ARLINGTON, Texas – The True Believer is on his way here, riding shotgun in a 2007 Camry. He has a date with his prophecy.
Tyler Austin Black, the 22-year-old machinist from Richmond, Ky., took the ultimate leap of faith when times were bleakest for his beloved Kentucky Wildcats. He went into Vice & Virtue Tattoo Studio in Berea, Ky., on March 13 and paid $80 to have "2014 Nati9nal Champions" and the UK logo inked onto his right calf. (The 9 signifies what would be the program's ninth national title.)
At the time, it was loonier than Charlie Sheen off his meds – the preseason No. 1 team had lost 10 times and plummeted out of the top 25. Their most recent game was a 19-point loss at Florida. The Southeastern Conference tournament was starting the next day when Black walked into the tattoo parlor ("sober as a bird"), and there was some doubt whether Kentucky would win another game this season – much less six in a row in the Big Dance.
Now, incredibly, his wishful inking is 40 minutes from reality.And a guy who has been to exactly one Kentucky game in his life will get a chance to see the 'Cats play the game that would make his tattoo come true. A CBS reporter called Black on Saturday night and offered him two tickets to the Monday night championship game – all he had to do was get here. So Black and his friend, Nathan Harrison, borrowed Harrison's mom's car and set off on a 900-mile drive to North Texas on Sunday at noon.
"It blows my mind," Black told Yahoo Sports. "It's an amazing feeling. It's crazy."
Crazy comes with the Kentucky territory, of course. No fan base cares as much as Big Blue Nation, which can be both a wonderful and scary thing.
When things are going well, no players get more adulation. When things are not going well, no players get more criticism.
The latter is what spurred Black to make his indelible declaration of optimism. (That, and a love of tattoos – he has plenty of them on both arms.) He believed when nobody believed, and it hurt him to see the Wildcats being blasted by their fans.
"Unless you're blind, you saw how bad they were struggling," he said. "I had this gut feeling they were going to make a run. Honestly, man, just the talent and athleticism they had – you can't have a recruiting class like this and not do something amazing.
"The whole fan base had given up. They were tweeting nasty stuff at them, saying how they hated this team, how they couldn't wait for these players to leave. I just thought, 'How can they have any faith in themselves if the fans won't have faith in them?' I wanted to show I had faith. I went as hardcore as I could with the tattoo."
Black tweeted a picture of his tattoo to several players to let them know he was behind them. The ink went viral soon thereafter, and the response was an avalanche of ridicule.
"It was really negative, really nasty," he said. "People have called me inbred, said I need to cut my leg off. If we don't win it all, I've always said I'm not going to cover it up. But losing in the first round would have been horrible. I probably would have had to delete my Twitter.
"Obviously, now that we've got where we've got, people are saying, 'Maybe this guy's not so crazy.'"
Among those who have given Black some support are Kentucky players Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood. Black said he saw them out in Lexington after the Wildcats made the Final Four, and he showed them his tattoo.
"They loved it," he recalled. "They said they're going to win a championship for me."
Aside from his sudden celebrity status over the last few weeks, Black is representative of countless Kentucky fans. He's a salt-of-the-earth, small-town guy who grew up with Big Blue.
"You grow up in Kentucky, you follow Kentucky basketball," he said. "I don't understand how anyone born here isn't a Kentucky fan. Some people collect stamps and quarters; I like to keep up with Kentucky basketball."
He was a big Tayshaun Prince fan as a kid, and he loved playing basketball as well. He's 6-foot-3, but Black's growth spurt came too late – he was only 5-8 when he went to Madison Southern High School.
"I tried every year to make the team and I never could," he said.
These days Black works the second shift making transmissions for Hondas. A 3-11 p.m. work schedule means he misses a lot of Kentucky games on TV, but he records them and stays off Twitter on game nights, then watches when he gets home.
Like a great many Kentucky fans, he's rarely gotten inside Rupp Arena for a game. Good seats are hard to come by. The only game he's seen in person was the 2011-12 season opener, a 50-point blowout of Marist that he viewed from the rafters.
"It was great being there," he said. "Even though I couldn't see anything."
Black also attended Midnight Madness at the start of this season. Come to think of it, his Rupp attendance record hints at his powerful mojo – Kentucky won the title in 2011-12, and now will play for the title this year.
Maybe everyone should have taken the Ink Prophet more seriously from the start.
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