Friday, March 23, 2007

A Blue Day For Kentucky

Some people joke that college basketball is the second religion of the state of Kentucky. I'm not sure, however, that it isn't the first religion here. In fact, I once wrote a paper (only half in jest) about the liturgy of Rupp Arena, the home of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team.

We take our basketball very, very seriously. Far too seriously, in fact. The whole state suffers from a collective neurosis. But, before I lampoon that neurosis too much, I should note both that I, too, suffer from it, and that it is, in fact, a very understandable neurosis.

As a state, too often Kentucky suffers from an inferiority complex. We aren't good at very many things, and some of the things we're quite good at - say, coal mining and tobacco - aren't very good for you. But basketball... we have a long heritage of being very good at that. So basketball is a source of great pride in the commonwealth. It is something that we excel at, and can be proud of.

The problem is that sometimes in the pursuit of excellence, we do some pretty stupid things. In the 1950s some of our players got a little bit too cozy with New York City bookies. In the 1980s a package full of money burst open on its way to the father of a recruit. Each of these scandals not only got the University of Kentucky's men's basketball program in trouble with the NCAA, they also gave the entire state a metaphorical black eye.

I'm afraid that the darker side of our collective neurotic passion for basketball has emerged again. Yesterday it was announced that Orlando "Tubby" Smith, the first black coach in the history of a program that came a little late to the desegregation table (though that's a much more complicated situation than the movie Glory Road made it seem) has resigned after guiding the men's basketball team for ten years, to accept the same position at the University of Minnesota.

Tubby Smith is a class act, and a winner. In his time at Kentucky the men's basketball program won 76% of its games, against routinely the nation's toughest schedule. In ten years he won a national title, five conference championships, and a whopping three national coach of the year awards. But being voted by your peers the very best in your profession means precious little to many of the fans here. So, despite his stellar record on the court and his character and grace off it, Tubby Smith (a United Methodist, by the way) was rarely really welcome in Kentucky.

Many national pundits are quietly attributing this to the persistence of racism, and I am ashamed to admit that there is more than a little bit of truth to that accusation. But while it is true that for some Tubby would never have truly been accepted because of the color of his skin, to attribute this whole situation to racism would be to miss many other and just as damning truths.

The fact is, Tubby Smith was never in a position to succeed with some of the fans in Kentucky, and not just because he is black. He had the misfortune of following the tenure of a charismatic savior, the most popular coach in Kentucky since the legendary Adolph Rupp, who after years on top has finally been knocked down to third place on the all time wins list for NCAA Division I men's basketball coaches. When Joe B. Hall followed Adolph Rupp, despite the fact that he regularly competed for championships and won the 1978 NCAA national title, he simply couldn't do anything right in the eyes of many fans. Even that '78 national title team was picked apart.

Similarly, when Tubby Smith followed Rick Pitino, he was in many eyes doomed from the start. Pitino had taken over a program mired in scandal and restored its glory, reaching the Final Four three times, winning the 1996 national title and losing to Arizona in the championship game the following year. Pitino's success was characterized by a frenetic, fan-friendly style of play (fitting for the school that literally invented the "fast break" years earlier) and a larger-than-life personality. No matter what he did, even if he won more than Pitino (and many years he did) and carried himself with a class that was too often missing during Pitino's years in Lexington, he simply never could live up to the Pitino myth.

So similar are their situations that when Pitino announced that he was leaving the University of Kentucky to coach the NBA's Boston Celtics (his "dream job" that quickly turned into a nightmare) Joe B. Hall joked that UK should just hire him again, since no other human being deserved to be put through that meat grinder.

No, it was not just lingering racism that poisoned many UK fans to Smith. It was the myth of the glorious past, a past that can never be repeated, much less surpassed. That Smith led a model program at the University of Kentucky meant very little. That he won regularly, and twice had his team as the top seed in the NCAA tournament meant very little, too. At Kentucky you are judged by nothing less than national championships, and in his decade of service he won "only" one of those.

