With the recent passing of basketball coaching legend Dean Smith, memories of being a KENTUCKY/Louisville fan in the heart of Tobacco Road flood my memory. To me, Dean was the best basketball coach I’ve ever had the joy of watching, but then…
I remember the moment I became an ABC’er (Anybody But Carolina) as clear as if it were yesterday, although it happened almost 37 years ago.
It was March 3rd, 1978…
Having grown up in Louisville, Kentucky and ripe with a BA from J-school at Morehead State University, I had three days earlier piled everything I owned into my 1973 Chevy Impala, weathered 30″ inches of fresh Kentucky snow through the craggy West Virginia coal country, zagged Southerly down Interstate-77, and finally zigged over the foggy Southern Virginia Appalachian mountains.
In a lush green North Carolina valley I finally unloaded my gear to begin my new life, and new job in Greensboro, NC. Though I’d only been there briefly in the month before (for my job interview), it had then seemed to me to be a friendly, habitable place. You know, well lit.
This was my first day in my new position as Sales Trainee for a small fast growing real estate publisher. It was around 4:30 p.m. as I sat in my sparsely furnished office, shuffling papers around wondering what I might pretend to be doing for the next hour or so.
After an eager tap on my door, a toothy well-dressed man slid in, smiling and shaking hands. “Hi I’m Geoff Wolfe, the VP here. I hear you’re from Kentucky? Me? I graduated from Chapel Hill, that’s as in No..r..th Ca..ro..li..na. Basketball,” he offers and grins Cheshire cat-ishly.
“Pleased to meet you, and yes I’m from Louisville, went to Morehead State University. Uh, that’s as in Kentucky… as in Big Blue Bas..ket…ball,” I chided, eager to see that I’m talking to a basketball fan from another great traditional power. (At that time in March 1978 Kentucky was ranked number 1 in the country, with Twin Towers so big that airplanes could never bring them down).
“Well…”, he frowned then looked serious for once. “You know… Kentucky couldn’t play in the ACC”, he says matter-of-factly. “They’re number 1 right now only because they play in such a weak conference. They could never play our schedule.”
Then he shot a few ‘air-free throws’ looking away, he had tuned me out before I could offer rebuttal. He propped his shoes up on my desk. He shoots from deep.”Ford, from Franklin Street. “Yeesss”.
I gulped. I stuttered. My face flushed and I suddenly could smell my underarms overpowering my deodorant. I was stunned as he played his semi-silent game of air-shoot-ball, complete with the “hRaaahh” of crowd approval after each made shot. He made ’em all.
Looking somewhere in the distance, out the window I imagined being back over the NC mountains in the friendly confines of Kentucky. I sat silently while my brain lurched for clever, nervously ‘doing the math’ on what to say, on what could I say to this 4-corner Neanderthal. And, one whom it seemed, owned me…
Finally…”Uh, well… Uh Mr. Geo… uh Smith, that’s bullshit about how we can’t play in the ACC. Really, I mean that’s kinda…. stu…pid. No really, that’s f**&king stupid,” I muttered very low and gravely, but mainly to myself.
“Yeah… well, welcome to ACC country”, laughed Smith with his stupid smirk, still grabbing rebounds and making cheering putbacks. Then just as quickly, he’s up and out my door, his arrogance forever starting a fire in my heart known only to a true ABC’er.
One month later I celebrated both Kentucky’s fifth Natty against a formidable Duke team, and the recent news of Geoff Smith’s firing… by yelling and hooting it up at the then-and-now famous “Four Corners” bar, in downtown Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“Hey everybody”, I squealed to an uninterested few with both job and basketball safe from the idiocy
“I hear that Kentucky couldn’t play in the ACC! Well, looks like we just did!”
I lived in North Carolina for most of the next 24 years, enduring the basketball I.Q. equivalents of some 17th Century cultists, sometimes arguing college basketball religion along the way. Though I made many friends in NC, I’ve hated the Baby Blue with a fervent passion since that first Geoff Smith swish.
I worked with Duke University and the University of North Carolina during many of those years, but rarely talking Kentucky basketball with the infidels. I had a press pass at Cameron Indoor for many games/years and witnessed some thrilling Duke-UNC tilts there. The truth is, just as we Kentucky and Louisville fans have and understand, they both have much basketball tradition to be proud of.
Though I was always careful not to root for Duke, and always against the Tarheels, I admit to a little Dean Smith envy during much of that time. No one could get more out of the last 30 seconds of a game than The Dean.
But in all that time I loved the Cats and Cards and Kentucky basketball, traveling to see them play wherever and whenever I could, and partying years with the rest of Big Blue Nation.
Having lived in North Carolina for so long, I came to know every argument for/against Duke, Wake, NC State and UNC upside down and backwards. Though it got to be a tougher argument through the years, there’s one thing I can say from true life experience, and from having lived in and being around both basketball crazed states… Kentucky and North Carolina. At the end of the day…
“THERE’S NOTHING LIKE KENTUCKY BASKETBALL.”