Kitchen sink version: Bellarmine’s trip to Duke

(A version of this column ran in Monday’s print edition. It was a lengthy piece, but this includes more input, detail and thoughts from players and coaches.)

The locker room is quiet. It is small, clean, and vintage high-school 1950s, complete with cage lockers. For most of its history, this room in Cameron Indoor Stadium was for the home team, Duke University.

Now, with the Blue Devils in a luxurious locker room on the other side of the arena, Bellarmine University basketball coach Scott Davenport has sent his players out to warm up for what may be one of the more memorable games of their lives.

Davenport is alone, except for a couple of reporters, and he is printing numbers on a whiteboard in the front. Assistants filled the board for the longer pregame discussion, but for his short recap of the game plan when the team comes back in, Davenport does it himself. He prints special points of emphasis in red marker.

He writes the number “52.3,” in red, then turns around and says, “We led all of college basketball in shooting percentage last season — Division I, II, III, NAIA, any level you want.

“You know what I’d like to know? I’d love to know their preparation for us. When we play Louisville and Xavier, we’ll exchange everything. You get to see their scouting report on you. I’d love to see how Coach (Mike) Krzyzewski has scouted us. I’d like to see how we look through their eyes.”

That, of course, is a rare gift. The chance to see something through a different set of eyes.

Every game ends with a score. Bellarmine lost to Duke 87-62 on Saturday night. We usually see the games through the same lenses. But this past weekend, Davenport extended an invitation to this newspaper to see the team from the inside.

Ever wonder what it would be like to travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a basketball game, head to the arena for the walk-through, sit through the film session, listen to the pregame talk and head out into an arena filled with Cameron Crazies?

If so, climb aboard the Bellarmine bus.

TAKING FLIGHT

At 8 a.m. Friday, the team boards a bus in front of Knights Hall, but the drive is a short one. Because of high school volleyball regionals, the team holds its final practice before leaving at Cardinal Arena in the Student Activities Center at the University of Louisville.

The mood is light and excited. During the workout, coaches know they can’t simulate Duke’s size and speed. At one point last week, Davenport considered bringing in other Bellarmine teams and students for practice to heckle his players to prepare them for the Cameron Crazies, but was so happy with the way practice was going that he decided not to.

The night before, Division II Seattle Pacific knocked off Arizona in an exhibition game. “That doesn’t help,” Davenport says.

At the end of practice, Davenport wanders to the sideline and asks some of the team’s traveling party if anyone stayed up to watch the sixth game of the World Series, which ended well after midnight,

“I did,” pipes up senior guard Braydon Hobbs. “I watched the whole thing, then went out to the bars.”

Get used to Hobbs. He always has a comeback.

The team gets sub sandwiches on the way to the airport. Whenever the team is not in motion — and sometimes when it is — it seems it is eating.

When Davenport told the team a couple of months ago that this would be its only flight of the season, there were cheers in the locker room. But this is no charter flight. The players line up at the Southwest terminal with tickets in hand. The defending Division II national champs don’t even have the preferred “A” boarding passes.

At the gate, Davenport sits down and pulls out a blue folder labeled, “Duke.” Inside are various logistical documents, passes, parking instructions, itineraries. Duke has sent along a stack of papers and instructions, pass lists to be filled out.

For a while Davenport looks at Duke’s stat sheet. He doesn’t trust the stats from the team’s foreign trip in the summer. What’s he trying to figure out? Which Blue Devil to foul if the game is close late.

Out of the folder fall two small pictures. They are Memorial Cards. One bears the picture of late Xavier and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser. The other is from the funeral service of Davenport’s mother.

“Nobody knows this,” he says. “Every game I coach, I keep these in my inside coat pocket.”

Prosser befriended Davenport out of the blue. His wife was from Louisville, and they’d call the Davenports from time to time, after big wins or when they were in town.

“They told me that Skip used to do the same thing with his team at the beginning of every season,” Davenport says. “He’d get his team in a circle and throw up a ball and let it drop and bounce until it stopped and was still. Then he’d tell them, ‘The ball is going to stop bouncing for us all.’ One day it will.”

Across the way, players sleep or zone out with headphones. The flight is delayed.

CHANGING THE CALL

When the plane lands in Tampa, the group makes a direct line for the airport TGI Friday’s. Team meals are a study in planning ahead. Players submit orders ahead of time and within minutes of sitting down the restaurant staff is bringing out plates and calling out names.

The manager of the restaurant comes out to the coaches. He is from Louisville. His uncle George Tinsley, owns the restaurant. Tinsley was an All-American at Kentucky Wesleyan and is in the state athletic Hall of Fame. As they leave, for the first of about a half-dozen times on this trip, a restaurant staff member stops Davenport to compliment his players.

Another flight delay. Players find cubicles in the terminal and fire up laptops and charge phones. It is delayed again and coaches worry that the film session they’ve scheduled upon arrival will go too late.

Coaches inquire and learn that Gate C-45 is empty, and they walk the team over. A laptop and LCD projector are all they need — well, that and a white background. For that, they go to a Quizno’s restaurant in the food court and ask if they have any white paper.

The manager there asks where they’re from. When he learns they’re from Louisville, he tells them that his brother was a manager for Rick Pitino when he coached at the University of Kentucky.

The team winds up watching film in an airport terminal on sandwich paper taped over a television screen.

They’re watching games from Duke’s summer trip to China. Mostly they watch quietly. Once in a while, a coach pipes up. Sometimes there’s a discussion.

“If we get beat baseline, we have to be way outside the lane,” senior Luke Sprague says, watching. “We won’t have time to drop inside on the big man. They’ll just lob it up.”

They talk about individual players. The next morning, players will get edited tapes and go over their matchups individually, noting tendencies.

Every few minutes, the session is interrupted by airport announcements. The session breaks up shortly before boarding time. Hobbs lags behind others. Davenport calls out, “Braydon, what’re you doing?”

“Sexting girls,” comes the answer. Always a comeback.

Finally they board the plane. Davenport opens a book. Its title: “Five-Point Play.” The author? Mike Krzyzewski.

The team arrives in Raleigh at about 9 p.m., and waits 10 minutes in a cold drizzle for a bus that’s late. By 9:30, they’re at the La Quinta Inn in Durham, grabbing bags of Chick-Fil-A before heading to their rooms.

FIRST LOOK

At 8:30 Saturday morning, the team bus leaves for a shootaround at Cameron Indoor Stadium. With the players are some selected fans, alumni and family who have made the trip.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Davenport says. “This will be the most-attended walk-through we’ve ever had.”

They’re greeted by security workers who say to each player, “Welcome to Duke,” as they enter the doors. When they walk into the gymnasium, players start pulling out phones and cameras.

“There’s history all over the place,” Jeremy Kendle says. “It’s a neat old gym.”

Davenport lets them soak it in.

“I want them to be excited and looking up at the banners,” Davenport said. “If you can’t appreciate a gym like this, something’s wrong with you.”

There will be little down time from here on. From the arena the team goes to Golden Corral for brunch. They return to the hotel, watch a bit more film, then rest up a bit before the pregame meal at LoneStar Steakhouse.

A couple of hours of rest later, they’re back on the bus to Cameron, arriving about 90 minutes before tipoff.

GAME TIME

The bus to the game is not like the other rides. It is silent, and the small locker room is calm and businesslike. Some players still wear headsets. Assistant coaches scribble on the whiteboard.

