In a nation divided, a border-state sports rivalry teaches one family how to get along. For a UK fan from eastern Kentucky, this is just one lesson among many learned from Kentucky basketball.
EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the nation’s biggest college rivalries takes center stage tonight as the University of Kentucky Wildcats play the University of Louisville Cardinals in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
Michael Stamper wrote this essay in 2012, the day after the NCAA men’s championship game. Kentucky won it all that year after defeating Louisville in the semifinal round. Stamper watched the 2012 tournament with his wife, Bonnie McCafferty, a columnist, radio personality and Louisville fan who died in 2013. “Bonnie had been pretty sick but she was feeling pretty good during tournament time,” Stamper wrote this week. “I think basketball always made her feel better.”
I remember University of Kentucky games like most people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot or on 9-11.
The night of the Texas Western win over Kentucky in 1966, I was with my dad and mom in our brand new 54-foot New Moon trailer, and the game sparked probably our first real conversation about race in America. For Dad it was a teaching moment, when the Texas Western team, which had an all-black starting five, defeated the all-white Wildcats to win the NCAA title. Dad told me he’d been in the Navy with black men. He said they served only as laborers, cooks and waiters, but when a Kamikaze plane hit their ship, white and black blood ran together on the decks and it all looked pretty red to him.
The night UK beat Rick Majarus and Utah for the 1998 NCAA final, my blues band was playing at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee. I remember a very patient full house waiting for us to come back for the second show while the band gathered around a radio in the dressing room to hear the last few minutes of the game.
Back when radio was the only way to get the games, on weekends when we could, my family would drive from Hindman, Kentucky, back to Leeco, Kentucky, my dad’s birthplace, just to listen to the games at my Uncle Doodle’s store. Leeco was a little oil company town up on the ridge above Natural Bridge, and Doodle’s store was the Montgomery Ward’s, the Kroger’s and the sandwich shop. It was the everything-to-all store, with church pews set all around the front of the counter and a Warm Morning stove. Doodle’s was the place where the great minds of Kentucky basketball gathered on game nights to discuss and especially analyze every moment of the game. We believed in man-to-man defense, offensive weave and that Kentucky was the only place in the world where people really understood the game of basketball. (I still believe that, by the way.)
My Aunt Edith would make any sort of sandwich for a customer, as long as it had bologna, cheese, ham and white bread as possible ingredients. There was some liver cheese and olive loaf for outsiders and those in the community with exotic tastes – and two pop coolers, one with Cokes and Ale-8, the other with all the stuff no one drank. Cawood Ledford’s voice boomed from the radio telling which side of the dial our Cats were starting from. Sitting in that room with the world’s best storytellers, humorists and roundball philosophers remain my happiest memories. Every weekend back home was like Christmas, Thanksgiving and VE day all rolled into a warm room with basketball on the radio.
After the games, the storytelling began, along with the inevitable teasing of whichever citizen was on the hook. I marveled to be allowed a bench spot in the company of these remarkable people. More than once, I was told to get up and give my seat to someone who had more seniority than I, and I’d sit on the floor. There were no bad seats at Doodle’s. I had to keep my mouth shut or Dad would tell me to go outside and play. So I learned right there, floor or bench seat, to shut and listen. Dad taught me that wise men are worth listening to and it’s the fool who loves the sound of his own voice more.
During the 2012 tournament, my wife Bonnie and I watched every game we could. We’re a mixed marriage. She’s Cards and I’m Cats. But in the last 20 years, we’ve learned to root for each other. After a couple of tough Blue vs. Red games, we’ve even learned to not irritate each other when our team wins. And proving that true love overcomes all, my Bonnie was by my side last night rooting hard for the Cats, cursing the referees every time Kentucky got a foul and generally being my girl. I always could pick ’em, and she’s a peach.
We’re going to miss basketball. Pretty soon the early flowers will be gone and the annual humidity festival will fall on Louisville. We still have the Derby to look forward to, but though the Derby is pretty great, there’s nothing that makes the Kentucky boy’s heart beat like hearing the roar of the Big Blue Nation.
Michael Stamper is from Knott County in eastern Kentucky and now lives in Central Kentucky. He is a musician and performs professionally as Nick Stump.