Kissin' Cousins Just the Tip of Kentucky Fans' Passion
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Are Kentucky fans insane? It's a rhetorical question, like asking if John Wall shoots mighty fine lay-ups, but DeMarcus Cousins throws down an answer anyway.
"Oh, definitely," he says, with a cheeky smile that suggests he knows he's treading toward dangerous territory. "Crazy insane, but in a good way."
They can be irrational nut jobs (savvy reporters who dare disrespect the Kentucky deities know to turn off their phones and close the blinds) and they can be as loyal as a pack of St. Bernards, often displaying both personality peculiarities before breakfast. With Kentucky alive again deep into the NCAA tournament, the team's mass of followers all seem to have adopted a glassy-eyed look not unlike cult members convinced the rapture is nigh.
Here's another late March, and here are the Wildcats back in the Elite Eight after several years of numbing mediocrity, and as Cousins and his Kentucky teammates go through a lazy shootaround Friday in the Carrier Dome in preparation for Saturday's game against West Virginia, the streets outside lead to a blue heaven. A gaggle of middle-aged women, dressed head to toe in cobalt hues, readies to pounce on the first player to come through the exit door.
One woman is shivering, not because of the frigid temperatures but because the anticipation of getting near one of these young men in baggy sweats is almost unbearable. She has a Kentucky tattoo on her ankle and another on her backside, and is happy to show off both even to strangers who don't ask. She carries a scrapbook filled with autographs dating back generations -- Wallace "Wah Wah" Clayton Jones is her favorite -- but says she needs Cousins to re-sign, because his scribble from a few months ago is indecipherable. She won't give her name since her boss back in Lexington thinks she's home with a migraine, but she does predict Kentucky and Duke are poised for an Armageddon showdown, and the other women gleefully nod at the prophet with the UK tramp stamp.
A door opens. The women rush toward it, one nearly tripping as she struggles to wave a sign that reads, "I'm From Kentucky And We Luv Our Cousins." Insanity has a sly sense of humor.
"You think you've seen it all with these fans, but you don't know half of it," Cousins says.
He describes the way a classmate "shook like a leaf" when the two posed for a recent picture at a fast food joint.
"Unreal," he says. He can't go more than a few steps without someone asking for an autograph, a photo, a prediction or affirmation of Kentucky's awesomeness. They follow him to class, he says, and it might be creepy if it wasn't so ... "just, I don't know, bizarre." Cousins is a 6-11 mastodon, a freshman who's soon to be a NBA lottery pick, and he knows nothing in his professional life will ever equal the fervor and blind zeal that defines Kentucky fans. He admits he'll kind of miss it.
No other fandom in the U.S. travels as often or as far as the Wildcats. "I just thought it was the Kentucky fans coming in," former coach Billy Gillispie famously said after a tornado slammed into the Georgia Dome. "They travel like it's the million man march," Tennessee point guard Bobby Maze once noted. No matter where the Wildcats play -- from Alaska to Hawaii to upstate New York -- the arenas and city thoroughfares are inevitably clogged by oceans of blue.
West Virginia fans aren't quite the zealous voyagers, but they do share plenty of Kentucky's devotion chromosomes. Bob Huggins, the homegrown coach who tears up whenever he hears the opening strains of "Country Roads," says West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin informed him Thursday's play-by-play of the Mountaineers' Sweet 16 game against Washington was "piped in to all the factories and all the mines ... because otherwise guys were trying to get off their shift."
"Everybody in West Virginia is listening to the game or watching the game," Huggins says. "That's how much it means to our state."
No offense to the good souls in Morgantown, but Kentucky wins the crazy prize every time. Here are fans who within minutes gobble up tickets for all 23,500 seats in Rupp Arena -- to watch the team's first practice of the year. More than a million folks follow Coach John Calipari on Twitter, he has 138,000 Facebook fans (expect the site to crash if the prophet proves true, and Kentucky meets Duke in the Final Four) – and Calipari admits he is basically computer illiterate.
His picture is on a limited-edition bottle of bourbon, his name is on a limited-edition Ford Mustang, and for those who delight in pointing out Calipari's two Final Four teams (UMass and Memphis) were forced to vacate their places, Kentucky fans respond by ticking off their coach's saintly acts, most recently the relief drive spearheaded by Calipari that raised more than $1 million for earthquake-ravaged Haiti. Insanity can be endearingly faithful.
My friend Chuck Culpepper was a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader during Kentucky's last golden period. He has an avalanche of anecdotes about the Wildcats' fanatical followers, but none gave him more pleasure than the woman he met in 2004 who said her mother "adopted" a player from the team every year and pretended he really was her son.
"To the extent of telling her real daughter things like, 'Your brother played really well tonight,'" Culpepper says.
Fascinated by these baffling cultures, Culpepper moved to London to study like an anthropologist sports abroad and write about the renowned Premier League. Pledging his loyalty to Portsmouth, a team forever languishing at the bottom of soccer's ladder, he learned, often while perched atop a stool in those British cathedrals known as pubs, that Kentucky basketball was rather sane compared to the obsessive lunacy that is English football.
"There's no comparison in American sports to British soccer fans, but Kentucky is the most similar in that they don't see the team as a money-making franchise. They see it more as something in their bloodstream, a shared passion passed down through generations," says Culpepper, author of the book "Bloody Confused!: A Clueless American Sportswriter Seeks Solace in English Soccer."
Culpepper tells an apocryphal joke he heard (or maybe it's a true tale, he's not really sure) about a woman, a season ticketholder, who shows up at a Kentucky game. When fans notice her other seat is vacant, they ask about her husband's whereabouts. "He passed away this week," she says. Someone wonders if maybe there was another family member she could have brought to the game, and she says, "Oh, no, they're all at the funeral."
Insanity can indeed make you laugh.