Davenport’s talk before the warmup is about 10 minutes long and very detailed, going over individual matchups. But at the end, he turns motivational.

“We talk about utilizing opportunities all the time,” he says. “One team in the country got this opportunity to make themselves better tonight and it was you. You’re on a grand, grand stage. They’re a class team, you’re a class team. You play harder than they play.

“I don’t care who they are. I don’t care how many stars they have next to their name. You know why? They have stars don’t they? He (pointing to Austin Rivers on the board) had stars all over his name in high school didn’t he? I don’t care. We know all these guys are stars. We keep to what we believe in every day. None of us are ever as good as all of us. It’s us against them. It’s not five one-on-one games.”

When the team comes back in, Davenport has filled the board with new points. These are the general game plan highlights for the game. At the end of the pregame prayer, Father Dale Ceslik plays on Duke’s nickname when he says, “Jesus did some of his best work when he beat the devil at his own game. Let the team say Amen!”

On the way out, the players joke about the Cameron Crazies. They have Googled the players to get information to heckle them with. They’ve already been giving Hobbs grief over deer hunting, screaming, “You killed Bambi,” at him. Somebody asks him, “You didn’t accept any Facebook friend requests from people you didn’t know, did  you?”

“Every one of them,” he says. Always a comeback.

TIPOFF

Bellarmine hangs tough in the first half. With 2:20 to play, it trails by only one, but a late exchange when it has a layup blocked and Duke hits a layup at the buzzer gives the Blue Devils a 5-point lead. The Knights have missed open looks they usually bury. They’ve been turnover prone.

For three minutes, while Davenport composes his halftime thoughts, the players, in a remarkable exchange, critique themselves. They correct and offer instruction, with an impressive lack of defensiveness or accusation. It could be a boardroom discussion.

“They’re not waiting till their screens are set, they’re switching way early,” Sprague said. “So we’ve either got to slip, or when that big man transfers to the guard we’ve got to have the other big man racing up and the other diving.”

“We do a lot of coaching each other,” Dowe explains later. “We trust each other and just want to make each other better.”

There are calm exchanges when Davenport begins explaining what needs to be done better. He tells Kendle and Chris Dowe that they can’t have five turnovers between them. The team needs to get into its offense faster.

“You guys gotta go,” Davenport says.

“It’s so hard getting the ball to the wing. They’re bodying us up,” Kendle says.

Davenport makes an adjustment. On guard-to-guard exchanges, he sends the wing cutting under the basket to clear out the side for possible back-doors.

Then he challenges his team on rebounding. It has given up 10 offensive rebounds. He’s pleased that it has dished out eight assists, but wants more ball movement still.

The second half, however, is not more of the same. After playing close for 10 more minutes, the Duke big men and transition game are too much.

“They were pretty cool guys to play with,” Dowe said. “They didn’t talk a lot. They just played hard.”

POSTGAME

Davenport afterward challenges his players, then quickly builds them back up.

“Poor decisions,” he said. “They’re the sixth ranked team in the country. They shot 64 percent the second half. They missed 10 shots, and they got four offensive rebounds. We only got it off of there six times. . . . You guys, you doubt it, but the numbers don’t lie. Two assists, we’re minus 20. Ten assists (in the first half) we’re minus five.

“. . . But you know what, the great thing is, we’re off tomorrow and we’re going to get another chance to play a great team Thursday.”

Doc Rivers, coach of the Boston Celtics, makes an appearance in the locker room, as does Del Curry.

The players start talking about who they’ve seen. Kyrie Irving. Jason Williams. After talking to reporters at a news conference, Hobbs tries to stay in the press room to hear Krzyzewski’s comments, but security tells him he has to leave.

“Duke has been my favorite team for a long time,” Hobbs says. “I’ve got a Duke jersey at home with my name on the back. I thought about bringing it. The Cameron Crazies got on me about my deer hunting and I was loving it. I loved playing here.”

On the bus, former Duke player Nolan Smith encourages the team.

“You all are played a great game,” Smith tells them. “The reffing was a little off, but that definitely happens in Cameron. You guys won it all last year and I think you can win it all this year, just keep listening to Coach Davenport, he’s a long-time family friend, and I’ll definitely come over and work out with you when I’m in Louisville.”

At the hotel, former North Carolina center Tyler Zeller pays Hobbs a visit.

In the airport the next day on the flight back in Baltimore, the team runs into Brian Brohm. When they arrive in Louisville, Muhammad Ali as at the end of the jetway waiting to board the next flight.

“Can you believe all that?” Davenport said. “It’s not glamorous, but maybe there’s something to write about in all this.”

They grab their bags off the carousel, then get back on the bus for the rest of their season.

(All photos c. 2011, The Courier-Journal, Eric Crawford)

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With Preakness, Romans adds to his racing resume

I was off the job last week when one of the stories of the year in horse racing around here took place. Dale Romans won the Preakness Stakes with Shackleford.

It hasn’t been that long ago that I was writing a feature story about Romans going into his first Kentucky Derby, in 2006.

Romans grew up at the track, virtually. His dad, Jerry, trained horses and, because there wasn’t a lot of money, he had his sons help him. Dale led his first winner to the the Churchill Downs track at age 12. Think about that. Age 12.

The backside was his homeroom. Jerry Romans chose his barn, No. 4, along the Fourth Street edge of the Churchill backside, because it was close to the track kitchen. Dale spent mornings before school at the track, then ducked out early from classes at Butler High School to catch a bus back to the races.

“As long as I was passing, they didn’t care,” he told me for that 2006 story. “They knew where I was. For me, I never thought of doing anything else. It never crossed my mind to do anything else, nor could I. I spent my childhood learning how to do this. This was school, right here.”

This past Saturday, Romans celebrated a graduation of sorts. A year ago before he saddled two horses in the Preakness, Dale told me that, “There are some holes in the resume. . . . Now that we’re getting into the Triple Crown races, we’d like to win some.”

Romans had won the Dubai World Cup. He had won a Breeders’ Cup race. And he is closing in on the greatest goal, the Kentucky Derby. But winning the Preakness certainly adds another line to that long resume that began with those bus rides down Dixie Highway toward the track.

It’s always good in sports to watch guys win from the ground up. Romans not only grew up in the game, and at the track, but studied it. The winter after graduating from high school, Romans went to his version of graduate school —  four months in Florida working for Woody Stephens. He came back with a bunch of ideas, but also with the confidence that he’d been doing the right things already.

“The big thing it showed me was that the top horses aren’t a lot different from cheap horses,” Romans said. “They all have the same problems. I learned a lot from him in a short time. But I also learned that it wasn’t so different from what we were doing. The big thing was to keep working.”

Of the 211 starters Romans has sent out this year, 43 percent have finished in the money. He’s knocking on the Derby’s door. He finished third with Paddy O’Prado last year, and Shackleford ran well in a fourth-place finish this year. Romans also won the Grade I Humana Distaff on Derby Day, impressively, with Sassy Image, who is owned by his brother Jerry.

Both brothers grew up immersed in the business. Jerry noted to me some time back that Dale’s gift was being able to improve and expand on what he was doing: “I don’t think Dad would ever have dreamed things would be this big,” Jerry said. “But that was always Dale’s strength, I think. He was never afraid to think big.”

