Jonnie is a seldom-used reserve on the current WVU roster. His hometown is listed as Memphis, where his dad moved from L.A. to manage an NBA franchise. But still the kid is just one generation removed from the West Virginia legend, Zeke from Cabin Creek. The rest of the Mountaineer roster is a little farther removed. WVU has no scholarship players from West Virginia, and their starters come from New York City, New Jersey, and Long Island (and not the part of Long Island where the roosters come from). Great kids, big hearts, and a different meaning to the lyrics “take me home, country roads.”
In truth the most rural teams left in the tournament are Butler (the city college of Indianapolis) and Duke, an institution long synonymous with noblesse oblige and Southern urbanity. (The Duke coach, Mike Krzyzewski, is so highly regarded in the nation’s power centers that he was chosen to coach Team USA’s NBA all stars in the Olympics in both 2004 and 2008. And though our heavily favored pro squad had surprisingly embarrassing losses to Puerto Rico and Lithuania early in his tenure, he was nevertheless allowed to continue in his role as pitch man for both General Motors and American Express right up until those companies suffered their surprisingly embarrassing collapses.)
Still, the Duke-as-rural-underdog story gets more intriguing/confusing when you consider the fact that one of the team’s urban kids, Nolan Smith, is the son of Derek Smith, another Zeke from Cabin Creek rural legend. Smith, the father, came to the University of Louisville from the small cotton mill town of Hogansville, Georgia. His family was so poor that Derek showed up in Louisville for college with just a few t-shirts to wear.
He went on to win a NCAA national championship and have an extended NBA career as both a player and a coach. Even more famously he is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary as originating the ultimate basketball term, “the high five.”
So this weekend we will gather to get the story straight. Even those of us nursing broken hearts owe that much to the game. We will watch the urban kids playing for the more rural state schools, the country kids filling out the city team rotations, and fans from all over imagining their own Cinderella-like redemption in someone else’s unlikely victory.