I could barely watch the last 2 minutes of the game. My heart was on the verge of exploding. Thankfully the man next to me had Nitroquick in his pocket in case I had a heart attack. As Marquis Teague dribbled out the clock, my legs went numb, tears of joy and relief flowed down my face, and my ecstatic screams sounded like a hoarse Kermit the Frog.
I had a flash-back to where I was 14 years ago. The year was 1998... Tubby was winning with Pitino’s players, I had the same cell phone as Zack Morris, President Clinton professed that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and yours truly was gaining the Freshman 15 at the University of Kentucky. I watched the championship game that year “ballin like a true college playa.” And by this I mean I was densely crammed with 15 other coeds in a dorm room on the 21st floor of Blanding Tower, rubbernecking to view a 13 inch tube television, while rocking some denim overalls (I went through old pictures to see what I was wearing that night, and have vowed that these pictures will never ever be shown). Rick Majerus and his mormons led by 10 at halftime and there was a collective gasp across Big Blue Nation, but thankfully the Wildcats earned their nickname of “Comeback Cats” that year. As Luther’s “One Shining Moment” played on CBS, thousands of students congregated at the historically popular intersection of Woodland and Euclid near campus (current students please note: you can have fun without getting the fire department involved!). The campus celebration that night is something I will never forget and something most students never get to experience. But there is absolutely no comparison to watching the team that you stalkishly follow win a national championship as you are just feet away in the stands.
Plans to attend this year’s Final Four in New Orleans began a year ago. I had a feeling that this year would be special... we had a freak of nature with a wingspan wider than some small airplanes... how could this year not be special? I found out in August that I was selected for Final Four tickets through the NCAA ticket lottery, albeit the seats were in another atmosphere in the 600 level where you needed an oxygen tank and binoculars. My plane ticket to Blue Orleans was booked in January and the rest was just a waiting game. Fans watched this team march through conference play unscathed, only to lose in the SEC tournament final for their second loss of the season, which many argued was a much-needed loss. They then traveled a whopping 76 miles to Louisville for the first and second round games of the tournament (technically it was the second and third rounds, but no one cares about the Dayton playoff games). On a mission, they convincingly defeated Indiana and Baylor in Cat-lanta to secure their back to back final four appearance. This team was Nola-bound... and I was a nervous wreck.
Did I mention UK was playing Louisville in the Final Four? Yes, Louisville. Or as Calipari classically referred to as “the other team in the state,” which UK fans brilliantly shortened to OTIS. This was our biggest rival and arguably the best rivalry in college basketball, maybe even all of sports. Kentucky HAD to win this game. I didn’t want to lose to anyone in the Final Four, but I could accept (eventually with therapy) a loss to Kansas or Ohio State, but not OTIS. I couldn’t bear to listen to their fans for the next year... I would rather be a busboy at Porcini’s trying to clean the alfredo sauce off the floor. I didn't even care who played in the second game Saturday night... to be honest I forgot there was a second game Saturday night. My focus was solely on Louisville. Looo-a-vul.
The week leading up to the Final Four was the longest week of my life. I spent every free waking hour on the Kentucky Sports Radio blog and the website formerly known as CatsPause. I prepared for the games by refilling my Xanax and Levsin. My suitcase was packed full of blue, and only blue, including my lucky underwear. My aunt-by-would-be-marriage (make sense?) was thoughtful enough to use her booster status to score us tickets ten rows behind the UK pep-band. We booked a last-minute hotel room downtown, which ended up costing more than a used car. And one of my closest friends announced she would be joining me... only adding to my excitement and realization that this may be the best weekend of my life. Friday morning finally arrived and it was New Orleans or bust!
First let me advocate that it should be illegal to spend four nights on Bourbon Street without being up to date on all vaccinations and showing proof of scheduled AA classes upon your return home. I was in New Orleans three weeks prior for our annual girls trip to the SEC tournament and I believe those four nights took 2.6 years off my life. Thus, I pledged that this trip would be strictly business and to keep myself relaxed the night before the game, I decided to order room service and watch movies in the hotel room. Just kidding. I was on Bourbon Street drinking hand grenades at 5pm. Let’s just say I didn’t make it to midnight, but based on the pictures, I had tons of fun. The next morning my body hated me and was telling me not to get out of bed, but my mind said “GET UP! It’s game day! You’re in New Orleans! You can sleep when you’re dead!” So I drugged myself with toxic amounts of caffeine and ibuprofen, took a 45 minute shower, and shockingly made it out of the hotel by noon.
