This year’s Year of College Scandals has been a sneak-attack blessing for writers. Like a war or an economic recession, the onslaught of terrible cheating and genuine tragedies has given every hack who can hunt and peck a preframed narrative for almost anything that happens on a field or court. You’ve noticed, I’m sure. Every game has either been a tonic for a terrible year or proof of its decline. This narrative has started to eat away at even the last vestiges of college sports’ partisanship. Even the most devoted fan bases have started to question the profit motives of college sports, whether the loyalty to a college program can be rewarded anymore, and whether any of the old “godding up the ballplayers” naivete can be justified today. All of those concerns have been justified, and with two days in Lexington, I saw them all put temporarily to rest.
There’s a tremendous amount to be said about Kentucky’s one-point win over UNC. The on-court storylines were impossible to ignore, and the game featured an unprecedented wealth of professional-level talent. But inside Rupp Arena, what took place was more of a celebration than a competition, an appreciation and outpouring that was built around competition in the way ballets are built around swan transformations: the actual back-and-forth was a necessary part of the production, but the dance was the thing. God, what a dance.
I brought my friend Edward along for this trip because he is the friend who most shares my love of bourbon, but he is also perhaps the least knowledgeable person about sports that I know. We planned our trip to Kentucky as a four-day educational semi-bender where I’d get to scratch my Tar Heels itch and we would mutually numb our whiskey itches. So it was that on Saturday morning we were walking down South Broadway toward Rupp Arena with small but vocal headaches when we happened upon a place called Tolly Ho. The Ho, I have come to learn, is the gem that can be found in any decent college town. They serve breakfast 24 hours a day, and most of it is served after 2 a.m., so it is the sort of place where hashbrowns are sold whose booze-sopping properties could not be improved in a laboratory. It was at Tolly Ho that we got our first inkling of the day to come. We were waiting in line when the girl behind the counter asked us if we were from North Carolina. We said we were.
“Well, that makes it okay,” she said then. From behind us, a gentleman wearing his sunglasses upside-down on the back of his head said, “I hope y’all don’t have too hard a time today, getting heckled.” They said they were fine with Carolina—after all, we weren’t Duke. They remembered The Shot, and The Stomp, and we agreed upon our common enemy, and when she handed me my coffee, the girl behind the counter confessed to being sort of a closet UNC fan. I’m sure she was just being sweet, but I felt a little guilty. I’ve not been quiet about my distaste for Kentucky basketball, and naturally, when a dude is wearing sunglasses indoors—on the back of his head, upside down—you start to fill in the gestalt. Turns out that dude was incredibly cordial, and that our Tolly breakfast did the trick, and we found our way to Rupp prepared to buffet ourselves against what was sure to be increased vitriol.
The inside of Rupp is the raddest. It is just the illest possible combination of slick modernism and tradition. We walked by the UK band playing on the concourse, and a mob of people had formed a circle around them, filming and dancing. Nobody said a word to us about our apparel save one person, who called to us as we walked to our seats, “Gonna be a long day for you boys.” We took our seats—literally in the highest row—next to a few gentlemen who had lucked into their tickets that very morning when an uncle of theirs had been called in to perform an emergency dental surgery. They talked to us about the proposed renovations to Rupp, about their favorite UK teams (Rupp’s Runts for the elder, ’98 for the younger) and were generally awesome to us. As the game started, the atmosphere in the building became as electric as any I’ve seen. We in Chapel Hill are as passionate about our Heels, but we carve opponents’ psyches with our condescending dignity; Kentucky concusses you with blunt-force excitement. In Chapel Hill, what concessions there have been made to the modern stadium experience (like the pre-game “Jump Around”) temporarily cut through an excited restraint; Kentucky has honest-to-God fireworks shooting from the rafters. It is awesome, but reserved and tasteful it isn’t.
During the game itself, whose particulars I will not comment on except to say that it was an exhausting and elating stretch where every minute movement on the court seemed to draw a thrilled agony from the crowd, I noticed that the Kentucky fans are some of the smartest basketball watchers I have seen. They gasp when Anthony Davis gets missed rolling to the hoop, and they cheer pre-emptively when Doron Lamb curls around a second screen on the baseline. And although I was not exactly a shrinking violet in my support of Carolina, the only time anybody even thought about heckling us was when a 14-year-old in front of us made “three goggles” at me with the peculiar sort of turdishness which is the true domain of 14-year-old boys.
After the final buzzer, after John Henson’s shot was blocked and the final five seconds elapsed with the players obviously as stunned and gassed as the crowd, the dentist’s cousins immediately offered their hands and said good game. Ditto three-goggles-turd-boy. And every Kentucky fan within twenty seats. Listen, I am not taking the frustrating fan’s high road when I say that it was impossible for me to be upset as I walked out of that arena. But like I said, the mood was much more celebratory than competitive. The feeling among every person I talked to, Cats fan or Tar Heel, was that the game we’d just sat through precluded any ill will. I think I must’ve heard “We’ll see y’all in March” at least two hundred times.
Once we’d hit the street outside of Rupp, Edward and I milled around until we passed the Horse and Barrel, a bar we decided on based on its having the most visibly well-appointed whiskey selection I’ve seen in sometime. After the place thinned out just a little bit and we claimed a space at the bar, a table of Kentucky fans behind us noticed that we were drinking Old Rip Van Winkle and said something to us about having decent taste in bourbon for out-of-towners (I won’t be prouder of a compliment if my son is someday voted President). We talked for a moment. Woodford Reserve was purchased for us. About an hour later, as we were comparing tasting notes over a sampler of three different bourbons, these lovely people invited us over to a party at their house that evening. They were having some dinner and would just be delighted to host some Tar Heel fans. I was a little anxious about this sort of offer, and after what must have been the eleventh time I asked if he was sure, the father of the family (I’m withholding names although these people were the best) said “I’ll be pissed if you don’t come.”
Let’s pause here and ruminate on this. A family of total strangers invited us to a dinner party at their home. This is The Sort of Thing That Does Not Happen Anymore. I even checked with the bartender, Jill, who assured us we ought to go—they were in here all the time, and they meant it. “Y’all found the right people to party with,” she said. So at seven o’clock, we took a cab to their home at the edge of the University’s arboretum. To be honest, it seemed a little lunatic—there had been no shortage of liquor at the Horse and Barrel, and every decent person knows not to take advantage of a well-meaning booze promise—but when I called out to a man outside the house whether we had find the place, he called our that Hell yes, we had and that we ought to come in and that Look! A shooting star! Politely, we stood around on the front lawn with our necks craned, but I think that the number of shooting stars our host picked out increased somewhat as the night wore on, so I have my doubts.
It is sort of boring to recall a pleasant evening spent with gracious people. We were fed beef tenderloin (!) and glazed onions, given Woodford and red wine, and not once did any one seem to find the presence of total strangers odd. In fact, in what might be the least ironic and good-hearted moment of my life today, the entire gathering was made to sing the twelve nights of Christmas. Nobody knew a single gift, so I in my cleverness added lines about the Tar Heels. Owing to said cleverness, and not to whiskey, my additions were met with enormous laughter.
I told our hosts during dinner that I was sort of annoyed with them, because I was going to have to root for Kentucky now in any game they weren’t playing the Tar Heels, and this is true. Every single thing about our trip to Lexington had given us reasons way more valid than any I had to root for the Wildcats. None of this, of course, changes my feelings for John Calipari, but the point of recounting this at all is to show how little John Calipari really mattered. In a year where a relentlessly miserable narrative onslaught has made us start to see that these are all just games, I was reminded that at their very best, these days are really hardly about the games at all.