November 18, 2012

Welcome to Atlanta where the players play

I didn’t see it happen live because I was in the bathroom saying Hail Mary’s (please note that I am not even Catholic).  But I have seen the replay a minimum of 134,539 times... not on purpose, mind you.  You see it before every game during March Madness; UPS even used it in a commercial.  It was the greatest basketball game ever played.  I only wish it had ended differently (i.e. Pitino put a body on Grant Hill).  So when it was announced three years ago that Kentucky would play Duke in the Champions Classic in Atlanta on November 13, 2012, I marked the date in pencil Sharpie on my calendar and started my planning and mental preparation.

My outfit for this game was never in question.  I had the perfect t-shirt made in 2010, courtesy of my trip to the Final Four that year.  With Kentucky losing to the hillbilly thugs of West Virginia in the Elite Eight, thus allowing Duke to become the favorite to hang a banner, I needed an “I still hate Laettner” shirt to boast my distaste for the Blue Devils.  I ended up not wearing the shirt to the games that weekend as a request from my father:  “Please don’t wear that shirt.  You’re going to get in a fight with a Duke fan, which means I’m going to get in a fight with a Duke fan... and I don’t want to get in a fight tonight.”  So the shirt has been patiently waiting in my closet for the perfect moment.

All the cool kids made the trek to Atlanta... no one wanted to miss the opportunity to witness their beloved Wildcats hand the Dookies a loss.  Cat fans invaded the city like it was our job... proving once again that UK has the most loyal and diehard fan base in all of sports.  I will guestimate that Big Blue Nation attributed to 18,000 of the 22,847 college basketball fans in attendance.  Apparently there was a double-header that night, with Kansas playing Michigan State in the first game... but you would have never known this due to the scarcity of Jayhawk and Spartan fans.  Well that, and the Dome was empty during the first game since all the Kentucky fans were still in the bars.

Unexpectedly, the highlight of my night wasn’t the game.  Jeff Sheppard and Christian Laettner graciously hosted a charity event called the Big Blue Salute to benefit Dick Vitale’s V-Foundation for Cancer Research.  Hours prior to the game, a few hundred fans from Kentucky and Duke (ok, let’s be honest, there were only six Duke fans there, and that included Laettner) gathered at Ventanas, a gorgeous rooftop event space overlooking downtown Atlanta.  We listened to a father tell the heartbreaking story of losing his young daughter to brain cancer and he praised Dick Vitale’s tireless efforts to raise money to fight childhood cancer.  Vitale then passionately talked about the children suffering from cancer and the pain their families have endured.  He wanted to remind us that basketball is just a game and there are so many children inflicted with cancer that are fighting to win the game of life.  That was definitely the most sobering and meaningful message of the night.

For the next hour, my friend and I had our picture taken with Laettner (he commented on my original version of the now popular shirt), had our picture taken with Sheppard, viewed the items available for the silent auction (Sheppard boldly claimed that his lone small table of donated charity items would generate more money than Laettner’s sprawling collection that took up more than five tables), and watched as one lucky Kentucky fan was able to recreate the “Laettner stomp.”  We also mingled with some nice guys from New York who attended the Calipari Fantasy Camp this past summer.  When they asked us where we were from, we were shocked that they had never heard of the phrase “BFE”... but I guess when you live in NYC, you never have to refer to anything as BFE.  They were just as shocked at the amount of Kentucky fans in Atlanta and wanted to know if we all came down by the busloads.  They were even more shocked when I demonstrated my stalkerish-knowledge of the basketball team by letting them know that the UK point guard, Ryan Harrow, would not play in the game and had blood tests done that morning... with one of them responding, “What, were you in the freaking locker room with the team this morning?”  Oh, mister, if you only knew.

Our next stop was Stats Sports Bar, then Dantana’s Restaurant and Bar (or known to me as Hannah Dantana’s), then off to the Georgia Dome for the best 40 minutes of college basketball that November has to offer.  The night begins to get a little fuzzy at Stats when a friend tells me, “You’re Mexican, so we are doing tequila shots!”, so here are the important highlights from the rest of the night:

**As we were walking into Dantana’s, an incredibly nice man wearing UK garb grabs us and tells us that his name for a table was just called, but that he needed to head over to the Dome.  He offered to give us his table and walked us to the hostess stand.  I profusely thanked him, then asked why he even wanted to watch Kansas vs Michigan State.  That’s when he told me that his son played for Kentucky.  He was a white man and that narrowed down the possibilities, so I immediately yelled, “You are Jarrod Polson’s dad?”  He laughed and told me that his son was Tod Lanter (yes, that’s Tod with one D... I should have asked why they forgot the second D), but anyways, it dawns on me that this man was also a former UK player, so I insisted we take a picture together (only to realize later that we took it on his phone), and then I proceeded to tell him that his son has the “best biceps ever” -- which I am sure is exactly how he would want a 33 year old woman to describe his 18 year old son.  But just look below if you don’t believe me:

**Earlier in the night, my friend and I met a very tall red-headed guy.  Being a UK fan, when you think “tall red-headed man,” only one person comes to mind:  John Pelphrey.  I had asked him if anyone ever told him he looked like Pelphrey, which he laughed and told me “no.”  Later at the game, we ran into this same guy in the concourse of the Dome, and I said “Hey, it’s John Pelphrey.”  We chit-chatted briefly and jokingly took our picture with him.  A nearby man heard me say “John Pelphrey” and saw the tall red-head, and immediately walked up to him for a picture.  The Pelphrey-look-a-like-but-not-really played along and obliged him with a picture saying, “Pelphrey wouldn’t turn away a fan, would he?”  I can’t stop laughing thinking about the random man later looking at his picture and realizing that it was definitely not John Pelphrey in the picture.

**I had no idea what to expect regarding the outcome of the actual game.  Despite my optimism, I knew that we were a team of freshmen playing without our point guard.  Duke, on the other hand, was the exact opposite starting only one freshman.  I don’t really want to rehash the game, but the roof of the Georgia Dome would have collapsed (a la the 2008 SEC tournament) if Julius Mays hit the wide-open 3-pointer that would have tied the game.  Knowing UK had a chance to tie the game after being down 14 strangely makes me very happy.  I probably have never been this pleased after a Kentucky loss, but witnessing Alex Poythress’s coming-out party ensured me that UK will make it nasty in Atlanta in April.  

**Lil’ Wayne was sitting court-side during the game, wearing the most hideous pants I’ve seen in years (they rivaled the Zubaz pants my dad wore in the 90’s).  Ugly pants or not, he was heckling the Duke players during the entire game, making him a UK fan in my book.  And why wouldn’t he be when the likes of Drake, JayZ, and Wale (and now Bieber??) are all known Cat fans... making it the cool thing to do.

Back to my original point on why this game meant so much to Kentucky fans.  I think it was summed up perfectly when Timberlake (Aminu, not Justin) was shown in the stands wearing an “I still hate Laettner” shirt.  Laettner broke the hearts of Big Blue Nation that night in March of 1992... it was a knife to the heart that has taken decades to heal.  But after meeting him (and since he was so darn nice), I may have finally found closure.  It has only taken 20 years.  That little 12-year old girl in the bathroom saying Hail Mary’s has finally forgiven Laettner, but she will still forever hate Duke.