I must admit that I was thoroughly impressed by the vast number of Louisville fans that made the pilgrimage to New Orleans. Kentucky fans had been planning this trip for a year (example: me), but this was sprung on Louisville fans as a last minute surprise. I had never been around this many Louisville fans, so I wasn’t prepared to see so many line beards, tattoos, jerseys, gold chains, and red mini-dresses on girls that shouldn’t be wearing mini-dresses. I was concerned the National Guard was going to be activated to patrol Bourbon Street to keep the peace between the two Kentucky fan bases, especially after the infamous incident earlier in the week at a dialysis center where a Louisville fan punched a Kentucky fan (who was hooked up to a dialysis machine!) after the two old men got into a heated argument over the upcoming game. Nonetheless, the banter on Bourbon Street was overall good natured... probably because OTIS fans knew their over-hyped Behananana wouldn’t stand a chance against the Unibrow.
The game versus Louisville started at 5pm. I was in my seat ready to go at 3. I watched the Kentucky players stretch and do a light shoot around, all the while trying not to overanalyze why Lamb missed two consecutive shots... or why Davis was still in the locker room... or why Jones had his hands on his hips. Deep breath... calm down. Louisville eventually took the floor. Wait, are we playing Louisville? I could’ve sworn Louisville wore red uniforms. This team was in orange. Like prison orange. I immediately thought of the Alabama fan on you-tube and his eloquent thoughts on Tennessee: “Their color is that throw-up orange, it’s not the type of orange you can sit with, it’s that puke inside of a pumpkin orange... and I don’t like pumpkins.” Yep, that pretty much sums up what I thought about OTIS’s new infrared jerseys... puke inside of a pumpkin orange.
R&B pop-star Monica belted out the National Anthem while soldiers covered the court with the American flag. Famous Kentucky actors Ashley Judd and Josh Hopkins were onlookers as the starting lineups were announced and even “H to the izz-o, V to the izz-a” (that would be Jay-Z in layman’s terms) was in the house sans Beyonce. All you need to know about this game is that Kentucky won... well that, and I almost passed out with nine minutes left when OTIS tied the game after UK squandered a 13 point lead. But UK won and advanced to the national championship title game for the first time since 1998. With time expiring, the often shy and humble Anthony Davis ran down the court screaming “This is my stage!” Yes, Mr. Davis, it is. During the post-game handshake, Pitino told Calipari that he would be rooting for Kentucky on Monday night, which was a nice gesture since they are admittedly not on each other’s Christmas card lists. In the following game that night, Rock Chalk Jayhawk beat Ohio State in thrilling comeback fashion, but I won’t bore you with details because who really cared about the second game?
A celebration was in order. Bourbon Street was calling my name. My friend had met some interesting west-coast boys from Los Angeles at the Superdome, and they were lucky enough to rub elbows with us Kentucky southern belles for the rest of the evening. I acted out my own version of “So you think you can dance?” for most of the night and finally called it quits in the wee hours of the morning. These LA boys had a prime hotel room with a balcony overlooking Bourbon Street, but location was its only strong suit. The room didn’t have a bed. Nope, no bed. I was floored there were actually hotels that booked rooms without beds... but apparently anything goes on Bourbon Street. Who pays $500 per night for a room without a bed?... apparently California boys do. Kentucky girls are smarter than that.
