I am from Louisville. I am not from Kentucky.
My birth certificate is clear, but my heart contradicts, and will pound appropriately Saturday during the most deeply personal of basketball games.
I am Louisville. I am not Kentucky.
The two schools play in an NCAA national semifinal basketball game that, to the rest of the nation, might seem like little more than an odd rivalry between two campuses separated by about 75 miles of the same backwoods state.
Yet for those who have lived there, it is about a cultural divide that can define a life. I know, because it defined mine.
I was born and raised in Louisville, living 18 years in the same modest brick house on the same suburban East End street. With the most consistent major professional sports occurring 100 miles away in Cincinnati, Louisville was a college sports town where the two main options were Louisville and Kentucky basketball.
But they weren’t really options. You are either born Louisville, or born Kentucky, never both, and there’s nothing you could really do to change it. I never attended either school, but enrollment in their culture was hereditary and absolute.
While today both schools have become sophisticated national universities, they were once as different as bluegrass and pavement. Those perceptions — some real, some sweeping generalities — formed roots that wind through the rivalry today.
Louisville was the smaller city school. Kentucky was giant country university. Louisville’s students spent their weekends working to pay tuition. Kentucky’s students spent their weekend tapping kegs while their Daddies paid tuition.
Louisville’s basketball team was one of the first in the South to embrace African American players, and the Cardinals were even derisively called “The Black Birds.” Kentucky didn’t sign an African American player until 1969, and the foot-dragging was an ultimate act of segregated stupidity considering Kentucky lost the 1966 national championship game to a Texas Western team that started five blacks.
Louisville felt urban and hip and tolerant. Kentucky looked country and conservative and entitled. Louisville felt like Avis. Kentucky seemed like Hertz.
The Kentucky state flag shows a city guy and a country guy who are shaking hands, but you don’t see the country guy’s left hand, something that my eighth-grade history teacher ominously noted.
“That’s because he has a knife in it,” said Mr. Young.
My middle-class family was bathed in Louisville. It’s work ethic fit us. Its underdog status defined us.
My father once threw a shoe into our television set when Terry Howard cruelly missed his first free throw of the season in the final seconds of a 1975 national semifinals loss to UCLA. My older brother Brad attended Kentucky, transferred, and now has a Louisville license plate. Several of my relatives attended Louisville at night or on weekends, including cousin Art, who became a family hero by working his way through school to become a noted radiologist.
My best grade-school friend, Charlie Gabriel, received two degrees from Louisville, played in their pep band, began the “C-A-R-D-S” cheer, in which the name is spelled out by body parts, and today cannot even begin to describe Kentucky.
“I can’t talk about them without seeming mean and stupid and small,” he said this week. “Let’s just say it’s all about how you were brought up.”
One of my best high school friends, Laurie Blayney, attended Kentucky briefly before transferring to Louisville and working her way to a degree and a state of mind about Kentucky that even she can’t understand.
“I’d like to think we could all just grow up and get past it, but we can’t,” she said this week. “There’s the state of Louisville, and the state of Kentucky.”
It’s been a state of chaos this week in Louisville, where there are an estimated 60% Cardinal fans and 40% Kentucky fans. In the rest of the state, it’s all Kentucky, so the Wildcats dominate the buzz, which drives the rest of us bonkers.
Experts say Kentucky fans are the best in the country, I say they are among the most insufferable. Experts always talk about how Kentucky is the winningest team in college basketball. I say, in the last 32 years, both teams have won exactly the same number of national championships.
All this is why, sitting alone in front of a television set, with my father back in Louisville on speed-dial, I’ll be cheering myself hoarse today for Rick Pitino’s team even though it would cost me money and fame. You see, I can possibly win all of my March Madness pools if Kentucky wins the national title — like most everyone else, I picked them — but I would forsake all those winnings for a Cardinals victory.
Oh, the sun would shine bright on my old Louisville home.