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July 22, 2014

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Ice Ice Billy

The Kentucky game Jerry Stackhouse never played in

On March 28, 1992, I sat along a loge level press table – which resembled a stripped down sky box – at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Below, on the floor, Kinston High School and West Charlotte High School were running east and west, chasing the state's high school championship.

The high school championship's headliner was Kinston's Jerry Stackhouse, an obvious future NBAer, and a player that when watched in the claustrophobic confines of his high school gymnasium was not a man among boys but a dragster amongst soap box derby cars.

The caravan of us that traveled from Kinston in support of the Vikings was in for an exciting time, rallying behind the local high school and its blue chipper, and likely sending Stackhouse off to his fame and fortune.

But the television monitor that hung above my seat at the Dean Dome had a different plan. On it, Kentucky, with a team stripped of all major players due to a staggering series of unnecessary illegalities, took on the improbable attempt to slay the ever-powerful and free-of-sin Duke Blue Devils. As Kentucky's showdown with Duke played itself out above, Kinston's quest played itself out below.

It began to appear that Kentucky just might pull off the upset, and the buzz inside the arena grew. Like a movie where the sound isn't synced to the picture, the whole scene grew surreal in the most confusing of ways.

Each game grew older, and it was clear that here at the University of North Carolina there were two kinds of fans watching and listening to the NCAA tournament game; Duke fans, and not-so-much Duke fans.

The high school boys below were fighting in the game of their lives, through huge eruptions of cheers for a game being played in Philadelphia. Often, one high school team would bring the ball slowly across mid court to an explosion of cheers beheaded from its context. It was as if somebody was telling a sad story, only to be interrupted by laughter.

With each Duke basket, Duke fans exploded. With each Kentucky basket, non-Duke fans countered. And through it all, Kinston and West Charlotte high schools played on, getting smatterings of applause when either one of them scored, until finally their paltry recognition was engulfed by a full scale typhoon when Christian Laettner ... well, you know.

Rivalries cause strange things.

Twenty years later the state of Kentucky is aflame. Kentucky's John Calipari looks to end his NCAA tournament winless streak against Louisville's Rick Pitino. The pundits are punditing, the trash talkers are trashing, and the hedgers are hedging.

In Louisville, city police and U of L campus police have announced street closings and safety plans for Saturday's game, and not yet Monday's. And outside of the state, not many at all can find themselves rooting for one coach and program they don't like over another coach or program they don't like.

Having not lived in the state since 1990 yields a perspective on what basketball is in Kentucky. And it is this: It is everything. The college football programs occasionally peek out for some sunshine, but rarely. The nearest Major League teams are those in Indianapolis and Cincinnati. The Kentucky Derby Social comes but once a year.

And big time curling has yet to really catch on.

One of Saturday's Final Four games is, for those in Kentucky, being played in a bubble that nudges against and borders seven other states. There is no Kansas and Ohio State, and that's not a knock on those programs by Kentuckians. It's just that until this coming Sunday morning, Kentucky just doesn't care about anything else.

It's a bubble blown so fully that it may explode unless Bruce Willis is willing to ask his friends to jump on a spaceship, land on a meteor and blow it up to save the rest of the world.

This all may sound a bit dramatic for those unfamiliar to the rivalry. And so, for an astute insight to it all, I'll defer to Howard Fineman's piece that describes it as "Basketball Armageddon" and "the deep-fried hell" that is "about to break loose in the Bluegrass state."

Yup, that just about sizes it up.

There is too much to list as to what each team has to lose and to win. And whatever the result, each team's faithful are going to be reminding each other of it for the next 25 years, at least.

There is but one scenario that will minimize the acidity of the state's new basketball reality that begins sometime after Saturday's final horn, and it is this: an epic battle in which Rick Pitino's eyes grow grotesquely buggier and John Calipari strips to his boxer briefs to avoid drowning in his own perspiration. Then, overtime and perhaps two. And in the final two seconds, Pitino or Calipari forget to guard the in-bounder, in lieu of any young player on either side having a Chris Webber timeout moment that will dog him the rest of his days and making road travel from New Albany, Indiana, to Nashville, Tennessee, painstakingly long.

Mr. Willis, I'm sorry, but there can be no other way. For the sake of harmony and humanity, get on that spaceship. And when you see Jerry Stackhouse, tell him we're sorry.

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