Kentucky-Louisville is no ordinary rivalry

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The door to the den at the Duncan house on Goldsmith Lane has a hole in it. It's been there for decades, a battle scar from the great Louisville-Kentucky Cold War of the 1970s and '80s.

Jeff Duncan put the divot in the door by throwing the phone book at his older brother, Steve, during an argument over the relative merits of the Cardinals (Jeff's team) and the Wildcats (Steve's team). That's probably a testament to both the flimsiness of the door and the ferocity of the passions the basketball programs provoke.

The specifics of that argument have been lost over time. There were so many Cards vs. 'Cats skirmishes in the Duncan house when the boys were growing up, it's hard to keep them all straight.

"We used to get into huge fights," Jeff recalled.

He sheepishly added, "There might also have been a hammer or other piece of hardware thrown in another fight."

The root cause of the strife: The youngest child in a household of Kentucky fans had switched sides, from blue to red. Jeff Duncan abandoned his birthright, and that's something you do not do in this state. Not without considerable family angst.

C. Ray Hall, a retired writer for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and perhaps the pre-eminent expert on all things 'Cats and Cards, said he knows a woman with an identity crisis from his hometown of Cadiz, Ky., deep in the western corner of the state. She moved to the Louisville area and gradually became a Cardinals fan, but couldn't bear to tell the folks back home in Cadiz. She's afraid the news would devastate her mother, so she keeps up Big Blue appearances whenever she's around her family.

Jeff Duncan never worried about appearances. He rebelled right in front of family.

"I kind of thought something was wrong with him," said Jeff's dad, Gyp. "Either the genes got mixed up or something."

Saturday, the family black sheep will welcome his entire 'Cat-loving clan to his house in New Orleans, where Louisville alum Jeff now is a sports columnist for the Times-Picayune. He got them all Final Four tickets weeks ago, never dreaming that his own alma mater would be there as well – and be playing Kentucky. For someone who has lived 'Cats vs. Cards the way Jeff has, it's quite a karmic twist.

The roots of the rivalry have evolved. It is no longer about race and no longer about Louisville demanding a multi-level respect that Kentucky would not give – athletically, academically and socially. Those issues largely have been resolved.

But this still is a deeply ingrained culture clash as much as a basketball clash. It is city vs. country. It is an island republic metropolitan area vs. a more rural demographic that stretches from the Mississippi River in the west to the Appalachian mountains in the east. It is the best urban-school fan base in America vs. the best fan base in America, period.

For fans on both sides of the most heated rivalry in college basketball, Saturday is Armageddon. In a state that cares the most about this sport – check the NCAA tournament TV ratings every year – there never has been a game with this much on the line. In a commonwealth bereft of pro franchises, where there is genuine enmity between the two celebrity coaches and the programs always are measured against each other, this is the sporting event of a lifetime.

Huge favorite Kentucky is on a collision course with history, and nothing short of winning its eighth title will suffice. Underdog Louisville stands in the way, positioned to strike a mortal blow to its archenemy.

"For Kentucky fans, it would be the worst thing that ever happened," Jeff Duncan predicted.

Then the die-hard Louisville fan said the strangest thing.

"Part of me kind of wants Kentucky to win."

Gylispie "Gyp" Duncan grew up in Bald Knob, Ky., in the middle of the state. He was senior class president in a graduating class of 22 at Bald Knob High and has the yearbook – "The Knob Knocker" – to prove it. Like just about everyone in the state from outside the city of Louisville, he has bled blue all his life.

Gyp knows where he sat at Freedom Hall during the 1958 national championship game. It was Section 212, and he remembers Kentucky coming from behind in the second half, when Johnny Crigler kept driving to the basket and got Seattle star Elgin Baylor in foul trouble.

Gyp remembers the time he went to Alumni Gym – the little bandbox that preceded 10,000-seat Memorial Coliseum, which preceded 24,000-seat Rupp Arena – to see Kentucky play Arkansas State. The year was 1945. The score was 75-6.

"The Arkansas State players were shooting the ball over the backboard," he recalled.

Gyp remembers a two-point loss to St. Louis that was so bitter "I didn't eat for a week."

When Gyp was enrolled at Georgetown College, about 15 miles north of Lexington, he used to head over to UK after classes to watch Adolph Rupp conduct practice. Rupp was at the height of his powers then, having won half of his four national titles. That was heaven.

