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Kentucky by Heart: For good or bad, directly or indirectly, UK basketball looms large

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

Steve Flairty grew up feeling good about Kentucky. He recalls childhood trips orchestrated by his father, with the take-off points in Campbell County. The people and places he encountered then help define his passion about the state. “Kentucky by Heart” shares part and parcel of his joy. A little history, much contemporary life, intriguing places, personal experiences, special people, book reviews, quotes and even a little humor will, hopefully, help readers connect with their own “inner Kentucky.”

March Madness is over — and with a less “bluish” cast to it than many around the state expected. With the net not coming down on the Kentucky Wildcat basketball program’s ninth national title, it’s perhaps a time to reflect a bit, yes, on the disappointment of the team doing such great things in ’14-15—finishing with an unheard of record of 38-1–yet not completing its national championship goal after falling to Wisconsin in the semi-finals.

The pain of coming two games short is all about the totality of the Wildcat experience here in the Bluegrass.

I’ve seen no recent surveys done about what is the most popular college basketball team the state follows, but I strongly suspect it is the Wildcats, followed, for sure, by the Louisville Cardinals. My evidence comes from anecdotal accounts—thousands of ‘em, and heard almost daily.

Call it passion, or call it madness. For sure, the basketball Wildcats and the fans, Big Blue Nation, are a mighty force in Kentucky…and beyond, especially as you count those who hold tightly to their “birthright” while moving from the state.

Superfan Aunt Mae Johnson (Photo provided)

Superfan Aunt Mae Johnston of Falmouth plans her days around watching the UK Wildcats play. (Photo provided)

Church service times are changed so as not to conflict with games…with no apologies offered. There are retail stores (outside the realm of college bookstores), especially in the state’s urban areas, that fully devote their product to UK basketball, or, at least, have significant sections of Wildcat-oriented merchandise. Statewide news media, both small and large venues, seem to frequently work something into their daily coverage an offering of UK red meat stories.

For many, there is an ongoing, knowing conversation about the Cats that appears even outside the game season. “What do you think of Kentucky?” on the street or barber shop often really means: “How do you think the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team is playing?” Sports talk on radio with UK basketball discourse, often knowledgeable but almost always highly partisan, fuels the fire.

Age seems no big determinant in fandom, either. My now diseased mother, Alma Flairty, of Butler, wore her blue and white beads around her neck for the games, and during the season, our phone and in-person conversations were peppered with Wildcat talk—which she almost always initiated. Her living 84-year-old twin sister, Mae Johnston, of Falmouth, plans her days around watching the team play, and recently traveled a significant distance to have a picture taken with UK Coach Calipari at a public event. And, for the young, who hasn’t seen the tiniest of children wearing UK t-shirts and adopting basketball habits like their favorite player?

Examples like these are as prolific as sniffles in Kentucky’s allergy season or blue gills in most any farm pond located in the Commonwealth. You could give your own more accounts, I’m sure.

For good or bad, directly or indirectly, Kentucky basketball looms big for 4 million people in the state. Residents either root for the Cats or, at least, move out of the way.

Today, this lifelong Kentuckian (except for a few months after being born in California where Dad served as a Marine) is most emotionally invested as follower of the Colonels of Eastern Kentucky University, the place where I graduated and volunteered as a game statistician for many years. I do make it a point to root for all state teams, including UK, however. All in the family is the way I look at it.

But at age 12, I was unquestionably a die-hard Kentucky fan first.

Rupp's Runts (Photo provided)

Rupp’s Runts (Photo provided)


So much that one night in the spring of 1966, my 12-year-old heart took a good thumping when Adolph Rupp and his national darlings, called “Rupp’s Runts,” were upset in the NCAA championship game against Texas Western, now known as the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).

Starting several years before, I listened to nearly every Wildcat game on Mom and Dad’s GE electric radio, either to Cawood Ledford on WHAS or Claude Sullivan on WCKY. In those days in the ’60s, my television basketball choices in my Northern Kentucky home were college games of the Cincinnati Bearcats or Xavier Musketeers, both Ohio teams, so radio was my Wildcat media savior. Both “Cawood” and “Claude” broadcasted the UK games with skill and passion, and their words fueled my imagination of someday being a Wildcat.

Sometimes, I’d nod off to sleep and awaken with a hot radio resting near me on my twin bunk bed. When the Wildcats were losing, I’d often switch radio stations, hoping my team was doing better on the other station. I’d try to discern even a tiny bit of hope in the voice of Cawood, or Claude, then stick with that station’s calling of the game.

It became a ritual for me to follow the Cats on radio, to close my eyes and see them in action…my heroes.

The Texas-Western game, on March 19, 1966, though, was on television, and UK was widely favored to bring home national championship No. 5. It didn’t happen. The Wildcats went down to defeat 72-65. Sparing you my analysis of the contest, I cried big tears and didn’t want to get out of bed the next day. I moped around for a week or so. I felt let down, figuring the team could have won if they really wanted to win.

But I survived, just as I’m doing now after the Wisconsin loss. The pain I experienced in 1966 perhaps made me gun shy to embrace the Wildcats as whole-heartedly as I did then.

The pain even rivaled my first romantic rejection several years later, but that’s a story for another time…and probably another place.

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Voice of Wildcats

Remembering that childhood Wildcat fascination, I wrote a review on the recent biography of Claude Sullivan, published first in Kentucky Monthly. The book is called Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting, by Alan Sullivan, with Joe Cox. (University Press of Kentucky):

In the annals of Kentucky Wildcats sports broadcasting history, all but today’s youngest fans remember and call Cawood Ledford a “true blue” icon, and he certainly was–never to be forgotten.

But so, in fact, was Claude Sullivan. A broadcasting competitor of Ledford but friends away from the mike, the Kentucky treasure, raised in Winchester, died in 1967 of throat cancer. He was 42, a strong family man and a consummate professional in the prime of an extraordinary career, one who won recognition as “Kentucky’s Outstanding Broadcaster” for eight consecutive years.

In Voice of the Wildcats: Claude Sullivan and the Rise of Modern Sportscasting, Claude’s youngest son, Alan Sullivan, collaborating with writer Joe Cox, has written a splendid biography that will bring back many exciting memories for old-time Wildcat fans. Starting with the foreword, written by the present Wildcat “voice,” Tom Leach, to noted sportswriter Billy Reed’s afterword perspective, the book is loaded with UK football and basketball, along with Cincinnati Reds game stories, accounts of pioneering programming Sullivan did, and dozens of interviews with those who knew him well, such as Jim Host and Ralph Hacker.

Much of the material for the book came from the Claude Sullivan Collection in the University of Kentucky Archives, which has recently been updated, and much of it digitalized.

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“I am more than just a Serious basketball fan. I am a life-long Addict. I was addicted from birth, in fact, because I was born in Kentucky.”
— Hunter S. Thompson

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Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of five books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and four in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. He is currently working on “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” due to be released in spring 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his KyForward columns for excerpts from all his books. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

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