Just two weeks earlier, when trainer Graham Motion was momentarily dazed after his Animal Kingdom scored an upset win in the Kentucky Derby, Romans had taken him by the arm and showed him a quicker way to the track to get his horse, and on to the winner’s circle. On Saturday, it was his turn.

Winning the Kentucky Derby would be an ultimate accomplishment for Romans. But that the first time he found the winner’s circle in a Triple Crown race it was away from Churchill Downs is useful in its own way.

When Romans won a piece of his first training title back in 2000, they looked at him a little differently at his hometown track. Same thing happened after the Dubai win, and the Breeders’ Cup.

“I’ve watched a lot of trainers in this gap back here and learned a lot from all of them,” Romans says.

I imagine these days, quite a few of them are studying him. This past Saturday, without question, was another graduation day.

Derby trainer Kathy Ritvo: Heart of a champion

The next time you hear a coach or player talk about having “heart,” think about Kathy Ritvo.

Three years ago, her heart was failing with dilated cardiomyopathy, a degenerative disease that weakens the heart muscle. This week she’s training a starter in the Kentucky Derby. His name is Mucho Macho Man, but he’ll never be as tough as the woman who has brought him here, just 30 months after a heart transplant.

Let’s talk about what it means to “have heart.”

In 2008, Ritvo’s heart was so diseased that it would not function without round-the-clock medication. For months while awaiting a transplant, she was confined to the cardiac critical care unit of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

But when her regular doctors would take a week off, she’d talk the staff into letting her go home with a big bag over her shoulder, a device that let her administer her own infusions, just so she could be with her family at home, so she could be in the house when the kids came home from school. Just to be there, for a week or so of normalcy.

You can measure heart function. You can hook up electrodes and perform ultrasounds and echocardiograms. You can have all the results there in black and white. But you cannot measure heart. Joseph Bauerlein is a cardiologist at Jackson Memorial. He’ll tell you.

“She would come into the clinic before her transplant, and I would know what her echocardiogram showed — she had just very poor heart function,” Bauerlein said. “But just looking at her, with her attitude, it would be hard for most people to tell she was as sick as she was.”

Ritvo didn’t get sick overnight. She started to feel fatigued all the time in 1999, and learned of the heart condition in 2000. She lived with it, and its frustrating limitations, for nine years. She quit thoroughbred training, her job since age 18, because she didn’t have the energy.

She got by as well as she could, but as the calendar flipped to 2008, her time was dwindling. She became a candidate for a transplant. She became a full-time hospital resident. On Derby Day, 2008, she watched the race from her hospital bed and at some point turned to Bauerlein and said: “When I take a horse to the Derby, you have to come.”

She’s not sure even today why she said it. Standing outside Barn. No. 31 on the Churchill Downs’ backside, remembering the moment last week, she stepped out from under the barn roof to get into the sunshine and acknowledged it’s not the kind of thing she would usually say.

“It just came to me,” she said. “Maybe now we know why.”

You can look through all the heart tests and you won’t find the resolve it took to actually make all this happen. At about 7 p.m. on Nov. 12, 2008, the hospital called. She was in one of those rare periods at home. She remembers very clearly, she was watching the show Clean House on the Style Network when the phone rang, and they told her a donor heart had been located. She and her husband Tim, a former trainer himself who now is vice president for racing at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, Fla., went upstairs to pray with their two teenage children.

Tim said, “There were a lot of nights when she went to sleep that I wasn’t sure she’d be waking up in the morning.”

But on this night, with the surgery scheduled for morning, Kathy and Tim Ritvo said they felt less fear than relief.

Want to hear some impressive fractions? Her surgery lasted six hours, but she spent only seven days in the hospital before going home. Her surgeon, Dr. Si Pham, director of the Heart/Lung Transplant and Artificial Heart programs at Jackson Memorial, called that recovery, “record time.”

He also acknowledged time had been running out when the transplant was done.

“She didn’t have much longer,” he said. “When the heart becomes so weak, other organs fail — the kidneys, the liver — and the weaker you are, the more difficult the recovery is. So for her, we were very lucky to get a donor.”

Pham talked about some factors that have made her transplant a success – that she is a relatively small person who was in good physical condition, that she is disciplined and lives a healthy lifestyle. But the things that sustained her the most in the years leading up to the transplant aren’t there in her medical records.

“I lost a brother to the same disease when he was 38 years old,” she said. “And I was very determined that my mother would not have to go through losing another child. And I wanted so badly to be there for my kids. I didn’t want to leave Tim with the job of raising them alone. I was preparing myself for the worst, but I was determined to fight.”

Ritvo’s thoughts didn’t turn back to training for a while. She was – and still is – on a heavy medication regimen that includes 30 pills a day, anti-rejection medicine and vitamins. She takes immunosuppressants to prevent her body from rejecting the new heart, but that puts her at increased risk for picking up infection. And horse barns aren’t the most sterile of environments. Horses pick up infections, bacteria. There’s dust. Yet, Bauerlein said, the risk level is “acceptable.”

The stronger she got, the more she wanted to get back to the track. She grew up around racing. Her father, Peter Petro, owned horses. Two brothers were jockeys, including one who died of cardiomyopathy while awaiting a transplant at age 38. Another brother still is a trainer on the east coast, and she had trained with her husband since they’d been together. The Petros thought their little girl might be the one child who followed another route. But they couldn’t keep her away from the horses.

Tim was hesitant when his wife wanted to go back to work, but she started helping around the barn, and then saddled a horse for him one day, and she was back. And he saw that it made her happy.

As the sun poked through the clouds at Churchill Downs last week she said, “I’m not a sick person here. I’m not a heart transplant patient here. I’m a trainer here.”

Mucho Macho Man’s owners would tell you she’s a good one. Dean Reeves, who bought majority interest in the colt last year, originally hired Tim Ritvo to train him, but did not hesitate to leave Kathy in charge when Tim took a job at a racetrack.

“She’s very hands-on, very old-school,” he said. “She seems to have a great feel for what the horse needs.”

Jim Culver of Dream Team Racing, the original buyer of the horse and still a minority owner, called her training style “maternal.”

Both men, by the way, have undergone heart procedures of their own.

Ritvo won 149 races from 1990 to ’98 and had a horse finish eighth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, but has never had anything like this colt.

She said she doesn’t spend much time thinking about what it would be like to win the Kentucky Derby.

“I don’t do that because I feel like I’ve already won,” she said.

Lots of times in sports, we talk about “heart” when a player can pound out a few more yards while going off-tackle or dig in when the game gets into overtime. But there’s a measure of heart that gets beyond toughness and into the area of what a person gives.

For Ritvo in this Derby, there’s a goal beyond the finish line. Ritvo doesn’t know who donated the heart that saved her life. She has written a letter and given it to the hospital to be sent to the donor’s family members. They haven’t come forward. She hopes they will.

But this week, she’s hoping to use the attention she gets from her accomplishment to encourage people to become organ donors, and to encourage people who are waiting for donations, to show them that there is life and success to be found after the wait. At 42, her long-term prospects are good. A heart that isn’t rejected in an otherwise healthy person can last a little more than 20 years, when another transplant is a possibility.

“Lots of people go on to live good lives after heart transplant,” Bauerlein said. “But to train a Kentucky Derby horse, well, that’s extraordinary.”

Ritvo has taped a public service ad for organ donation in Kentucky and told her story to Sports Illustrated and USA Today.

