This is a reveal of personal information for me (which is not that big of a reveal to anyone who has read a lot of my fiction, but still…I know there are people who follow me here who haven’t read it)…I grew up in Kentucky. A lot of my fiction will mention Kentucky or areas close to Kentucky, because I can’t write with authority about geographic areas I don’t know.
And today is Basketball Friday. I know that’s not what everyone calls today. But where I grew up and how I grew up? That is what today is. Yesterday was Basketball Thursday. If the University of Kentucky was not playing basketball on one of those two days when I was growing up (and is not playing on one of those two days in the more recent history and the present) it was (is) *extremely* disappointing. And not just for me and most of my family, but for a significant portion of the state (some folks are exclusively Louisville fans and some people <gasp!> don’t like basketball).
Growing up, I spent most of my time with my grandfather, who ruled the television in the house (he would graciously allow me to watch children’s programming on PBS and Nickelodeon in the early 1980s…I’m lucky my grandparents had cable), and my dad, so I watched a lot of sports, not just for a little girl, but for a human being. I absorb other people’s emotional energy, so it was fairly easily determined that I picked up my grandfather’s and father’s team affinities and loyalties. They were UK fans. I was obsessed with Kentucky basketball as a little girl, because it was a way to bond with my dad. My dad would sit for hours with me and watch sports, and particularly with Kentucky basketball (and baseball and horse racing…but those can be other posts at other times maybe), he would TALK to me. Still the only thing my dad and I have a decent comfort level talking to each other about is sports. NCAA Tournament time was a great time for me with my dad, historically. He had this UK t-shirt I loved that said, ‘The Cats Will Kick in the Door in ’84’ that showed The Wildcat kicking a door to splinters with other teams’ names on the pieces. (I wish I had a picture of this shirt to post here…it’s super cool). I watched Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin and Kenny ‘Sky’ Walker as a little girl. I had a crush on Rex Chapman until he left for the NBA draft after only 2 years.
And then Kentucky got into some trouble with the NCAA for academic fraud (and probably some other stuff) and was barred from tournament play for three years in 1989. They deserved it, but in 1989, I was a 5th grader who had also just found out 1. I was going to have a younger sibling no one expected 2. my grandmother…the person who loved me the most of anyone in my life to that point, was dying 3. I, as an extremely quiet introvert, was going to have to change school districts from a tiny one where I knew everyone and felt comfortable (which is honestly a miracle for me) to a GIGANTIC one where I knew NO ONE in 2 years or less. So I probably took UK’s tournament probation a little harder than I normally would. 1989 was full of a lot of drastic and abrupt change for me.
But I survived it, and so did UK. They got a new coach, and recruiting was tough for those 3 years of no shot at being in the tournament, no matter how much they won during the regular season. They managed to get ONE star (Jamal Mashburn), but most of the players on the 1992 team were scrappy (lucky) kids who, in ‘normal’ basketball time and space, would have NO shot at a scholarship with Kentucky’s program. But there they were in 1992, back in the tournament. That team was made up of a bunch of pretty phenomenal overachievers (and Jamal Mashburn…who was inarguably awesome). They made it to the Elite 8 (the final 8 teams of 64) and played a very exciting, still constantly talked about game against Duke University. That’s the Christian Laettner game. That’s ‘The Shot.’ Anybody who follows college basketball at all has heard of and probably seen ‘The Shot’ at least a dozen times. Here in Kentucky, it is mourned and demonized, almost like a war event. Now, I am an educated adult. I’m normally quite a grounded person with a reasonable sense of perspective and I enjoy dwelling on the positive things in life and I try very hard (really) to not be a hater. I know it’s silly and ridiculous to hold onto negative feelings about a sporting event I wasn’t personally competing in that took place 27 years ago. I know it’s strange and maybe disturbing to hold a grudge against a man I’ve never met (thank goodness…sorry…but I’m just…) for his actions in a basketball game he played when I was 13 going on 14. But I’m still not over it.