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On occasion, family members over the years have bought Gyp red clothing – maybe a Christmas sweater or Christmas socks. He has returned every item. Red is Louisville's color. Red is not Gyp Duncan's color.

He is 82 years old and he's as avid a fan as ever. He knows that an eighth national title closes the gap on all-time leader UCLA, which has 11. He was relieved to see North Carolina lose Sunday, knowing that the Tar Heels are only two titles behind his Wildcats. He keeps track of these things.

There are hundreds of thousands of Gyp Duncans in Kentucky. Men and women from "out in the state" who were raised with one sporting allegiance that mattered above all others: Big Blue basketball. In a state that never has ranked well nationally in quality of life, education or per capita income, at least Kentuckians could stick an index finger in the air and celebrate the Wildcats.

The program rarely has faltered for a significant period of time – because it simply cannot. Kentucky basketball is too important for the commonwealth to tolerate failure. It is the only college basketball program to win national titles under four coaches: Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith. Now Calipari is knocking on the door to become the fifth.

This isn't UCLA, built on the legendary work of one man. This is a program that sustains itself on fandom more than anything else. And that fandom is handed down like a family heirloom from generation to generation.

Gyp Duncan and his wife, Dottie, brought their fandom from rural Kentucky to Louisville when he got a job as an accountant at General Electric. Louisville is the battleground city in the state, the one place where the Wildcats do not enjoy hegemony. The fan split here has been estimated as 60-40 in Louisville's favor, but the Cardinals were nowhere near that prominent when the Duncans were raising their three children in a Big Blue household in the 1960s and '70s.

At least it was Big Blue until little Jeff spoke up.

Jeff clearly remembers the first time he questioned 'Cat authority. He was sitting with his family watching a Kentucky NCAA tournament game on TV in the early 1970s, and on the screen they flashed the score of a Louisville NCAA tourney game being played at the same time.

"We live in Louisville," Jeff recalled saying. "Why don't we root for Louisville?"

"They play street ball," was the dismissive response.

But the seed of revolt had been planted.

Denny Crum had left John Wooden's side at UCLA and come to Louisville, where he immediately upset the natural order of things. In his first season, he took the Cardinals to the 1972 Final Four – a trip that coincided with the end of the Rupp Era. Suddenly there was a seismic shift at work in a state where the power always had been concentrated in Lexington.

Before the 1974-75 season, Sports Illustrated tabbed Louisville as its No. 1 team. An adolescent Jeff Duncan saw the Cardinals on the cover of the magazine and was converted.

They were a fun team, a hot team and a local team. And they were a modern team.

Louisville had been among the forerunners in integrating its athletic program while the rest of the nation was roiling with racial tension in the 1960s. Under Rupp, Kentucky basketball was infamously slow in the same area (see: Kentucky vs. Texas Western, 1966 title game).

"They seemed like very racially divided fan followings," Jeff Duncan said. "There were a lot of young guys my age, post-Civil Rights, who started following Louisville."

C. Ray Hall remembers "really bad" racism from Kentucky fans in the 1960s and early '70s. He was a Wildcats fan until 1971, when a mostly black Western Kentucky team demolished a mostly white Kentucky team in the regional final. The backlash from that had him swearing off allegiance to Big Blue for life.

"The bitterness, arrogance and hate of UK fans – the racism – was such that I didn't want to have anything to do with those people anymore," Hall said.

In contrast, Crum took Louisville's progressive nature to the next level, recruiting far more blacks than whites. And he let his teams play with soul. Huge afros were perfectly fine with the coach. Dunks and alley-oops became the program trademark. The 1980 national championship team claims to have popularized the high-five.

Some Kentucky fans responded by calling the Cardinals the "Black Birds."

Down the road in Lexington, Joe B. Hall's teams played with a more corporate approach that sometimes bordered on repressed. As the Wildcats were fulfilling huge expectations by winning the 1978 national championship, that forced march was characterized in the media as "the season without celebration."

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Despite Louisville's surge under Crum, Kentucky refused to schedule a game against the Cardinals. It became a media crusade – Courier-Journal columnists Dave Kindred and Billy Reed railed at the establishment Wildcats for their refusal to grant upstart Louisville equal footing. UK president Otis Singletary loathed the idea, and Hall dutifully toed the company line in public.

When the Cards won their first national title in '80, Reed took the extraordinary tack of writing a column saying that, finally, Kentucky must grant its non-rival full respect. Even on an historic night for Louisville, its relationship with Kentucky was a pressing topic.