“I just feel like I’ve been put in this position to tell my story as much as I can tell it, and hope that it can do whatever good it will do,” she said. “When you have been given this gift, you feel the need to do something with it.

“If just one person sees my story and takes some hope from it, or decides to take the time to become an organ donor, then that will make whatever happens worthwhile.”

Even Ritvo’s colt has a heart-touching story. When Mucho Macho Man was foaled – more than three weeks after his due date – in Ocala, Fla., on June 15, 2008, his heart was not beating. He lay on the ground lifeless, according to Carole Rio of Rose Grove Farm, while she and her husband Jeff and others prayed. She put her hands on the foal and rubbed him, then stopped and prayed some more.

“Then all of a sudden this sucker just jumped up and started running,” she said. “He didn’t just stand up, he jumped up and took off.”

On the farm, they called the strapping yearling “Lazarus.” On the track, he is a running example of what can come of a second chance at life.

If all of this seems to have a fairy tale quality about it, Ritvo would tell you that the fairy tale has already happened.

“The horse brought us here and everything has fallen into place for us to be here,” Ritvo said. “No matter what happens Saturday, it’s going to be meant to be. I am not worried. We’re going to get the right post and right track and right trip. Every bit of this is a gift.”

The Derby Trial is decadent and depraved

All right, maybe it doesn’t rise to THAT level. Hunter Thompson is dead, and I’m not feeling so good myself.

But I never thought I’d see the day (and certainly not the night) when it was as difficult to navigate from press pox to paddock for the Derby Trial as it is for the Kentucky Derby.

Such is the power and draw of night racing at Churchill Downs. It’s a different crowd, certainly a younger crowd, a more diverse crowd, that packs every grandstand club and balcony when the lights go on.

But a crowd it is. (Official attendance, 38,142 — the largest ever at Churchill Downs outside of Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks or Breeders’ Cup days.) At 10 p.m., they were still filing through the gates at Churchill Downs, even younger faces that wouldn’t know the difference between a filly and a furlong, but that know a party when they see one.

Forget the Derby tradition of sneaking booze into the infield. Sneaking booze into this setting would be like sneaking it into Charlie Sheen’s place. There’s really not much point. Many of the patrons in the paddock and turf clubs and on the balconies tonight are the folks you might find in the infield or staking out less-than-forward positions on Derby day. But tonight, they’re gypsies in the palace. They have the house to themselves — and the key to the liquor cabinet.

The kids coming in at 10 o’clock seemed unconcerned that they’d just missed the feature race, The Cliff’s Edge Derby Trial. The race is named after a Margaux Farm stallion, The Cliff’s Edge, that is named for longtime Equibase and Daily Racing Form chart caller Cliff Guilliams, who also was the last staff handicapper for The Courier-Journal, and my great friend. He passed away in April of 2008.

Cliff was gruff and rough as gravel. He was so old-school that he thought even the old school was too new. That a race bearing, in some form, his name would take part amid this non-racing revelry would have sent him on a rant of epic proportions.

He hated the marketing side of the game, the public-relations posturing, and more than anything he hated the corporate mentality that crept into the sport.  I’m not saying anything that anybody at the track doesn’t already know, or that Cliff probably didn’t tell them himself. Repeatedly.

But I am chuckling, I’ll admit, at the irony of Cliff’s name being on the centerpiece race on a night when racing is hardly the centerpiece. He’d love the honor of the Derby Trial bearing his name. He’d be honored beyond belief. But if Cliff is looking down at this night, he’s using some language that they probably don’t hear much Up There.

Be that as it may, night racing, particularly as it has been executed by Churchill Downs, has been a stroke of corporate marketing genius and Churchill’s decision to make Opening Day an Opening Night must be termed a success.

One key to Churchill’s night success has been in its staging. Every area of the track is turned into a different kind of night spot.

They hung a series of chandeliers over the Aristides statue. Pat Day’s statue stood off to the side, hands upraised to the heavens, as if to say, “Are you getting all this?”

Maybe He was. In the tenth race, Needadrink finished second, just ahead of Sober Living. The winner? Need an Angel. I’m not making this up.

But night racing at Churchill has also succeeded because of its timing. Churchill doesn’t open the track every night of the week, but keeps the night dates fairly few in number, and therefore still special to the public, which seems to have no problem with plunking down $10 at the turnstiles.

We’ll see how many of them have a problem with the track being closed on Sunday of its opening weekend — even to simulcasting.

But if Louisville is a town that will embrace any reason for a party, Churchill Downs has tapped into something here, and the attraction apparently has not waned, and in fact is growing.

For a facility built on a sport that is fading in many ways, it’s an enlightening development.

If you haven’t read it, please click here now to read Hunter Thompson’s famous piece about the Kentucky Derby, which the headline for this entry was spoofing. It is regularly voted among the top pieces of sports writing of the 20th century.

A departure: Delbert Crawford, 1909-2011

The offerings have been pretty sparse from these parts over the past week or so, and there’s a reason for that. Last Sunday night, Delbert Crawford, my grandfather, died at a little after 11 o’clock, at 102 years of age.

My earliest memories of him are of his hands. Holding some toy or other we were showing him, they turned it over, examining it slowly, deliberately. They were strong then, and rough, so rough that they would catch on a sweater if you were wearing one.

The morning of the day he died, I held his hand and it was as soft as a dream. A final memory.

In between there is much, too much to set down here.

But this is how it works. At a Senior PGA event the mind wandered to the accomplishments of old men. At Churchill Downs, it sprinted to him telling about riding his horse, Buck, to school, and of how the horse would take off when he had barely gotten onto him. He wanted to be a jockey for a time, but outgrew it. These are the tracks your thoughts gallop onto even when you need them to go elsewhere.

So tonight, a full stop to look back. I have written about him before in this space, particularly on his one-hundredth birthday, but also when I missed his one hundred second birthday party, and at other times.

He was born in the latter days of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, at the tail of the horse-and-buggy era, when this country had probably fewer than twenty miles of paved roads. Several months before he was born the Wright Brothers made headlines for keeping a plane in the air for more than an hour. Several months after his birth, Commander Robert E. Peary was hailed as the first person to reach the North Pole. Six months after his birth, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for its first race – of hot air balloons. Gas was six cents a gallon.

I have written about how my grandfather went west prospecting for gold as a young man, and worked herding sheep after that venture didn’t pan out.

What I haven’t written about is what kind of man he was, the kind of man, who, as my father, Byron Crawford, related about him in remarks at his funeral, refused a handicap parking tag when my grandmother brought up the subject after he underwent hip surgery at age 99. The kind of man who walked to the hospital the day his son was born because the snow was too deep for driving – but walked off the road, in the woods, so no one would think he needed a ride. The kind of man who, at age 97 when his wife took him to Lowe’s to pick out new kitchen linoleum, listened to the salesman talk about a floor with a 30-year guarantee, then a 20-year, before piping up and asking, “Do you have any with a 5-year guarantee?”

On his next-to-last night, I went back back to the house with my grandmother, Lucille Crawford, his wife of 67 years who truly is the major reason he enjoyed such longevity, and who attended him virtually round-the-clock in his final years. She pulled off a shelf his dictionary, and I leafed through it. It was worn with a duct-tape spine. He would spend hours trying to work “Scramble” word puzzles out of the newspaper, and had placed a mark next to every word he ever looked up. He wrote lists on pages, as if putting down markers for his memory – a list of places he’d lived and worked in Arizona and New Mexico. A list of his brothers and sisters, with numerals beside each name to mark their birth order. The names of great-grandchildren and the spouses of grandchildren.

