By Blake Schuster
New Orleans, LA.— It was bound to happen. With a city full of nothing but Kentucky and Kansas fans surely confrontation would be unavoidable, I just never thought I would come away enjoying their company and with a new outlook on Big Blue nation.
Standing in line at Felix’s Seafood on Iberville St., my sports director, Jay, and I did what everyone in town was doing — discussing the looming championship matchup between the Wildcats and Jayhawks. The line was long, so was our conversation. But as I was trying to focus on Jay’s comments I found myself more interested in eavesdropping on the chat going on in front of me. Two Kentucky fans — women in their mid thirties — were going over the exact same topic. I couldn’t help but listen in.
To my surprise, they were worried. Here their team stood with the National Player of the Year, six NBA prospects and were a 6.5-point favorite, and they still couldn’t calm themselves. Turns out they had a reason. After traveling to Houston, Texas. for last year’s Final Four they did not want to fly back from New Orleans with the same feeling that tormented the last trip home.
As our talks simultaneously continued, and we got closer to being seated, the women finally turned to see us behind them. Our conversations merged long enough for me to sneak in a question: How did you feel about John Calipari before he came to Kentucky, and how do you feel about him now?
When they went to open their mouths to answer the hostess cut them off, scurrying them to the next available table. The fans said their goodbyes to Jay and I, and the hostess — sensing the opportunity to make her night a little easier — asked if we would like to be seated together. It seemed I would get my answer and more.
Sitting down we formally introduced ourselves. Dina and Suzanne, as it turns out, had known each other since they were children, graduated from Kentucky in the same class, and even though Suzanne lived in New York as a financial researcher, and full-time mom Dina resided in Los Angeles, they still made time to visit each other frequently and stay connected through Wildcat basketball.
But as soon as the formalities ended and the menus were handed out I repeated my initial question.
“I was skeptical at first,” Suzanne said. “But he’s a good guy. He goes to Mass to everyday, and he cares about his players. He’s like a father protecting his children.”
Dina chimed in with more of the same. How she trusted Calipari and felt the team was in good hands, but both admitted if his past actions carried to Kentucky they would turn their backs without remorse.
Calipari’s 2007-08 Memphis team, which lost to Kansas in the national championship, technically never existed after the NCAA ruled star point guard Derrick Rose was ineligible after the season — effectively wiping the year from the books.
“If the season was vacated I wouldn’t want him to be my coach,” Dina said as her and Suzanne became defensive. “How can you trust somebody like that, and how could you want him to stay at your school? But if we won the championship they could never take that away from us. The game still happened, no matter what they say.”
Grilled Oysters were delivered to Dina and Suzanne, and the talk subsided while Jay and I perused the menu. After settling on Po Boys and discussing the exquisite suburbs of New York City, where Jay had spent this past summer, I went right back at them, looking now for what scared them most about tomorrow.
“Foul trouble,” Dina said.
Huh? A fan of a team with one of the deepest benches in the NCAA was afraid of foul trouble?
“Kidd-Gilchrist had to sit for most of the first half against Louisville,” She continued. “That can’t happen again.”
As we continued to discuss the all-Kentucky semi-final from the night before Dina admitted something that perhaps no other Kentucky fan would. She was rooting for Kansas against Ohio State.
“I have a lot of respect for Kansas,” Dina said. “And I always root for the underdog.” Challenging her logic, she divulged that her allegiance would still be with the Wildcats Monday night.
Our entrees came and went, but even after the tab was settled no one moved. We prolonged the goodbye, too stooped in our chat. But when the time finally came I did something that surprised me. I wished them good luck, and I meant it.
Dina and Suzanne represented why college basketball means so much. Even after they’re long gone, it’s a connection to the most memorable years of your lives. It’s being in Rupp Arena or Allen Fieldhouse surrounded by your best friends with a common theme and it’s holding onto that feeling for as long as you can. And even if you have to recreate the atmosphere of Lexington or Lawrence in a neutral site that connection, that love that comes with attending your alma mater is something I wouldn’t take away from anyone.
Not even Kentucky fans.