Young Cats, Old Dogs, and a “Land of Hope and Dreams”
I’ve been a fan of University of Kentucky basketball since I was six years old, when I joined my dad* and my brother to watch Sam Bowie, Dirk Minniefield, and Mel Turpin lace up for the Cats in the early 1980s. A few years later, when I shot hoops in the driveway, I pretended to be Rex Chapman (when I wasn’t Magic Johnson, that is). A few years after that, I joined the millions of Kentuckians for whom “The Unforgettables” and “The Shot” and “The Stomp” and “2.1 seconds” and “Why didn’t we guard the inbounds pass” will forever stand out in our memories of the early 1990s. A few years later, I was in college and in Lexington for both the 1996 and 1998 championships and celebrations. For the record, though I may not have upheld every standard of professional conduct on those nights, I didn’t break or burn anything. Promise.
Like many of my fellow Wildcat fanatics who have journeyed through decades of fandom, I was moved to tears when this year’s Wildcats, now young men half my age, brought home the NCAA championship banner (#8 for UK) earlier this week. For me, the beauty of this season wasn’t just THAT Kentucky won the championship, it was HOW the team won—with some of the most consistently pure, disciplined, unselfish, fundamentally sound, defense-oriented basketball to come out of the college ranks in a decade or more. Our players this year weren’t just monumentally talented, though they certainly were that. They also worked their tails off from Day One, every single one of them, and kept that focus until the final buzzer sounded Monday night. They were admirably devoted to each other, to the team concept, to representing their university and the state, and to seizing the rare opportunity to become a truly transcendent team for the ages. I couldn’t love this team more, and I’m wildly proud that they represent my home state and one of my alma maters.
My experience of the 2012 championship game was a far cry from the last one in 1998, when I was 22 and may or may not have tried to sing an entire verse of “My Old Kentucky Home” in a single belch. This time, I was at home in my lifeless little town of current residence, which is relatively near Lexington but might as well be a thousand miles away. But home is right where I wanted to be, because I wanted to focus on the game in the company of my kickass wife and our kickass friend Sara, who have been my steady game-watching crew for the last two seasons of UK basketball. Bless them both for bearing with me through lots of yelling and hand-wringing when Kansas crawled back and made it way too “interesting” late in the second half.
And another soul was there too—our old dog, Guinness, who was with me as a four-month-old puppy when the Cats won it all in 1998 and is still with us now, and actually pretty spry for an old lady. I’ve found this week that when a milestone like the 2012 UK championship is 14 years in the making, it has the power to prompt some pretty significant reflection on all that’s happened in that long interim. Especially when that time period happens to coincide with my dog’s long life, now clearly entering its twilight phase. Especially when that dog has accompanied me through all the major events, both the exultant highs and the existentially threatening lows, that have shaped who I am now. Especially when that dog has undoubtedly been one of the great and joyous loves of my life. This week, and this new frame through which to view her life (with my beloved team on top at the beginning of her life and not again until near the end), has made me even more keenly aware of what a great gift she has been and continues to be.
I’m not intending to merely tug at the heartstrings of any UK fans and/or dog lovers who might be reading this. Above all, I guess I’m just saying, to Cats fans who might have felt some oddly powerful pulls toward reflection and even bittersweet nostalgia this week, that I’m right there with you. I’m happy to admit that this week has brought out the sentimental old fool in me too. Of course, even for the most devoted (or obsessed) fans among us, Kentucky Wildcats championships aren’t the only markers, and certainly not the most meaningful ones, by which we measure the distance we’ve traveled down the tracks. But they are meaningful milestones nonetheless, and I strongly believe it’s OK to view them as such. That’s just what it’s like to be a passenger on this crazy train.
Finally, speaking of which, I have to highlight a song that, for me, has become the soundtrack and the anthem for this week and this team. Additionally, Bruce Springsteen’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” is, I think, a nice testament to all the positive aspects of being part of this admittedly insane Cats culture and community. I know for a fact that I don’t share many Kentucky fans’ views on politics or religion. But I believe the values that many of us DO share—family, loyalty, fairness, faith in something greater than ourselves, and the simple desire to live with goodness and decency—go deeper than the things that might otherwise divide us. On this train, if we can remember more often than not that we share those things in common, then there’s room for us all. As Bruce says in “Land of Hope and Dreams:”
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
This train carries broken-hearted
This train, thieves and sweet souls departed
This train carries fools and kings
This train, all aboard!
This train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singin’
This train, bells of freedom ringin’!!!
The Boss goes on to say, “You don’t need no ticket, you just get on board, you just thank the Lord.”
There is room for us all. Go Cats.
*My dad passed away in 2005, and today would have been his 80th birthday. This one’s for him, the old so-and-so. A “sweet soul departed,” indeed.