Sunday was our “off” day and I wanted to spend it as far away from Bourbon Street as possible. We enjoyed a long leisurely patio lunch of alligator bites, fried pickles, and lobster macaroni and cheese (as a mac-n-cheese connoisseur, I vote this recipe the best ever). In a food coma and ready for a nap, we passed an Asian foot reflexology spa that lured us in. For thirty minutes, I received the most relaxing foot massage imaginable. I was now recharged and ready for the adventures of night #3. My friend and I ended up at a great wine bar with an awesome patio. We were enjoying the perfect weather and each other’s company when the rat invasion occurred. These rats were as big as small dogs... with six inch tails... congregating under my friend’s chair. Don’t try to imagine the scene that she caused when she jumped on her chair and screamed bloody murder, because no matter how good your imagination is, it was ten times funnier in real life. Two bars, a rickshaw ride, and three hours later, we ended up at a jazz bar in a sketchy neighborhood and quickly made the choice to return to Bourbon Street. So much for staying away from Bourbon Street for the day (and who would have thought Bourbon Street was the safer alternative?). Once again, I participated in my own version of “Soul Train” and danced like I was auditioning for a P.Diddy video as the hours of the night quickly disappeared. Surviving off pure adrenaline, I was proudly becoming an honorary member of #teamnosleep.
Monday morning finally arrived. It was April 2, 2012. The Kentucky Wildcats were playing the Kansas Jayhawks. The two winningest programs in NCAA basketball history. Anthony Davis versus Thomas Robinson. Lexington versus Lawrence. The “Bluegrass State” versus the “Sunflower State.” UK versus KU.
I survived the day by attending a live taping of SportsCenter, revisiting the foot massage spa, and enjoying a traditional Cajun lunch. We arrived at the Superdome via Fergie’s (the singer, not the ex-royal) personal car service because the driver felt sorry for us as we stood in monsoon rains wearing ponchos. My friend and I attended the PrimeSport Hospitality Pre-Game Party (thanks LA friend for the borrowed pass), where Joe B Hall graciously posed for a picture and I gawked at former pro and college basketball players. I made it to my seat just in time to catch The Fray sing the worst rendition of the National Anthem I’ve ever heard. It was finally game time. Forty more minutes. One. More. Win.
The game wasn’t even a contest. The Cats pulled ahead by 18 and kept their composure despite a late run by the Jayhawks. The second youngest team in the country made clutch shots, free throws, and blocks down the stretch to secure the win, acting more like a veteran team than a team starting three freshman and two sophomores. When the clock hit double zero, the team (minus classy Darius Miller, who immediately went to the opposing coaches) celebrated in a mosh-pit as streamers and confetti fell from the sky. “All I Do is Win” pumped into the arena, and all of BBN’s hands went up down up down up down. The band then played “My Old Kentucky Home,” and I got goosebumps when the 50,000 Kentucky fans proudly belted out the “Weep no more my lady” ending. Coach Cal received the championship trophy while the players tousled his always perfect hair. And Davis was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, as he arguably had the most dominant six point performance in college basketball history, finishing the game with 16 rebounds, 6 blocks, 5 assists, 3 steals, and 1 eyebrow.
I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want this feeling to ever end. I stayed in the dome until every last player left for the locker room. It was then time for my celebration to begin. With a permanent smile plastered on my face, we made way to Bourbon Street. We quickly discovered that Kentucky fans had drank Bourbon Street out of bourbon. How is that even possible? Kentucky invented bourbon... and whiskey is not a suitable alternative. (BBN also drank Bourbon Street out of bourbon three weeks prior during the SEC tournament... and drank Nashville dry two years ago during the SEC tourney. I think the Kentucky governor needs to be proactive and call-ahead to make sure this doesn’t become a pattern.) My friend finally found bourbon at a gentlemen’s club where she ordered us each the largest Maker's and Sprite you’ve ever seen. As you guessed, I danced the night away acting like I was a back-up dancer for Justin Timberlake, showing off my polished John Wall dance and questionable Dougie skills. I woke up the next morning with the same smile still plastered on my face... and was told that I was way too peppy considering I drank “a horse’s trough of bourbon” the night before. I didn’t want to shower that morning because I didn’t want to wash off the gr8ness, but then remembered I had just spent the night on Bourbon Street and quickly showered with Clorox wipes.
After traveling for basketball for the last four weeks, I experienced a wave of depression once I returned home when the reality set in that this season was over. I was so fortunate this year to follow the Cats to the SEC tournament and then all the way through the NCAA tournament... it was seriously the best month of my life. Now, I just need to keep myself occupied until next season’s Big Blue Madness. The journey starts all over again in 172 days. Last year they feared the brow. Next year they will fear the fade.