The biggest knock on Tubby Smith's tenure at the helm of Kentucky's men's basketball program was that he never won with his own players. The "Association of Tubby Bashers" often repeated that tired refrain. His only national title, it is true, came with players that he inherited from Rick Pitino's time at the school. What is often overlooked is that there is a reason Pitino left when he did. He won the national title in 1996, and then nearly won it again in 1997, losing in overtime in the championship game. After those great seasons, the program looked depleted. All of the top players left to go pro. No one, least of all Pitino, who left while on top, thought that there was any hope for 1998. Tubby didn't inherit Pitino' players, he inherited Pitino's leftovers.

That 1998 team won with heart, the mark of great coaching. Tubby took what Pitino didn't want and crafted it into a national title. And while he never returned to the Final Four at Kentucky, on three other occasions he came just a game away. If it weren't for a sprained ankle here and an overtime miracle there, he may well have left Kentucky with more titles than Pitino. But, of course, we don't measure success by "close" or "what if," we measure it with championship banners. Oh well, he's only managed to tie Pitino: they each have one.

I'm not writing this to say that Tubby Smith was a better coach than Rick Pitino or Adolph Rupp, the twin lights of our state's favorite program. But he certainly does belong in their company, and the way Smith was treated in his time at Kentucky should shame the whole state.

I hate to see him leave. I grew up a Kentucky fan, from a family with season tickets to see the games in Rupp. Tubby should have been a state treasure, and I certainly admire him. But a part of me is glad to see him go, not for the "good of the program," as so many fans are trumpeting today. Rather, because the man has earned some peace. By the time he's done in Minnesota they'll probably name a building after him. In Kentucky... we should just be sadder to see him go.


Anonymous said...

A quibble, perhaps, but it deserves comment. Early on, you say the following:

"But basketball... we [in Kentucky] have a long heritage of being very good at that. So basketball is a source of great pride in the commonwealth. It is something that we excel at, and can be proud of."

If by "we" you really mean "we in Kentucky," I don't understand. Are a majority of UK's best players even from Kentucky? (Have they ever been? If so, how long ago was that?) Does a higher proportion of Kentucky's population have above-average basketball skills than other states? Or is it that Kentuckians are really good at sitting around and watching good basketball teams play (and buying their officially licensed merchandise)? I think it's probably the latter.

Call me humorless and lacking in team spirit if you wish, but I've never understood the way in which sports fans somehow manage to identify with their teams and their victories. "We won last night," one of my colleagues said recently of my institution's basketball team. I felt compelled to say, "What do you mean, "we"? Neither one of us is on the basketball team."

I might understand this way of talking if it was about, say, the Army winning a battle against an invading force; their victory, I might say, would also be my own. But if we're talking about basketball, I have a hard time seeing how my interests, or those of my colleague, are served by its victory, save the vicarious and unearned sense of self-respect I might get from backing someone else's victories. And as a white man, I feel that society gives me far too much vicarious and unearned self-respect as it is. No thanks.

Sandalstraps said...


Your comment has some merit, but I think that it misses the point I'm making.

But first, to your question concerning the quality of basketball played by those actually from the state:

Many great basketball players have come from the state of Kentucky, but for the last several decades, it is true, most of the University of Kentucky's male basketball players have been brought in from out of state. However, most Kentucky fans have a particular fondness for native players, which accounts for the enduring popularity of players like Rex Chapman (even though he left for the NBA after two seasons), Richie Farmer (even though he wasn't particularly good - and remember, he got elected the state's Agricultural Commissioner even though the only thing about him with even a remote connection to farming is his name), Deron Feldhaus (the son of a legenday state high school basketball coach), John Pelphrey (the best basketball player to ever come out of Paintsville - they have a building named after him there), Travis Ford (who some - including your truly - want to be named the next men's basketball coach), and Patrick Sparks. You'll notice that all of those players are white, which I hope is not a factor in their enduring popularity.

Many great African American players have also hailed from the state of Kentucky, including Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, who played his ball at the University of Louisville because at the time UK was seen as the white school.

