For college hoops, Lexington’s passion for sport unrivaled

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For college hoops, Lexington’s passion for sport unrivaled

By Imaz Athar / Staff Writer

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I bleed blue. Before I moved to Lexington, Ky. in the fifth grade, I had no idea what it was like to be a sports fan. I had never been in an environment where it seemed like everyone’s life depended on the outcome of a basketball game. That changed in Lexington. At first, everyone seemed crazy to root so hard for a basketball team. But when you cry after the Wildcats lose to the Florida Gators, you realize you share everyone else’s craziness. Kentucky Wildcat fandom is infectious — a disease you can never shake.  

Pittsburgh has its own college basketball culture. Although Pitt is now a member of the ACC, the team is known historically for its bruising Big East style of play. And though the city loves the Panthers, the basketball atmosphere here is completely different from the one in Lexington. Each basketball game isn’t a life-or-death proposition.

That’s how it is in Lexington. Basketball is everywhere. UK yards signs are in every front lawn, Kentucky Wildcat stickers are plastered to every car window, and almost every student wears blue Wildcat t-shirts and sweatshirts. But, it isn’t simply fashionable to root for the Wildcats. As my fifth grade class watched the Kentucky Wildcats’ first round game of the 2005 NCAA tournament, my teacher explained that Wildcat basketball is deeply entrenched in Lexington’s culture. Wildcat basketball isn’t just a way of life. It is life — period.

Lexington doesn’t have professional sports teams. Many root for the Cincinnati Bengals and Reds, but do so with reluctance because the teams don’t truly belong to Lexington. The Kentucky Wildcats are the only team the wild sports city has and has ever had. We celebrate every win as if we’ve won the title, we sink after every loss as if one of our family members had passed away, and the team is all we talk about in the long week between games.

Any criticism of the Wildcats is an affront to Lexington. If someone criticizes the team for losing a game they should have won, hordes of Kentucky Wildcat fans will call Kentucky Sports Radio explaining why the team’s poor play was the referees’ fault. 

In some cases, the fans even blame the President. In 2010, before a game against South Carolina, President Obama called the Wildcats to praise their program. But, after the team lost the game, fans blamed the President for hyping up the team too much. It seems ridiculous, but Wildcats fans need their team to win because, without the team, the city loses its identity and its relevance.

The Oakland Zoo is one of the best student sections in the country, but fans can leave a Panthers game and carry on with their lives because they don’t equate the team’s loss to personal loss. A perfect example of this is when Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis hit a 35-footer to beat us at the buzzer last February. Everyone was shocked and upset, but those feelings eventually faded. If Ennis had hit that shot against the Wildcats, the people of Lexington wouldn’t have left their homes the next day. Panther fans are able to get over tragic losses better than Wildcats fans because the city has other sports teams they care about, like the Penguins, the Steelers and the Pirates. The people of Lexington, on the other hand, only have the Kentucky Wildcats.

Immersing myself within the Panthers basketball culture has led me to a dilemma. I’ve attended a number of basketball games, and cheered on the Panthers with other students in the Oakland Zoo, which evokes a feeling I never felt while watching the Wildcats on TV as a kid. It’s almost refreshing to get away from the suffocating Big Blue Nation. 

Wildcats fans can be overwhelming, and it’s even more overwhelming when you’ve become just as crazy as every other Wildcat fan. But no matter how much I enjoy rooting for the Panthers and being a part of the Oakland Zoo, I’ll always be checking the Kentucky Wildcats box score — I’ll always feel a rush of adrenaline when I see we’re winning and I’ll always be irrationally upset when I see we’ve lost. I’ll always be a Kentucky Wildcats fan, whether I want to or not. Bleeding blue is a disease that you can never get rid of.  

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