The notebooks cost 69 cents at True Value. The cover was blue. Always.
Inside those blue covers, the thin, spidery cursive told the story of Margaret Swindler’s greatest passion outside of faith and family. One handwritten box score at a time.
In the upper-right corner of the page was the opponent, the date, the outcome: “Virginia Nov. 26 Maui. We lost 61-75.”
The “We” was Kentucky. Margaret was every bit as much a Wildcat as the players who wore the uniform.
“She loved them,” said her granddaughter, Kelly Brown. “They were her boys.”
On the left side of the page was the name of every UK player, and every point they scored:
“Bogans 213 – 6
Camara 2222 – 8
Hayes 2211221212 – 16″
On the right side of the page was the name of every opposing player, and his points scored. In the middle of the page were fouls.
At the bottom was a running total of every basket, from 2-0 through the final score. The halftime score was circled.
On the opposite page, the game story from the next day’s edition of The Louisville Courier-Journal was taped alongside her own scorekeeping. And thus for half a century and more than 1,000 games, Kentucky basketball history was documented.
Margaret Swindler died in 2010 at age 88. She and her husband of 72 years, Earl, are buried not far from the couple’s old farm in Pleasureville, Ky., which is 45 miles east of Louisville. Pleasureville is in the heart of rural Kentucky, which is the heart of Big Blue Country.
Margaret left behind generations of loved ones – three children, 10 grandchildren, a passel of great-grandchildren. They marveled at her ability to work a garden, catch-throttle-pluck a chicken and take care of a household of kids – pretty much all at the same time. They cherished her booming gravelly voice, her peerless country cooking, her innate ability to pull family together. One grandchild wrote a song in honor of the woman they called “MeeMee.”
“She was the glue,” the song went. “We were the pieces.”
In addition to memories and recipes, Margaret left behind the notebooks – just four of them, a fraction of her lifetime of work. The rest she pulled out of the attic one day and threw away, convinced nobody would ever want them.
She didn’t realize that the basket-by-basket, game-by-game, year-by-year diaries accrued into something grand – a history of a person, yes, but also of a people. The glory is in the details that reveal the endless ardor of a Kentucky fan, and by extrapolation an entire fan base.
If you want to know why UK basketball is different from anything else, it’s not simply because of Margaret Swindler. It’s because there have been – and still are – countless Margaret Swindlers, viscerally engaged in every Wildcat dribble.
“I’d be willing to bet there’s still plenty of people out there keeping score,” said Kentuckian Oscar Combs, founder of “The Cats’ Pause,” a groundbreaking fan magazine that in the 1970s basically gave birth to the fan-media industry covering specific schools. “I’ve had plenty of people tell me keeping score was the only way to keep their stress level down during a tight game.”
Combs was one of those people, keeping score himself as he listened to the radio in the 1950s and ‘60s while growing up in tiny Jeff, Ky., deep in the coal-rich mountains of Eastern Kentucky. He and his friends used to bring their scorebooks to school the next day to compare stats.
The Kentucky phenomenon extends beyond merely keeping score, of course. It extends to a communal culture that, especially in the small towns of the state, is dyed blue and runs generations deep.
“When you went to church on Sunday, whether it was 1950 or 1975, you talked about Kentucky,” Combs said. “You may debate whether they played good or bad last night, but there was no debate whether you were for ‘em.”
Margaret’s Wildcat chronicles spanned five coaches and nearly six full decades, from writing down Vernon Hatton hook shots to Jodie Meeks 3-pointers. Nobody is sure when she started – sometime in the ‘50s – but her last season keeping score was 2006-07. She was 85 then.
This was how her years passed, winter nights dedicated to watching the Cats and incrementally charting their every point.
Here was the ritual: She sat on the floor facing the television and/or radio with her notebook in front of her – and often with notebooks from previous years spread around, for research and comparison purposes. There was always popcorn in a white porcelain bowl. (Scooter, the family dog, loved popcorn – but he learned not to stick his face in the bowl during a Kentucky game. Scooter stayed under the kitchen table when the Cats were playing.)
When the games were televised, Margaret performed the time-honored Kentucky tradition: Turn down the volume on the TV and turn up the radio to listen to legendary announcer Cawood Ledford’s call.