That's just a very, very small fraction of the best players that Kentucky has produced, but of them I'd like to say two things:

1. For whatever reason, their athletic success became a huge part of the state's mythos, and

2. I suspect that, relative to population size, Kentucky has produced more exceptional basketball players than most other states - though I can't back that up with hard statistics.

For better (sometimes) or for worse (many, many others) the sport of basketball has had a tremendous impact on the state of Kentucky. It is - whether we like it or not - one of the most dominant aspects of our culture, along with horseracing, whiskey, and bluegrass.

You are quite right that the greatest basketball talent many Kentuckians have is the ability to get emotionally bent out of shape while watching a game - a talent I share with a great majority of our fellow Kentuckians. But I'd say that most Kentucky fans really feel a part of the success and failures of the basketball program. This is what I really mean when I say that, by and large, we have a collective neurosis. The exploits of a basketball team consume our being.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Kentucky, though given the lack of much else to do in many parts of the state we may experience it to a greater degree than other regions. Alabama has their football, Boston and New York their baseball. Those sports hold a cultural place that cannot, I think, be explained rationally.

Perhaps athletes are our heros, standing in for us, representing us. Perhaps we feel that by our support of them - and that is a huge factor in recruiting - we are somehow made larger, better. Or perhaps it is a slightly misapplied case of familial identity. In any event, we feel involved, and often players claim that we really are involved, willing them to do better.

It is a kind of maddness, I'm sure, and I think that it is wise of you not to participate in it. But, like many forms of maddness, any rational description of it fails to properly account for the internal experience.

To attempt to rationalize a non-rational phenomenon runs the risk of producing an absurdity. And, of course, the love of basketball in Kentucky, and the average Kentuckian's self-identification with the athletic exploits of UK male basketball players is absurd. But it, like all religions, can only be understood to a limited degree by outside observation and critique. The internal experience is another thing altogether.

Perhaps the best way to describe the internal experience is to say, strange as this sounds, that rooting for a basketball team is not unlike a form of intersessory prayer. It is a kind of attempt to - to paraphrase Walter Wink - to believe or even will a desired future into being. I'm not sure that there is any positive moral value in this kind of misguided prayer, but I do think that this describes the level of involvement that many fans experience. And I also think that any outside description of the activity of fans that fails to account for this sort of involvement fails to properly account for the experience of being a fan.

But again, as someone who stands both within the experience of being a fan, and also outside it, self-criticizing it, I don't recommend it to you. It is fraught with all sorts of problems that you are wise to avoid.

Sandalstraps said...

One more metaphor for you, and then I'll leave the subject alone for a while:

Perhaps you can see the involvement of fan's in a program as not entirely unlike that of small shareholders in a company. They are invested in it, and do have some limited say over it (my contention, for instance, in this post is that the fans ran Tubby Smith off), but their say is very, very limited. However, if enough of them band together their small votes add up, and can bring in sweeping changes.

This metaphor more accurately involves the role of the fans in making crucial decisions, rather than in the less tangible role of the fans in the immediate success of a basketball team on a given night. When, for instance, Patrick Sparks' three point shot at the end of regulation in the regional final against Michigan State two years ago hung precariously on the rim, the whole state of Kentucky tried to will it through the hoop. That was a kind of intercessory prayer, though I hope that we could find more important things to pray for. When, however, the Athletics Director was trying to find a way through the recent controversy concerning the team's relatively poor performance, angry fans (and boosters!) acted like shareholders sick of seeing their stock portfolios decline.

In both cases there is a deep level of involvment, though that involvment is more tangible in one case (shareholder metaphor) than it is in the other(prayer metaphor).

M said...

Great blog! I tried to say some of the same things as you but I struggled to get the words out in my disappointment that Tubby is leaving.

Tubby recruited and molded my favorite basketball player Chuck Hayes and for that if nothing else he has my undying gratitude (can you imagine if Chuck had been a Kansas Jayhawk?)

I wish that the media would pick up on some of the more reasonable UK fans and show that not all of us are as disrespectful and dramatic as the ones who's voices are louder than ours.