Firmly entrenched as the geopolitical and cultural gateway to the south, the Commonwealth of Kentucky exists upon a foundation of contrasts. While its pace and climate is typically Midwestern, everyday life is accentuated by a distinct Southern flourish.
Despite their shared border with Missouri, Indiana and Ohio, Kentuckians almost will themselves to a Southern way of life. As such, they are decidedly Southern, almost fiercely so. That is not to say this is a bad thing – quite to the contrary, in fact.
It’s the type of place where sweet tea is always on ice, bourbon is the only drink of choice and good cigars are not a luxury but a necessity. The hospitality in Kentucky is unique, as if at some point the encroaching Midwestern and Southern states allowed them to pick which cultural traditions they liked best.
In the end, however, the mix they chose undoubtedly works. Although, I suppose it should come as no surprise that a state famous for its distilleries and horse farms has a lust for living the good life.
Kentucky is not, however, a state without hardship. Far from the racetracks and porch swings exists a different way of life entirely – and that difference is stark. Out of the 100 poorest counties in the country, 29 are in Kentucky. The next most prevalent state on that unfortunate list is Mississippi, with 13.
To say that immense poverty is a defining attribute of the Bluegrass state would be an understatement.
As such, in many ways, the Commonwealth of Kentucky is a tale of two worlds. There are parts that are simply breathtakingly beautiful. The world famous horse farms, for instance, are located in the counties surrounding Lexington and extend for miles. Long stretches of rolling hills covered in wind-blown bluegrass, dotted with the white wood fences that mark the end of one farm and the beginning of another.
Conversely, the eastern part of the state has been somewhat left behind by the times. Perhaps overly reliant on manufacturing and coal mining as the world around them changed, these counties remain depressingly impoverished. A state defined by contrast, Kentuckians in Lexington and Louisville lead entirely different lives than those in the more rural part of the state.
Or, I should say, that would be the case if not for basketball.
There is not a group of people to whom basketball means more to than Kentuckians. So much more than a game or pastime, it is a passion that seeps into their lives in a way that defines who they are. In many ways, it is basketball alone that stitches together the extraordinarily different parts of the state into one.
That being the case, it should come as no surprise that they are also the most passionate and rabid fans on the planet. And, given the lack of professional sports in the state, that frenzied support is reserved for college basketball.
A year round affair, college basketball fandom in Kentucky has no breaks in intensity. The offseason is no offseason at all, merely the peak of recruiting. And, not surprisingly, the season itself is a non-stop, cardiac-arrest inducing, game-by-game marathon.
While other states look to other sports or teams to serve as an at least temporary distraction, Kentucky does not. Basketball is all that matters. Frankly, this statement applies to daily life for Kentuckians as much as it does to their sports fandom.
In this years’ NCAA Tournament, Kentucky had solid representation with four teams coming from the Bluegrass State. However, while Western Kentucky and Murray State were nice stories, it was – and always has been – only about Kentucky and Louisville.
The University of Kentucky and Louisville are two of college basketball’s premier programs. Specifically, UK is the winningest program in college basketball. While Louisville does not stack up from a statistical point of view, it makes up ground in recent success and die-hard fan support.
The wild historical success of both programs is only matched by the hatred between the two fanbases. Given the proximity of the two schools, and the vastly different but eerily similar student bodies and alumni, they are the most natural rivals since Cain and Able.
And it shows.
The rivalry between the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the University of Louisville Cardinals is the fiercest in college basketball. Those that believe otherwise are not so much wrong as they are uninformed. The media darling that is UNC-Duke is a good one to be sure, but it simply does not match the bitter hatred that engulfs the battle of the bluegrass.
What truly separates Kentucky-Louisville from UNC-Duke is that the people in Kentucky simply care more.
As one can imagine, the fact that the two teams are meeting in the Final Four is a near apocalyptic event for the state. After years of an endless trash talking and near-meaningless early-season match-ups, the two bitter rivals will meet on the biggest stage.
To put it simply, on Saturday, the two most passionate fanbases in the country are meeting head-to-head for a shot at the National Championship.
In the ensuing days, many different story lines will be discussed in regards to the rivalry: the early-season UK win against Louisville, Louisville coach Rick Pitino’s legacy as the once-great coach at Kentucky, the alleged hatred between Pitino and UK coach John Calipari.
None of that matters though.
Once the ball is tipped, all those story lines fade away and it becomes a basketball game in its purest form. And more than any other sport in any other state, basketball is life in Kentucky. As a result, this game means something to more people than any game in the history of the Final Four.
That is not hyperbole. It is fact.
The Commonwealth of Kentucky is a state where people either have nothing or everything. The one thing that is shared by all is basketball. So, at the most human level, this game means everything to Kentuckians.
In the end, blood will run in the impassioned streets of the Commonwealth. It just remains to be seen if it will be blue or red.