For me, The Shot wasn’t just the crushingly disappointing end to a high stakes college basketball game where ‘my team’ lost. I think in metaphor. I can’t help it. It’s not something I try to do, but I just do it. So in 1992, to me, as a lonely, anxious 8th grader…as the only girl in the first row in early Algebra I…as a quiet little fish in a REALLY huge, loud pond…as a girl who needs time to process social change who had endured 3 years of pretty radical upheaval…Kentucky basketball was a source of joy. Yeah, I was at a new school and sad and by myself even more than I had been before. I lost my grandparents, my main source of stability. But Kentucky was back in the tournament. My new classmates were UK fans and we could talk about basketball…I could talk about that…it didn’t matter that I was quiet and smart and dorky and still the ‘new kid’ even after almost 2 whole years in a new school. Only the basketball knowledge and passion I had mattered. I could feel like a part of something with these virtual strangers surrounding me because of Kentucky basketball. I saw myself in that team. That was a team of redemption who came back after a lot of hardship to exceed expectations. And watching them fight so hard in that game against Duke (who on paper was very clearly the better team who never had a tournament break and had a team full of stars) gave me…HOPE. I thought, ‘The Wildcats are going to win this game against this team that’s supposed to beat them. Maybe I’m going to do alright here in this new school district where I thought I was outmatched and drowning too.’ But…Christian Laettner. See, the reason UK fans (including me) can’t let go of The Shot after all this time, isn’t the heartbreaking last minute loss. It’s that Christian Laettner was a villain. He literally stomped on another human being minutes before taking that shot, but was never called for a foul. He admitted later that he’d done it on purpose. He was brash and arrogant and selfish…just a big jerk. Hell, they made an ESPN documentary a couple years ago titled ‘I Hate Christian Laettner’ and it wasn’t even made by a Kentucky fan (the entire Atlantic Coast Conference fan base hated(hates) him too).
If another player on Duke’s team had made that shot, I know that personally, I’d have let this go a long time ago. Maybe immediately. I wouldn’t still hate Duke (but I do…because the men’s athletic department seems to condone this kind of behavior in its athletes). UK has lost other high stakes games and other games in dramatic fashion. UK has other perennial rivals. But I don’t feel animosity about those. I don’t remember where I was watching those games, and I can’t recall having that crisp, overwhelming PAIN I felt after The Shot after any other game, because those other losses just weren’t as painful. Man, in 1992, The Shot hurt me. It’s the only time I’ve cried over the outcome of a sporting event. Christian Laettner was the hero of that game and The Shot has been replayed approximately 87 bajillion times over the past 27 Marches on national television. UPS even used it in an ad campaign a couple years ago. Duke went on to win the national championship that year. Christian Laettner got to be on the first US Olympic Dream Team with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. Because of The Shot. I felt like not only did The Shot take my hope and joy away in that particular game, and for that particular season, but it lingers. Still. Through the national championships and amazing teams UK had in the later 1990s and earlier 21st century. Through a lot of personal triumphs and epiphanies of mine that should render a basketball game…especially ONE SHOT in a basketball game…totally meaningless. It’s not just that it’s constantly replayed. I’ve seen lots of other highlights of teams I love losing in dramatic fashion that don’t affect me the way The Shot does. I can usually place sports in its proper perspective. But not The Shot. It’s just too metaphorical for me. It taught me and continually repeats the lesson each March that sometimes villains get away with it. Sometimes villains even get handsomely rewarded for their villainy.
I think The Shot in this weird way has even influenced me as a writer. I don’t often write villains, but when I do, they don’t get rewarded for their villainy. And that’s probably where that comes from. I just can’t bring myself to write a villain who wins.
Kentucky won their first round game in a walk yesterday (which was expected). I’ll be watching games all day today, just like I did yesterday, because I still love the tournament every year, no matter how much personal drama is attached to it. I won’t even be upset if /when Kentucky loses this year (I am usually not upset when they lose). I actually love an underdog winning, and UK is almost never an underdog, so if a lower seed knocks them out? I still usually kind of enjoy that. But as for The Shot? For that game in 1992? I’m still not over it.