Cawood was an icon – a native of Harlan, Ky., deep in the Appalachian mountains, with a smooth voice and an unerring accounting of the action. For 39 years, Cawood was the faithful messenger to a state that hung on his every word. If you were going to keep score at home in Pleasureville, you by God trusted Cawood more than whatever interloper was doing the TV broadcast.
And so Margaret listened and watched and kept her stats in her notebooks. She occasionally talked to the TV, issuing directives to whoever was coaching the Cats. A family member recalls one game that was going badly in the 1970s; she threw down her pen and shouted at Joe B. Hall to remove a struggling player. Seconds later, Hall did.
“He only listens to me when we’re 10 points or more behind,” she explained.
Margaret liked it quiet in the house during games so she could concentrate on the action, and on her scorekeeping. She would babysit any grandchild, anytime, with one exception. If the Cats were playing, she was unavailable.
At halftime, she would entertain dialogue – family members would get her take on the game to that point. She played basketball at long-since-closed Cropper High School in the 1930s, so she had some knowledge of the game. And she had the handwritten stats to back up her opinions.
One game annually was freighted with extra emotional cargo – when Kentucky played hated rival Louisville. (When granddaughter Kelly brought a boyfriend to Thanksgiving meal one year and he had a change of clothes in a Louisville bag, her MeeMee stabbed the bag with a carving knife.) One of those heated matchups stands out to Margaret’s kin.
It was New Year’s Eve 1996, the defending national champion Wildcats were ranked third and the Cardinals ranked 16th. During the game Margaret suddenly had difficulty writing down her stats.
“You’re having a stroke,” said a family member, insisting that they leave at once for the hospital.
“I’ll pack my bag,” Margaret said. “But I’m not going until after the game.”
She stayed home for the remainder of the game, which Kentucky won, 74-54. The stroke turned out to be minor.
It would not be the last one, though, and perhaps not the only one related to Kentucky basketball.
One morning in early May 1997, Earl found his wife face-down on the kitchen table. This stroke was not minor. Beneath her was that day’s Courier-Journal, which announced some jarring news: Rick Pitino was leaving UK for the Boston Celtics.
“Rick Pitino was probably her favorite coach, but he fell from grace,” said Margaret’s daughter, Janice Seymour. “She was done with him [when he went to Boston]. She felt like he was making a huge mistake.”
Life-threatening passion aside, Earl was amused by his wife’s commitment to the Cat cause. He was a Big Blue fan, too, but not on her level. He knew where he stood during basketball season.
“If Early was to die during the NCAA tournament,” she once joked, “just put him on ice and we’ll take care of him later.”
There’s life and death, and then there’s Kentucky basketball.
They had UK football season tickets for a while, but basketball tickets were scarce and expensive. They tried most years to go to Midnight Madness, which was free, so Margaret could see her boys in person.
One year in the mid-90s they were turned away near the door of Memorial Coliseum – the place had filled up before they got in. As they walked away, a tall young man grabbed them and personally ushered them inside. Derek Anderson was one of Margaret’s favorite players after that.
Most of her other all-time favorites dated to the 1960s: Rupp’s Runts, as the beloved national runner-up team of 1966 was known; Dan Issel, still and likely forever Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer; and Mike Casey, a prolific scorer who hailed from Margaret’s home county.
John Calipari arrived in the final season of her life, and she was excited by the program’s instant return to the nation’s elite. But her family is sure about one thing: She would not like the one-and-done dynamic that has become Kentucky’s annual mode of operation.
“She got personally invested in the players over four years,” Kelly Brown said. “She knew everything about them. She liked the backstories on all the kids.”
The notebooks told the game stories. They were spare in terms of editorial content – sometimes she noted who was the UK radio network’s Player of the Game, but not much more than that.
An exception: the 2001-02 notebook. That was a trying season, filled with off-court issues that tried the patience of even staunch fans like Margaret. On the cover of that year’s notebook, she wrote the following in black marker:
“Lost to [South Carolina] in SEC Conference. Won 2 games in NCAA. Boys partied too much.”
Beneath that, Margaret noted that Indiana upset defending champion and ’02 tournament favorite Duke. She underlined the word “Duke,” which remained a four-letter word to Big Blue Nation ever since the famed Christian Laettner shot crushed the state a decade earlier.
“The hate was real,” Kelly Brown said.
But the love of her Kentucky boys was real, too. And deeper than any coal mine. You can feel it in every handwritten entry in Margaret Swindler’s blue notebooks.
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