After he died, my dad fished out a number of notes and letters his father had written to him after he took a job writing for the newspaper, long, thoughtful pages from those same hands.

I won’t be able to quote my dad exactly, and I wonder even if he remembers the exact words he said at the funeral service, except to note that these pages, just days before, had been mere thoughts Delbert Crawford had written down. But today, for us, they are treasures.

In his last days, he had trouble communicating at times, struggling to form the words. Who would have thought in death he would speak so eloquently?

I’m afraid there’s no tidy conclusion here, just a period on the sentence. As a young man, he worked in a movie theater, and said those cowboy movies helped inspire him to head west toward adventure, that trek in a Model-T Ford to search for gold, and later to herd sheep on the southern fringe of the Rocky Mountains. He told of getting lost one day, and of getting plenty nervous until he dropped the reins and let his burro go where it wanted – which was right back to camp. Among the slips of paper we read after he died was one that said the cowboy life was probably best suited to those who grew up with it, not those who chose it for the romance or adventure. Regardless, having lived all that life out west seemed to offer him, Delbert wound up taking a bus back to Kentucky from California

In those last days, I thought about him on that burro. It seemed to me that having lived all that life had for him, he packed up his tired tent of a body, laid down the reins and went on back home.

But as with his dictionary, where the marks of his hands show where he had been, he marked the trail of his long life with enduring expression and a postscript of memories.

Brad Stevens: Calm coach leads the Butler storm

Indianapolis Star photo

In the same spot, on the same night, along the very same sideline, two coaches could not have been more different.

National semifinals, 75,000-plus fans in the stands, close games.

Butler forward Andrew Smith blows a put-back. A point-blank put-back. A bunny. A gimme. A shot he couldn’t miss again on a bet. There are groans on press row. There’s a dead ball. He leaves the game, approaches the bench, and Butler coach Brad Stevens is there to greet him. He is clapping. “Good job,” Stevens says, slapping his hand. “Get another one.”

Game Two. Kentucky and Connecticut. Wildcat freshman Doron Lamb has missed a defensive assignment, and he’s coming out. Kentucky coach John Calipari, too, awaits the player leaving the court. He is shouting, a sarcastic litany: “Don’t get a rebound, get beat on a back door, jog up the floor.” By then, Lamb is well past him and onto the bench. Another time, UK’s Eloy Vargas has missed in close, and Calipari screams, an inch from his ear, “Why can’t you FINISH?”

It’s April, and Brad Stevens, a 34-year-old bespectacled former marketing associate at Eli Lilly, looks like a guy you’d get to do your taxes. In a game dominated by celebrity coaches in four-figure suits with seven-figure salaries, Stevens does not look the part, even if his salary did become the first ever at Butler to top seven figures last year. Nor when he is on the sidelines does he toe the line set by big name coaches. He does not rant and stomp. He does yell. He does direct. But sitting on the courtside stool provided by the NCAA, he watches much of the game the way a guy along Main Street in his hometown of Zionsville, Ind., might survey a checkerboard. The coach with an economics degree from DePauw University studies the game like a guy looking for one more deduction.

It’s April, and Brad Stevens, in fact, is working on a return. But it is a return to the NCAA championship game. In the proud history of basketball in the state of Indiana, no coach has taken a state college even to back-to-back Final Fours, let alone title games. That by itself would set Stevens apart. But that alone is not the heart of his story. He has done it without elite high school recruits, at least as far as the recruiting industrial complex now rates them. He has done it without playing in a power conference — defined these days as those with big-time football programs and the money that goes with them, as if a school’s football prowess should have anything to do with putting five players on a court capable of winning basketball games.

And when asked how he has done it, he serves up answers like this one, which could have adorned the wall of even John Wooden himself: “I think the most important thing is adhering to the standards, whatever you deem to be the standards and values of your program.”

At Butler, that entails “The Butler Way,” a code and philosophy of action that is to govern all aspects of the school. As it regards basketball, Stevens says, “It’s not rocket science. It’s a values-based organization.”

“I think it begins with selflessness, and certainly accountability is very important, humility is very important,” he continues. “You kind of go through those founding principles. We always talk about it this way with the team. The only way we address the ‘Butler Way’ with our team is in this regard: people know they’ve seen and felt something special, they just can’t put their finger on it.”

Selflessness. Accountability. Humility. Who let this guy into the Final Four? These are not the hallmarks of college sports today. In fact, they could be called the antithesis of big-time college sports, if you spend much time watching them at their highest level. For them to show up in the NCAA championship game, not just once as a novelty, but in back-to-back seasons, says something not only about the coach, but his sport.

If a sense of place helps define people, certainly two places lend perspective to Stevens. One of them is the driveway of the home where he grew up in Zionsville, a pleasant suburb of Indianapolis. There’s nothing special about that driveway, but that’s the point. Stevens, who watched tapes of basketball games as a 5-year-old before going to kindergarten in the afternoons, grew up there counting down the seconds and making one, last game-winning shot before heading in to supper, and many of his players grew up the same way. There’s a meeting of the basketball minds, in many cases, from before the time Butler players reach campus. Stevens loves the movie “Hoosiers,” though he tends to downplay its parallels with Butler. The ethos depicted in that film, however, of teamwork, of size not mattering, is one that embodies and emboldens his team.

“I was a kid that grew up 20 minutes outside of Indianapolis,” Stevens said. “Best birthday present I got when I was eight years old was a basketball hoop on my driveway. I think a lot of these guys share that. I know that there is a passion for the game and a passion for a team in a lot of communities that goes beyond the norm.”

The other place that fixes Stevens place in the coaching landscape is Hinkle Fieldhouse, historic home of the Butler basketball team. In his early days at Butler, when he wasn’t making much money, having the key to Hinkle in his pocket was something money couldn’t buy. It’s hard to walk into the place and not feel closer to the foundations of the sport. The way Butler plays is built on that foundation.

Early in his career, Stevens would hear people wander into the gym and shout, “Hickory!” recreating the moment from “Hoosiers.” They’d tell him their stories about the place. He’d tell them his.

Over the past two years, this young coach has written an indelible new chapter in its history.

For Stevens, basketball is a game of pieces. Chess masters learn the game in three parts — opening, middle, and endgame. Butler has become a master of the endgame, particularly in tournament play. Stevens takes delight in the details. And if anything, Butler has become the definitive contemporary program in illustrating that you don’t have to be the fastest player to get to the spot first. You don’t have to be the tallest player or greatest leaper to get the rebound.

“You know, the clips that we show our guys from teams past are all of those little details, our lead steps, closing out great off of a ball screen where you have to rotate, of getting a great hedge, getting back into play, coming over and taking a charge on a drive on the other side of the floor,” Stevens said. “I think all of those things go unnoticed and we want to make them important.”

In the 1990s, Arkansas played smothering full-court pressure and called it “40 minutes of hell.” Against Butler’s physical, tight, rotating defense, an offensive set is the longest 35 seconds of your life. Butler games can take any form for the first 35 minutes, but they normally end up at the same place. With four minutes left, you’re going to look at the scoreboard and the game is going to be in the balance.

