NEW ORLEANS — It might surprise Kentucky and Louisville fans where two of their teams' top players were 48 hours before the most important matchup in the history of one of college basketball's most vicious rivalries.
Kentucky's Doron Lamb and Louisville's Russ Smith were chatting over dinner.
Close friends since grade school when they played on the same club basketball team in New York, Lamb and Smith have maintained a strong bond despite playing for rival schools. The two had dinner and explored the French Quarter together for about 90 minutes on Thursday night before returning to their respective team hotels in time for curfew.
"We talked about everything we miss from home, old friends that we used to play with, old coaches that we had," Smith said. "Nothing about the game. That's probably the last thing we wanted to talk about."
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The irony of all this week's stories about Kentucky and Louisville fans trading insults — and even punches — over Saturday's showdown is the players themselves don't have anywhere close to the same level of enmity. Both sides want to win very badly to keep hope of a national championship alive, but many of the players have longtime friendships with members of the rival team from club tournaments, recruiting trips and all-star games.
Chicago natives Anthony Davis (Kentucky) and Wayne Blackshear (Louisville) said they're as close as brothers after playing on the same youth and AAU teams since fifth grade. Their families are such good friends that both their moms are planning to spend most of the weekend together.
"All the fans probably think we don't like each other, but we played with all those guys on the circuit and we're kind of close with everybody," Blackshear said. "We're competitive on the court, but off the court it's different. There's no hate between anybody."
The relationship between Portland native Terrence Jones (Kentucky) and Seattle native Peyton Siva (Louisville) is very similar to that of Davis and Blackshear. They got to know each other so well from playing in the same club tournaments throughout the Pacific Northwest that Siva would occasionally sleep over at Jones' house on weekends.
"We're very close," Jones said. "We'd play in a game and then go outside and play in front of my house on each other's teams against random people. Respecting each other's games made us great friends."
The bond between Lamb and Smith also began with basketball.
Lamb was one grade below Smith, but he played a year up in youth leagues and for the New York Gauchos because his talent was obvious from a young age. The two became friends even though Lamb admits it was tough being Smith's teammate.
"I didn't want to play on his team because he didn't pass the ball," Lamb quipped. "Even when I played against him though, he shot the ball all the time.
"He'd do all these pranks. If you were on a trip and you went to sleep around him, next thing you knew you'd be all wet."
Stories like that explain why it's hard for Kentucky and Louisville players to muster up much animosity for each other. The fans may hate each other and the coaches may barely tolerate one another, but the players themselves are friendly rivals.