Anyone who’s lived more than a year in this state knows the Kentucky-Louisville basketball game means way too much to way too many, as if a two-hour athletic contest among teenagers from Egypt, Haiti, Canada, Sudan, Cleveland and California proves that one clan is superior to the other here in the 120 counties of the dark and bloody ground.

Cards coach Rick Pitino
Cards coach Rick Pitino

The game clearly means too much to Rick Pitino. The U of L coach’s petulant refusal to attend the postgame news conference after Saturday’s 75-73 loss – his eighth in nine tries over the past six years – was symptomatic of a man who has lost just as much perspective as the most rabidly partisan fan.

Pitino might also have lost his cool – and in vulgar fashion.

Whether the head Cardinal actually flipped UK fans the bird as he left Rupp Arena is unknown. Pitino said he didn’t; some eyewitnesses swear he did. Video evidence is inconclusive, except to those who see the world through red or blue glasses. Those folks see what they want to see. The world is simpler that way. It suits their simple minds.

Yet as a veteran target of jeers and slurs, Pitino knows better than to acknowledge yowling fools. The only acceptable gesture is no gesture at all. This is the sporting code.

It’s also one of the most deplorable double standards in public life.

Players and coaches are expected to endure every insult like bloodless British royalty, forever keeping a stiff upper lip, while fans are allowed to behave like British soccer hooligans. That an actual combatant, still flush with the heat of battle, might return fire on a loudmouth fan is regarded as an affront to polite society – and as proof of the combatant’s lack of couth and self-control.

The loudmouth’s lack of couth and control are excused or ignored. Polite society permits savage impoliteness in sports arenas, so long as it’s aimed at athletes, coaches and team executives. Those guys are fair game. Or so the story goes.

Cats coach John Calipari | Photo via Creative Commons
Cats coach John Calipari | Photo via Creative Commons

I’m quite sure John Calipari suffers similar abuse at the KFC Yum! Center every other year. That doesn’t make it right.

The whole state should hang its head in shame that the nastiness which surrounds this rivalry, in and out of the arenas, occurs in such close proximity to Christmas. Peace on earth and goodwill toward men – unless those men root for the wrong color jersey, it seems.

The glad tidings at midnight Mass? All forgotten in 36 hours, because somebody tossed a basketball in the air.

The more you think about it, the stupider it gets. Our basketball rivalry is nothing but pure cosplay – boys in shorts recruited as proxies for an ancient and endless war, pithily described by historian John Bakeless in his biography of Daniel Boone:

“Back woods and settlements never loved each other.”

The dividing lines aren’t nearly so obvious these days. There’s nothing backwoodsy about Lexington or Covington, or even Ashland, Owensboro, Paducah and such. Despite our racial, religious, political and economic differences, popular culture – music, movies, TV, the Internet and sports – has demolished many of the walls that once separated cityfolk and countryfolk, blacks and whites. We are more alike than different. Most days, we behave that way.

But there still exists a psychological dichotomy that makes some Kentuckians see their fellow citizens as “other.” That sense of otherness – and the superior/inferior relationship that it implies – is what shapes the ugly underbelly of the UK-U of L rivalry.

You might not like what Rick Pitino did on Saturday. You might not like Pitino at all. But have some sympathy for the devil. The erstwhile Yankee carpetbagger has lived more than one-third of his life in the crosshairs of this unhinged rivalry. He’s seen it from both sides, good and ill. He’s gotten it from both sides too, the infinite adoration as well as the irrational hate.

He seems to like us anyway. In fact, he might be the only person in the state who genuinely loves both sides. Which, of course, makes it that much harder to be vilified by fringe elements of Big Blue Nation.

Their ingratitude is parochial to the nth degree. I understand that people felt betrayed when Pitino went to Louisville, but come on. A) It’s been 15 years; get over it. B) He’s not a blue-born partisan who grew up hearing Cawood in the hollers. He’s a professional basketball coach from New York, by way of New England. He simply took the job that best suited him and his family. Kind of like former U of L star Kenny Payne did when he joined Calipari’s staff at UK.

Kentucky fans pride themselves on their knowledge of and respect for tradition. Rightly so. Yet they suffer from an astonishingly convenient case of situational amnesia when it comes to Rick Pitino.

The man singlehandedly rescued the program from disaster and disrepute. He rebuilt the Roman Empire of college basketball. He restored its pride and reasserted its dominance. He won UK’s first national championship in 18 years, nearly won a second the following year and bequeathed to Tubby Smith a title team the year after that.

Pitino also laid the foundation for Calipari’s success in the new millennium. Smith and Billy Gillispie left Calipari a sad-sack roster that the new coach swiftly rebuilt, mostly through his Pied Piper brilliance with top recruits but partly by trading on the mighty Kentucky brand that Pitino had restored to glory.

UK basketball owes a debt to Pitino that cannot be repaid. Not that anyone seems to be in any hurry to do so. Judging by tweets from my old pal Oscar Combs, the ultimate UK insider, there seems to be some question as to whether UK will honor the 20th anniversary of Pitino’s 1996 title team – and whether Pitino will be invited if a ceremony occurs.

Cooler, smarter heads will no doubt prevail. It’s a delicate situation to be sure, and it was made even trickier by Pitino’s failure to be cool and smart after Saturday’s loss.

There’s no excuse for Pitino skipping the presser and no justification for flipping fans the middle-finger salute, if that indeed happened. But only the hardest heart is unable to imagine, if only for a second, how hard it must be for Pitino to be mocked and insulted in the gym he called home for eight long, hard, victorious years.

Does Pitino care too much about the UK-U of L game? Damn right he does. But he – and perhaps he alone – is entitled to.

Nobody is more invested. The Cats and Cards have played each other in basketball on 49 occasions. Pitino has coached in 26 of them, nine on the blue bench, 17 on the red.

John Y. Brown once wore a sport coat that was divided down the middle red and blue. Pitino wears those colors in his heart. Even now, nearly 20 years after coaching his last game at UK.

Even after 15 years of being insulted by Big Blue ingrates.

Even though he never speaks ill of UK, though a certain segment of his current constituency would love nothing more. He addressed those people last Monday on one of their favorite radio shows, Ramsey & Rutherford on 93.9 The Ville.

“I’m a little bit different than most people,” Pitino said. “I’ve got nothing but great respect for the University of Kentucky. They’ve got my name hanging from the rafters there. If I ever said a negative word about Kentucky, even though you guys may not like them, I would be insulting every guy I coached for (those) eight years, and I love those players dearly.”

Though there’s no love lost between him and Calipari, I bet Pitino loves UK as a whole, fans included. Most of them anyway. He deserves better treatment on his biennial visits to his old Kentucky home.

Pitino behaved poorly on Saturday, but in the spirit of the season – the season of giving – maybe folks could give the guy a break.

The rafters of Rupp Arena are hung with ample proof that he’s earned it.

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Mark Coomes
Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.