Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I was, like most everyone else in my small hometown, a diehard University of Kentucky basketball fan. As the saying went, I bled blue – Big Blue. I always wore some kind of UK t-shirt or sweatshirt or ball cap. I kept stats on the players, practiced my ball handling skills in the backyard imagining I was Goose Givens, and clung to every staticky word of play-by-play from legendary Kentucky radio announcer Cawood Ledford. And as blasphemous as it might be now to admit, I cheered unrelentingly for the Cats as they defeated Duke in the 1978 NCAA Championship game. UK basketball was everything to me … until December of 1984 when, as a freshman at Duke, I stepped into the hallowed halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium, and my world was forever changed.
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I don’t know if we won or lost that game or who we even played. All I can remember is that euphoric feeling of being one with my classmates, who Al McGuire would later christen the "Cameron Crazies," screaming, shouting, chanting in unison, jumping up and down, this fevered, rhythmic chaos, painted faces, outrageous outfits, pithy comments scrawled on poster board, drenched with sweat, hoarse, wide-eyed, pulse racing, both exhausted and energized – I never wanted it to end.
I came home that winter break and tossed all of my UK gear into the Goodwill bin. I had become a Blue Devil, and thereafter I always wore some kind of Duke t-shirt or sweatshirt or ball cap. And it was fine, that was, before something several years later happened, something beautiful and magical and heart-stopping and life affirming. With two-point-one seconds left in overtime in the 1992 NCAA East Regional Final, this lanky center with an enviable head of hair made a jump shot that stomped on the dreams of every UK fan who had held out hope that their team of "Unforgettables" would upset the defending National Champs. In the brief span of those two-point-one seconds, Duke became anathema to Big Blue Nation – Darth Vader, Lex Luther, the leader of the Cobra Kai, you name them, all rolled into one, only much worse I would learn.
It did not occur to me, the level of detestation that existed in Kentucky for Duke, until that fall when I began law school at UK. There I was walking across campus one fine crisp morning, as a voice, oozing with an acrimony I could not fathom being directed at me, called out. I turned to notice Jamal Mashburn, Kentucky’s star forward, future NBA player, and a member of the aforementioned Wildcat team. He was in the midst of a photo shoot, and stopped everything to express his profound disdain for my choice of attire – gray Duke sweatshirt with blue stitched lettering – and to suggest I reconsider my wardrobe if our paths were to cross again, or words to that effect. I politely nodded, then rushed into the relative safety of the law building. But I was ever after looking over my shoulder, and not only for Mr. Mashburn. It seemed subsequently that I always had a target on my back whenever I had Duke on my front.
I could go on and on about the put-downs and scorn and some rather impolite gestures I have received as I have remained in the Commonwealth and held steadfast in the support of my alma mater, even in pursuits as innocuous as manning the Duke table at college fairs. And that has not only been my experience. A group of us brave souls formed the Kentucky Chapter of the Duke Alumni Club, but to avoid being subjected to the insolent taunts and ridicule, our meetings have generally taken place in private, someone’s home or the back rooms of seedy bars. A slight exaggeration perhaps, however during an outing once to the local minor league baseball park (to see the visiting Durham Bulls of course), the placards reserving our picnic tables were covertly defaced with the D and E in DUKE crossed out, leaving only the letters UK – the symbol of those who hate us so.
The rancor towards all things Duke has also permeated politics in this state. During the 2010 Kentucky U.S. Senate race, candidates in each of the Republican and Democratic primaries attempted to sway voters by emphasizing that their opponents were Duke grads. [Brammer, "Fighting words: Put up your Duke degrees. Loyalty to UK becomes issue in Senate race," Lexington Herald-Leader, March 16, 2010]. More recently, this past May, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor derided another candidate by referring to him as "the Christian Laettner of Kentucky politics." [Youngman, "James Comer: Hal Heiner is ‘the Christian Laettner of Kentucky politics,’" May 6, 2015, Lexington Herald-Leader]. And just last year, in his bid for reelection, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) made an untimely gaffe by releasing a campaign video that mistakenly showed a clip of the Duke basketball team celebrating after winning the 2010 National Championship, prompting his spokesperson to hastily declare they were "horrified by the error." [Youngman, "McConnell team ‘horrified’ after Duke basketball footage included in ad," March 25, 2014, Lexington Herald-Leader].
After Duke won its fifth title in April, a young man shyly approached me in a bookstore to laud me for my courage in wearing a Duke ball cap out in the open. Speaking barely above a whisper, he recounted the harsh reality of driving around Big Blue Country with a Duke bumper sticker and how the 2015 National Championship car flag had been ripped from his Honda Accord almost as soon as he had attached it. We commiserated for a moment, until he retreated into the shadows. A few weeks later, while on a charity bike ride resplendent in my Duke cycling jersey, at least a dozen other riders pedaled up beside me along the course, curious as to whether I was wearing my school colors in some insidious attempt to antagonize the UK fans, with one person asking if any of them had tried to run me down, to which I replied, "they haven’t caught me yet."
Maybe I am somewhat to blame. After all, I have never attempted to engage any of the Kentucky faithful in meaningful conversation as to why it is exactly they persist in despising us, why they cannot let bygones be bygones. I usually just respond to their invectives with some situational appropriate retort – once a Crazie always a Crazie. I’ll leave it to the experts to analyze this behavior. I am resigned to the fact that nothing is going to change anyway. I will continue to be, in the words of the Beach Boys, true to my school. If that means to expect sneers and jeers, and poor service at a certain deli counter in town whenever I wear a Duke t-shirt, then so be it. I am and shall always be a Blue Devil, no matter where I live.