Welp, it’s all over now. The other basketball dynasty that rocks the blue and white — the Duke University Blue Devils — reigns supreme as this year’s NCAA champion.
I grew up in Lexington, Ky. It’s a place where some people don “I still hate Christian Laettner” t-shirts, recalling Laettner’s legendary last second shot in the 1992 Kentucky vs. Duke championship game. The clip was recently featured in the ESPN 30 for 30 film, “I Hate Christian Laettner.”
This was supposed to be our year — the year that talented bunch of young men from the University of Kentucky went 40-0.
Everyone talked about their quest for a perfect season. Every team in the country aimed their collective skills squarely at the Wildcats. But perfection, no matter how talented you are, is an elusive thing. That’s an important lesson for boys like my nephew and grandson, who love to shoot hoops and run around the baseball diamond. They watched intently as Kentucky folded to Wisconsin in the final minutes of the NCAA semifinal Saturday.
After the game, my nephew even shed a few tears. It’s just a game, I told him. There will be many more. My words were of little comfort to an 11-year-old who has already proven to be a gifted athlete. Winning is in Grant’s DNA.
So you can imagine how Kentucky’s talented tenth reacted to seeing a would-be perfect season slip through their fingertips. Make no mistake: these young men achieved greatness. Winning 38 games is no small feat. But it wasn’t enough for them, Coach John Calipari or Big Blue Nation fans.
My friend Jerry Tipton has covered Kentucky basketball for 30 plus years for the Lexington Herald-Leader. It’s the same newspaper which received bomb threats when the newspaper’s investigative team penned a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles about basketball boosters lining the pockets of players.
As Tipton noted when we talked this week, it’s very difficult for a team to go undefeated in regular and post season play. The last Division I school to do so was Indiana in 1976.
Anyone who followed the Wildcats this year knows there were at least four to five games they could have lost. “I thought they could get beat, I said that all along,” said Tipton, noting close games against Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia during the regular season, and Notre Dame in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.
Still, Tipton wouldn’t have been surprised if the Wildcats “had run the table.” Loaded with youthful talent rather than having one breakout player, this Wildcat team often seemed invincible. They embodied teamwork, excellence and endurance. Several will become instant millionaires when they are selected in the NBA draft’s first round. The world awaits them.
Understandably, their disappointment and immaturity were painfully evident in their loss to Wisconsin. A few Kentucky players headed to the locker room without exchanging customary post-game handshakes with their opponents. And later, in a press conference, Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison could be heard uttering an obscenity and the n-word, reportedly directed at Wisconsin’s boy wonder, Frank Kaminsky.
“[Harrison] got benched late in the game and they lost. He certainly was not in a good mood,” said Tipton. “I was talking to one guy who was sitting in the front row of the presser and he didn’t hear it. Once people figured out what [Harrison] was saying, we weren’t sure who he was referring to.”
Harrison could have made the comment about a reporter asking a question, one of his fellow players or Kaminsky. But a remark made in the height of frustration was widely circulated and criticized, prompting Harrison to call Kaminsky to apologize. In turn, Kaminsky graciously accepted his apology.
Here’s where things get crazy: some people believe the n-word means the same thing regardless of context or who is saying it. Nothing is further from the truth. A group of University of Oklahoma fraternity brothers found that out the hard way when they were caught on tape singing a song that included the n-word. The fraternity was banned from campus and two students were expelled. Why? They used the word to brag about never admitting a black person into their fraternity, which has accepted black members in the past.
Harrison used it in a way that is more common these days, as a figure of speech used to describe someone of any race, often a friend or peer. Rappers have taken the meaning of the ‘n-word’ and turned it on its head. It’s clearly a generational thing.
For people of a certain age, regardless of color, the word holds the power to cut deep. Especially if it is uttered with hatred or with the intent to discriminate. For young people who haven’t experienced the sting of overt racism, it’s simply another slang term.
Everyone should let Andrew Harrison be. He had a moment after one of the most disappointing games of his young career. He clearly meant no harm. He and his teammates should be proud of what they accomplished this year. This UK fan certainly enjoyed the ride.