Stevens talks about games being “possession games,” as in each possession being a game in itself, crucial. Those are the kinds of games Butler seems to excel in come tournament time. One reason — the Bulldogs practice it. Even when they’re just playing around. Stevens suggested that instead of playing to 12 in their pickup games, they think about playing to 8. “It makes the possessions more meaningful,” guard Shelvin Mack said.

But it’s also a game of numbers for Stevens, who was a promising employee at Eli Lilly for his math skills and his ability to synthesize a collection of numbers into effective proposals. Among his duties with the company were analyzing sales numbers to determine compensation for salespeople and plans for which drugs should be sold where.

He quit that job, which paid well, for an unpaid assistant’s job at Butler. He worked basketball camps to make money. He was about to take a job waiting tables at Applebee’s restaurant when the school’s director of basketball operations was arrested for soliciting a prostitute, and he got promoted.

Stevens left the corporate world, but he didn’t stop crunching numbers. You could hear it in his comments after beating Virginia Commonwealth in the national semifinals, when he described his rebounding goal for the game this way: “We tried to get 80 percent plus back on the defensive glass and tried to get 40 percent plus back on the offensive glass. We were 83-38, and that ended up being good enough.”

Of course, Stevens’ stock may now be the fastest-rising in all of American sports. There’s probably not a job that he couldn’t have, based on his success at Butler. Yet it’s generally acknowledged that there are only a handful that he could conceivably want. He says he’s amused sometimes to hear the speculation regarding him and other jobs when he catches it on television at times.

He seems to have a sense that he has found something special in a place that seems to fit his own style and approach so well. There aren’t many serious basketball schools that could look at a guy like Matt Howard — the eighth child (of ten) of Stan and Linda Howard of Connorsville, Ind., and think, “That’s the guy we want to build around in the middle.” But at Butler, the big man who teammates laugh at as he awkwardly navigates his bicycle around campus no matter how cold the weather is a perfect fit.

“Here’s the point,” Stevens says. “I think people always look at their job and you hear people say this all the time, that the grass is greener somewhere else. Well, I think we recognize that the grass is very green at Butler. Butler’s been terrific to us. Butler’s gone in a lot of ways out of their way for us. We recognize that.

“Certainly we appreciate everything that this place has done for us, even when I first got the job and was not making a whole lot of money but had a key to Hinkle. Certainly there can be green grass at other places. You understand that. You see people go through it. You see sometimes it works out for people and sometimes it doesn’t. . . . It’s such a personal thing for me. I’ve just been fortunate to be in a place that I consider to be consistent with where I want to be and who I want to coach.”

It’s not just a testament to the coach, however, that Butler is in this position, the first small school without a major-conference football program to make back-to-back title games since San Francisco did it 1955 and ’56.

Basketball, more than any other sport, can combat brute size and strength with team play. It doesn’t always happen. It takes a staggering amount of work and belief. Players at places like Butler talk about trusting each other, and it loses some of its impact because you hear players at places where they don’t really trust each other saying the same thing.

Indiana, in many ways, gave up on that belief in the game when it did away with its single-class basketball high school championship and split the state into smaller classes. It conceded that the small schools couldn’t compete. At Butler, they don’t concede. They believe. And perhaps the best thing to come of its dual championship game appearances is the restoration of a measure of faith in the game, in the belief that you don’t have to have McDonald’s All-Americans or marginal students to get to the highest reaches of college basketball.

“I’ve always said this — you can have three or four players who can play anywhere in the country and surround them with the perfect role players and you’ve got a chance,” Stevens says. “I think in the last two years we’ve at least, you could argue, been in that mix.”

But don’t forget to add a dose of coaching. It takes someone pretty persuasive to get a teenage player to buy into an old-school message like “believe.” But Stevens has done it. And every time his teams achieve the way they are doing in the NCAA Tournament, the next group of guys has all the more reason to believe it can be done again.

“I think you have to have certain guys that believe,” Stevens says. “And it goes back to that. I thought about when we went back to the Sweet 16 in 2007, we had a couple of seniors in Marcus Nellems, Brandon Crone and Brian Ligon. Brandon Crone played a couple years overseas, but Brian Ligon went to dental school and he’s a dentist now, and Marcus Nellems went and got his Master’s of Art teaching, and he’s an elementary school teacher. Those guys gave us a belief that we could do something if we all stayed together and did all our jobs as well as we possibly can. For whatever reason, we’ve kept those rose-colored glasses on.”

Whatever Stevens is doing, he’s enabling people to see college basketball in a new, or perhaps old, light.

Veterans Day remembrance

I was watching the History Channel’s outstanding World War II in HD series tonight, which to me, is an example of the very best of the television medium, and wanted to say a word about Veterans Day. I’ve done this in various ways over the years, whether it be writing about people in sports who served or retelling old stories of where athletics and military have overlapped, even once wrote about U.S. soldiers in the Middle East and what rooting for their teams at home meant to them.

Just recently, in fact, thoroughbred trainer John Shirreffs spent a great deal of time in the news as the trainer of the racehorse Zenyatta, but you may not have known that he enlisted in the Marines in 1968 and served one tour of duty in Vietnam.

At any rate, along with thanks for their service, for Veterans Day today I want to share with you a member of my family, George Garrison, a World War II veteran who was awarded the Bronze Star. George is my great-uncle. He lives in Stanford, Ky., and the following was recorded about a year ago, when he was asked to reflect a little on his military experience.

Zenyatta legacy: Extended column

Often when I’m writing, I’ll put together a full version of what I want to say in a given column, then come back and cut it into a length that will fit in our usual column spot. In the case of discussing Zenyatta’s legacy, I wound up with what amounted to a column and a half. Here’s the uncut version, for anyone interested …

Horse racing has its own way of doing things — its own language, its own literature, its own history, rhythms and even media.
The turf-writer view of Zenyatta and her place in history after finishing second by a head to Blame in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on Saturday is a fairly straightforward one.
She built one of the most remarkable records in racing history — winning her first 19 races — and by winning one Breeders’ Cup Classic and nearly two stamped herself as one of the great female racehorses who ever lived, perhaps the greatest.
But even the heretofore acknowledged top distaffer — Ruffian — ranked only 35th on the list of greatest racehorses of the 20th century as determined by a panel selected by The Blood Horse magazine, and it’s difficult to place Zenyatta far above that, based on racetrack accomplishment alone.
She would seem to fit in the class of star of a Seabiscuit or John Henry, horses of longevity who garnered a fervent sentimental following that exceeded even their accomplishment, though she would not likely rank quite on a level with those two.
Certainly, on a list of the greatest horses of the young 21st century she can lay claim to a very high spot, with a good chance to hang onto it over the years.
She also had the misfortune of running at a time when no single campaign of hers ever was found to be more outstanding than a chief rival’s, denying her the most prized award in her sport, the Eclipse Award for American Horse of the Year.
Her owners put all their eggs into the 2010 Classic, then saw it shattered by Blame, who not only won better races leading up to the Classic, but now has a victory over her on his resume. From the traditional horse racing perspective, Blame is horse of the year.
Now join me in leaving the horse racing world. Zenyatta is a horse for the ages. No matter how the Eclipse Award voting winds up, she may well have been the only Hall of Famer on the track for the Classic on Saturday.
Eclipse organizers made a terrible mistake last year in not letting voters split their ballots for Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. For Zenyatta to become the first female ever to win the Classic but not to receive racing’s highest honor was a missed opportunity. For the list of winners of horse of the year not to include her name will be an unfortunate void.
A year ago, I said Zenyatta should win the award because she was the best in the biggest race — after completing an unbeaten campaign. That’s not to say the winner of the Classic automatically gets the award, but that the Classic should count more than other races. Using that same reasoning, Blame should get the vote this year.
Certainly, there’s precedent for sentiment swaying the award — otherwise John Henry wouldn’t have beaten Slew o’ Gold in 1984. Without question, Zenyatta is the sentimental favorite this year. Only three others her age or older have won the Eclipse Award since its inception — Forego, John Henry and Cigar. Special company.
At a time when the sport was reeling over questions of the frailty of its animals, Zenyatta’s huge presence and stature turned the attention of fans once again to the sport’s beauty and possibility.
Regardless, none of these votes or rankings matters as much outside the horse racing world as inside it. For many of us, Zenyatta was as marvelous an animal as we ever watched in person.
Her legacy shouldn’t be reduced to the subjective judgment of an award or any historical ranking. On Sunday morning at Churchill Downs, a crowd greeted her when she came out to graze. Over at Blame’s barn, the scene was quiet.
For many, Zenyatta is more than horse of the year; she’s the horse of a lifetime.