And even that breakthrough national title is not universally regarded as the greatest victory in Louisville school history.

March 26, 1983, was a day of almost intolerable anxiety for Jeff Duncan.

The NCAA tournament had done what nobody else could do: brought Louisville and Kentucky together on a basketball court. They were set to play a regional final in Knoxville, Tenn., the first meeting of the schools since 1959. (That also was a game forced by the NCAA draw.) The media billed the Knoxville showdown as "The Dream Game."

For Louisville fans, this was everything – a morality play, a culture war, a referendum on a person's very identity. After years of agitating for their chance to look Big Blue in the eye, here it was. Try not to blink.

Louisville fans were sure they had the better team. Much like this week's game is for Kentucky, losing was not an option for the Cards.

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"I don't think I've ever been more nervous for anything in my life," Jeff said. "That was so much bigger than sports. It was life or death."

Everything hung in the balance in the final seconds, when Kentucky guard Jim Master banked home a jump shot to tie the score and force overtime. It turned out to be the greatest gift imaginable for Louisville fans.

The Cardinals turned the five-minute overtime into a pressing, dunking tour de force. They scored the first 14 points and won 80-68. Oppressed Louisville fans had their Bastille Day. The program they regarded as the Evil Empire hadn't just been beaten, it had been broken.

The following week the Cardinals lost an epic dunkfest to Phi Slama Jama Houston in the Final Four, but it didn't matter. That team did what it had to do.

The next season, after considerable pressure from the state legislature, the schools played in the regular season for the first time since 1922. Kentucky, which had not played since that momentous day in Knoxville, exacted revenge with a 65-44 blowout in Rupp Arena.

The two have played annually since. In a careful-what-you-wish-for development, Louisville largely has been dominated in the series since the Dream Game. Rick Pitino had much greater success coaching blue than red – he was 6-2 against the Cardinals at Kentucky and is 4-7 against the Wildcats at Louisville. He's also 0-3 against John Calipari, none of them particularly close.

That brings us to this meeting for all the emotional marbles. For people of Jeff Duncan's generation, it might not pack the same payload as the '83 showdown. But for the younger fans who didn't experience that, this could be their Dream Game.

Terry Meiners never has had a week like this.

He's the afternoon drive-time host on WHAS-AM, the 50,000-watt station that serves as the radio station of record in Louisville and much of the state. Meiners is a skilled smart aleck, a local legend who is able to skewer almost everyone without making too many enemies. His show is general interest – some politics, some pop culture, some skits, maybe 25 percent sports sprinkled in.

This week, it's 80 percent sports. Specifically, it's 80 percent Louisville vs. Kentucky. He is giddy at the prospect.

"This is like the DMZ in Korea," he exulted. "Guns are pointed on both sides of the line. They're both just looking at each other like, 'Bring it. Bring it! Briiiinngg it!' "

Meiners is a Louisville native and UK alum who was a morning DJ on a rock station during the first Dream Game in 1983. He remembers having a great time with that game on the air – but there was only one day of build-up, since it was a regional final. Now, with five days of material, he's relishing his role as pot-stirrer for the masses.

"We get to let it fester for a whole week," he said. "Think what it's like for people who work with that obnoxious fan of the other team, and have to hear it from that person all week. The cauldron is always on slow boil all year long. Now it's on high heat all week."

By Meiners' calculations, the real day of reckoning will be next Monday.

"All the losers on Sunday have to go to church and pray to be stricken deaf and blind because they have to go work Monday and hear it from the other side," he said. "Next Monday will be the most vile day ever for one side or the other. The calling in sick to work and school will be massive. You can't face the other side playing for the national championship while you're sucking your thumb."

In direct refutation to about 40 years of intense Louisville fandom, Jeff Duncan will not be sucking his thumb if Kentucky is playing for the national title next Monday. He'll be happy.

"This will sound heretical to my friends who are Louisville fans," Duncan said, "but I would sacrifice my allegiance to Louisville for Kentucky to be able to win a title for my dad."

Monday, Gyp Duncan found out that another of his 22 classmates from Bald Knob High had died. He's going to the funeral Wednesday before taking off with family members for New Orleans.

"It would mean a whole lot to me," Gyp said, of seeing Kentucky win the title in person for the first time since sitting in Freedom Hall, Section 212, in 1958. "I don't know if I'll have too many chances left."

That reality can change a rebellious son's outlook. Even the bitterest rivalries, played for the highest stakes, can sometimes leave the loser feeling good.

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