LEXINGTON, Ky. — The old-timers showed up right when Wheeler Pharmacy opened and made a beeline for the back of the store. They took their usual seats at the lunch counter and had their usual conversation about Kentucky basketball.
How are we going to beat the press? Coach John Calipari will have to carefully distribute playing time. We might have our hands full in the NCAA championship game. Is there any way little brother can beat us Saturday?
“Coming down here looking for a little bit of knowledge is like trying to get a sip of water from a fire hydrant,” explained Jim McGary, one of the regulars.
The lunch counter is a no-frills space where the decor is dated but the coffee’s fresh. And Kentucky basketball is always the topic of conversation — so much so that even Calipari stops in now and then. He came in earlier this week, in fact. The Wildcats coach certainly didn’t need a reminder, but the old-timers made sure he knew how big Saturday’s game against Louisville is — and never mind that it’s the first time two schools from the same state have made the NCAA tournament’s Final Four since 1991.
McGary, 73, works in the life insurance business, so he knows these things: “I can’t explain it. It’s not a matter of life and death,” he said of Kentucky-Louisville hoops. “It’s more serious than that.”
‘Two different entities’
There are more than 46,000 miles of interstate highway in the United States, but there’s no stretch like the 61 miles of pavement that separate Louisville and Lexington. Similarly, there are 344 Division I basketball teams and perhaps no two — not even that pair down on Tobacco Road — have a disdain quite like what you feel driving around Kentucky. The closest comparison in sports might be Alabama-Auburn football.
The rivalry isn’t apparent on Interstate 64, driving west from Lexington, because Louisville’s fan base barely stretches beyond its city limits. But all you have to do is flip on the radio. Any station will do. One morning last week, Jimmy from Louisville called up to sing a song. Rose said her town was devastated by recent storms but Saturday’s game has helped residents momentarily forget. And “Ronnie on a bucket,” with an accent thicker than molasses, shared the minority opinion: He hopes Saturday’s loser will support the team from the Bluegrass State in Monday’s title game.
“I think that’s something we can all wish for,” said Joe B. Hall, the famed Kentucky coach who co-hosts a daily radio show with Denny Crum, Louisville’s Hall of Fame coach. “Whether it’ll happen or not, we’ll have to wait and see.”
Not likely. These two schools don’t like each other. Never have. The game is still a couple of days away and tension is already heated. Local police, in fact, had to respond to a fight earlier this week — at a dialysis center, of all places.
“I didn’t talk to him about the ballgame,” one of the combatants explained to WKYT-TV. “I was talking to another guy about the game. He was meddling and told me to shut up and gave me the finger!”
The two schools didn’t play a regular season game against each other from 1922 to 1983. While both programs have a history of success, Kentucky has always loomed larger, both inside and outside the state.
“Louisville is like the little brother fighting for recognition from the big brother,” former Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton famously said in 1986, words that still fuel both fan bases.
The rivalry only became more heated when Rick Pitino, who coached Kentucky from 1989 to 1997, accepted the Cardinals job when he returned to the college ranks in 2001.
“It’s two different entities, really,” he said this week.
Pitino explained that the schools are “culturally different,” pointing out Louisville‘s minority population and urban environment. He’s also well aware of Kentucky’s large alumni population in Louisville’s back yard, which can make neighbors out of enemies.
“It ends up with a lot of bad marriages, a lot of mixed marriages that end up bad,” he said. “You have a Louisville woman with a Kentucky man and it always ends bad.”
He was joking. Kind of.
Hugh Barrow is a prominent Louisville attorney who practices family law. While he’s never seen basketball formally cited in divorce paperwork, it‘s been an underlying factor. “There’s definitely some truth to it,“ he said.
Barrow has a case right now, in fact, in which one man’s two grown children — Kentucky fans — have made life difficult for their father’s Louisville-loving wife. “She’s a rabid Louisville fan and they just treat her like crap,” he said. “They’ve treated her so poorly and it really has centered on this rivalry and this season. It’s sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back and she’s packing up.”
‘It cuts both ways’