Considering Zenyatta

I know basketball is firing up and football is in midseason but we’re closing in on the Breeders’ Cup and I find myself taking a closer look at the career and place in horse racing history of Zenyatta, the 19-for-19 queen of horse racing who will finish her career in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.

Just wanted to share this compilation of her 19 come-from-behind victories, as produced by TVG. If this doesn’t make you think about her feat, I’m not sure what will.

I’ll pass this along, just to take us back a year. This is the column I wrote after Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic last fall, in what we thought then was her final race:

Horse of the Year should be Zenyatta

By ERIC CRAWFORD, Nov. 8, 2009

ARCADIA, Calif. — Moments after the magnificent mare Zenyatta had run from last in the Breeders’ Cup Classic field all the way into horse racing history, trainer John Shirreffs was asked whether she should be the Horse of the Year.

“You tell me,” Shirreffs said.

All right. She is. And those are not easy words to type.

Rachel Alexandra’s historic campaign was the best in history for a 3-year-old filly – maybe for any filly. She destroyed fillies her age, she beat the boys of her age, she beat older female and male horses. She was the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness. She won five consecutive Grade I stakes.

Certainly, she accomplished more from a purely competitive standpoint this year than Zenyatta. And here’s a confession – if it were about personal sentiment, I’d pick Rachel, every time.

But if you win the Super Bowl, you get the trophy.

Zenyatta is Horse of the Year and, with 14 wins in 14 career starts, a horse for the ages. Shirreffs is trainer of the year, after winning the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic (with Life Is Sweet on Friday) and Classic back-to-back.

And Jerry Moss is owner of the year, for putting his mare’s perfect record on the line against the world’s most accomplished male horses, nine of them Grade I winners.

Trainer Bob Baffert, whose Richard’s Kid finished sixth in the Classic, said that if Zenyatta doesn’t get at least a piece of the Horse of the Year award, “it would be a travesty.”

If the Eclipse Award folks have any sense of what happened this year in their sport, whichever of these two distaffers doesn’t win Horse of the Year should be honored in some significant way.

It’s rare for athletes to match the moment. Both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra did that all spring, summer and fall.

But Zenyatta’s moment was the biggest.

Give Moss credit for making the moment possible. He knows about the big stage. The record company he co-owns was home to some of the biggest acts in rock history. The success of horse racing, he said Saturday, “is all about building stars.”

His decision to run Zenyatta in the Classic did just that.

Though she was made the favorite, many big-time handicappers had written her off. She had appeared to be slowing down. She hadn’t faced outstanding competition this year and had never faced males.

Saturday, when she overcame a disastrous start and had to shift wide before rallying to win, she changed that.

Her victory was not the product of fluke circumstances or a perfect trip. Perhaps she handled Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface better than some, but it was hard to feel, as she pounded home, that she wouldn’t have won anywhere, even the parking lot if they’d asked her.

For horse racing, it was a crowning moment in a year that featured some historic ones. About the only missing moment was seeing Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra face each other. The latter’s owner, Jess Jackson, felt his filly had done enough and didn’t want to race her on a synthetic surface.

I’m not going to criticize that decision. But sometimes, you must be present to win. And win is all Zenyatta has done.

“She’s sent from God,” jockey Mike Smith said. “I think He wanted a horse.”

Let’s hope He sends some more.

As they led her out of the winner’s circle for the last time, people scrambled around the track to pick up the petals that fell from her garland of flowers. It was a storybook ending to a scrapbook year.

Clip it, mount it, save it. The last picture is Zenyatta crossing the finish line as a champion, and then, after a Santa Anita sunset, boarding a van back to her stall at Hollywood Park, with a Hollywood ending.

Reader email asks, are you a homer?

Jacob Kiper asks the question of the year in a recent email to me:

Mr. Crawford,
I’m writing to you with a question. I’m an incredibly avid sports fan. I follow UK and despise UofL.

Throughout my constant trolling of message boards, I have found that both UofL and UK fans think you are “against them.” I just saw a UofL fan this morning claim that he cancelled his C-J subscription because he was tired of reading your articles. However, I’ve also seen many UK fans claim that you never/seldomly write a bad word about UofL, yet “pick on UK.” How does that work? How can both fan-bases simultaneously think you are a blatant “homer” for the other. The same seems to be true for Bozich. I admit that I am not a fan of Bozich, yet UofL fans often refer to him as “Bozo.” They think he hates UofL, I see it completely different.

Do you have any insight?

Do I ever. Warning, this is a long response. But it’s a complicated issue. Here goes:

Jacob,

You’re absolutely correct. I’m always amazed that I can, within a span of 24 hours, be accused of being a “U of L homer” or a “Big Blue” something-or-other.

It was a revelation to me when I took over the column. I tried to be open about my background regarding these schools. I am from Louisville and, for the most part, grew up here until the third grade. The first basketball player I can remember pretending to be was U of L’s Wesley Cox. But we moved to Bagdad, Ky., when I was in the fourth grade, and I pretty much latched onto UK from that point. I was a UK fan, primarily, through the rest of my junior high and high school days, though I don’t really think I had much animosity toward Louisville. I followed both very closely.

I don’t know if people remember this, but back in the days before the two teams played there was this little board game you could get, with dice that had Wildcats and Cardinals on them, and player cards. I don’t remember how the game worked, but I wore the thing out playing it. I had a little basketball scorebook and I’d keep the stats at home either off the radio or television. My dad grew up a UK fan. He remembered listening to some of Rupp’s great teams on a radio at his grandmother’s.

I kept scrapbooks of the teams, cut out their clippings. The other day in the basement I ran across one of those scrapbooks, with a story about Dicky Beal — one of my favorite players — in it, along with some U of L clippings, a couple of columns by Billy Reed, and a clipping from The Courier-Journal of Tom Seaver’s first game as a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds.

We lived well outside of Louisville and Lexington, so I didn’t go to many games. I do remember once, somehow, my dad got tickets to a UK game and we went to Rupp Arena and sat in about the fourth row on Senior Day in Rupp for a visit from UNLV in 1978. It was UK’s last home game, I think, before winning the national title.

I went to high school at Shelby County, where in the gym were hung two larger-than-life portraits. Both were UK players — Former Rockets Mike Casey and Charles Hurt.

But Shelby County was pretty well mixed in terms of UK and U of L fans, and there in the early 80s was the height of debate between the two. When U of L won the Dream Game, it really ratcheted things up. My mom always followed U of L, and when the Cardinals went to Reunion Arena in Dallas to play for the championship in 1986, she was there.

I wrote, in my first column, about my bus rides from Bagdad to the schools in Shelbyville, arguing with the bus driver Dude Payton — a huge Denny Crum and U of L fan — and the boy I sat by every morning, Jeff Miller. We just loved stirring each other up. But in most of those years, Dude had the upper hand.

Meanwhile, when it came time to go to college, I had a few options, but the only school to offer me a full scholarship was U of L, something for which I remain grateful. In my years as a student there, I worked in different offices all over campus. I was a resident assistant in the dorms. I worked freshmen orientation for three years, introducing students to the campus. I worked in the financial aid and admissions offices. I met people all over that campus that I still know today. I have what I think is a very balanced view of the place, that not only keeps its past in perspective but views the university as a whole and not just in context of its athletic programs. During homecoming week, I’ll still attend alumni events.

So here’s the completely unsatisfactory answer for most people. I have positive views of both schools. They are, in my view, the two most important institutions in the state of Kentucky. There are a multitude of good and talented people at both of them. When they do well — in athletics and everything else — it is good for the state.

The problem most fans have is this — it is not enough for them that you say good things about their team. They want you to say bad things about the other team. U of L fans don’t think we run down John Calipari enough. UK fans don’t think we give Rick Pitino enough grief.

I got an email last week from a U of L fan saying, “You NEVER write anything positive about U of L.” This came just days after I wrote a column about U of L defensive lineman Greg Scruggs talking to schoolkids, and a very complimentary column about U of L soccer coach Ken Lolla, who has that program ranked No. 1 in the nation. They were not only overwhelmingly positive pieces, but about subjects that nobody else was talking about. And there are many, many more. I was the first to write the Stefan LeFors story. I was the one who chronicled U of L’s run to the Final Four. Over my decade of covering U of L sports, the positive stories probably outnumber the negative 10-to-1. So why would someone say I “never” write anything positive? Because it’s what they want to believe. And because these days, people only remember the negative. We live in a day when people want their news to line up with their beliefs (FoxNews, MSNBC).

And I believe we live in what is being termed the “crybaby culture.” And it exists in both places (note the howling of UK fans at recent media coverage of issues involving their players). And in far more than just sports. Take a look at the political races.

As for UK fans who say I “pick on UK,” I have written some awfully positive things about Calipari, and as far as I know, I’m the only one to bring up on a regular basis the letter from the former NCAA compliance director clearing Calipari of any involvement in the Marcus Camby situation. In Rich Brooks’ final years at UK, a quote from me was on his bio page of the media guide. I’ve gone out of my way to tell good stories at UK where I’ve been able to get at them — such as my feature on Tim Masthay, or my look at how Calipari’s style seems to fit and get the best out of today’s elite players. I also was a pretty consistent defender of DeMarcus Cousins, who I thought was no different from many other “tough guy” players I’ve covered, including Louisivlle’s Ellis Myles. Which, of course, incensed Louisville fans.

When I wrote several times in my blog that the chances of anything coming from the Eric Bledsoe investigation were slim, U of L fans accused me of being a UK homer. No, I was writing an opinion that turned out to be quite accurate. U of L fans wanted me to blast UK for recruiting Bledsoe, wanted me to rail on the whole grade-change topic as regards student athletes. Which is fine, except that there’s a player on U of L’s football team that had not one, but nine, grade changes. (Oh, and UK fans think I’m a U of L homer for not writing about him — which I did, last fall, before he enrolled.)

Are there differences between the reactions of the fan bases? I’ll only say that I’m more likely to hear from U of L fans after positive stories than I am from UK fans after positive stories. UK fans do not respond to positive stories about their teams. But you criticize them one time, and it seems you get branded, and they let you hear about it.

Now, if you’re not offering some criticism, you’re not doing your job. And I’ve criticized coaches and aspects of both programs. I called UK an NBA farm team and questioned whether Calipari wasn’t flirting with the kind of year North Carolina just had if he’s going to hope for significant numbers of one-and-done players. At U of L, I hammered Steve Kragthorpe pretty hard, and recently have questioned Rick Pitino’s “bridge season” terminology.

The bottom line is that if a reader believes you to be a “homer” to the other guy, then he or she is going to perceive slights in almost anything you write. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about the exclamation point in Yum! (it really does bother me) and U of L fans thought I was criticizing their program. It had nothing to do with U of L. I think it’s a silly name. It was an unorthodox sports column, and probably was more of a Metro-type column, but generated more positive and widespread national response than anything I’ve written lately. I even noted that the scoreboard wasn’t working right on the day of the scrimmage and retold about Pitino yelling over, “Maybe we should’ve gotten the $3 million scoreboard.” Some U of L fans actually thought I was saying that this state-of-the-art arena had a scoreboard that wouldn’t go over 100. It just wasn’t working that day. People wrote about how stupid it was to write about such a thing. Yet it was one of our most-read pieces of the week. You never know.

(Funny aside, I went onto the boards to look for examples for this piece, but got tired of going through all the stuff. One funny exchange, however, came on the U of L scout board, where some guy mentioned a quote from Bilal Powell in my Sunday column. Then some “expert” chimes in to say it was a quote “provided” to the media and wasn’t one I actually got. Didn’t want me to get credit for “actual work.” Of course, if he’d gone to my blog, where the quote first appeared, he’d have seen the video. And if he listens carefully, he’d note, that the person who asked Powell about what he’s been through at U of L, and the person who elicited the quote in question in that board post was, surprise, me. Which I suppose does prove a point, that lots of times, people just believe what they want.)
People sometimes take things too seriously, especially as regards the rivalry. I’m not buying into that. It’s still a game. It’s still just entertainment. When I give an opinion on Enes Kanter or Gorgui Dieng or Eric Bledsoe or Preston Knowles, it’s what I think. I don’t calculate it for effect with readers or fan bases.

One last thing. Both fan bases like to send me stuff and say, “Why don’t you try to be a REAL investigative journalist?” I’m a columnist. I’m paid for my opinion. You don’t want your opinion writers leading investigations because it undermines the credibility of the investigation. The perception is that if someone has published his opinion on something, his investigation is only going to go after information that will confirm his opinion, not information that could dispute it. Most reputable newspapers don’t allow columnists to be involved in those investigations. It’s a good practice.

Anyway, that’s probably far more than you wanted. But it’s the best I can tell you.

I have an appreciation for both programs. I criticize them both. As long as both fan bases think I’m out to get theirs or that I’m a homer for the other, I feel like I’m striking some kind of balance.

Thanks for the question, and the opportunity to give far too long an answer!

And I guarantee you that fans of both schools will take this response and find evidence in it of why I hate their school and love the other. And maybe that’s just how it works.

What’s that? Can’t stand my work in large doses? Follow me on Twitter @ericcrawford, where I’m only allowed 140 characters, or at Facebook, where if you don’t like the link, you don’t have to click.

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