Reporter Anne Marshall lives deep in basketball country, where a true fan of the game can drive from Bloomington, Ind., home of the Hoosiers, through Louisville, Ky., where the Cardinals play, and arrive in Kentucky Wildcat Country, Lexington, before lunch.
That’s three of the top ten men’s college basketball programs in the country in a 170-mile stretch. Here’s Anne’s account of such a journey.
First, I drove north, across the Ohio River from Kentucky into Indiana. Ten, maybe 15 miles over the border, both University of Louisville and Indiana University flags pop up in neighborhoods. So I head for Starlight, a tiny, agricultural pocket 24 miles northwest of Louisville and home to Huber’s Farms and Winery.
A market stocked with produce, jams and sweets sits among 600 acres of orchards run by the Huber family for six generations. Where roots run deep, so do loyalties.
“I graduated from Indiana University so I am definitely an IU fan,” Dana Huber told me.
Anybody that was especially born in Louisville loves Louisville. There’s no way that you can be born in Louisville but go for Kentucky. It just won’t connect.
Huber was a student when the team won their last national championship in 1987. Shortly after that, IU’s dominance faded. But in her hometown of Starlight, along with neighboring towns of Borden and Salem, combined population around 7,000, devotion remained. It’s like that north of Starlight too, Huber says. You can spot it in the hilly terrain: red and white mailboxes, IU license plates and bumper stickers.
“Yeah, it’s part of the landscape. You know, Indiana is all about basketball,” Huber said.
Bloomington may be 80 miles away, more than twice as far as Louisville, but this is the land of the IU season ticket holder. And every May, the Indiana men’s basketball team and its coach, Tom Crean, return the favor, coming down to Huber’s as part of a statewide tailgate tour. Around 800 eager local fans greet them, passionate about their home state team. It’s a lot like the energy around a hometown team.
On a blacktop court in downtown Louisville, a group of kids put their pickup game on hold and look at me like I’m a little crazy when I ask why they love the Cardinals.
“We live in Louisville, that’s what makes Louisville so great,” one young player says before returning to the game.
Devon, a tall, lanky 13-year-old, explains a little further.
“Anybody that was especially born in Louisville loves Louisville. There’s no way that you can be born in Louisville but go for Kentucky. It just won’t connect,” he says.
But Louisville isn’t entirely a bubble. Kentucky fans live here too, though they’re in the minority, according to Devon and his friends.
My Old Kentucky Home
So where does UK territory begin? Many draw that line at Louisville’s city limits. Much like in Indiana, state-school pride grows where populations taper. On a Friday night, I head towards Lexington, stopping in Shelbyville, a small, agricultural city of 14,000, about 30 miles east of Louisville. At a strip mall sports bar, UK basketball plays on eight televisions. Louisville and UK flags hang near the beer taps.
Bartender Scott Murphy, in a royal blue UK shirt, says Wildcat country definitely starts around Shelbyville. He breaks it down by percentages and counties. Jefferson County encompasses Louisville.
“I’d say Jefferson County is probably 65-15, you know, U of L fans,” Murphy says. “Once you get out here, it’s probably 60-40 UK to U of L. Another county over it’s starts gettin’ to 85-15.”
Setting Aside Differences
Murphy and bar regular Damon Harris, who’s wearing the black and red of Louisville, have built a friendship on split loyalties. As Kentucky stomps Lafayette College, the two exchang colorful words about former Wildcats coach Rick Pitino, who now coaches the Cardinals. Murphy and Harris argue about whose fan base is more visible.
“When is the last time the big blue nation has come to Shelbyville?” Harris asks.
“We’re always in Shelbyville, baby. What are you talking about?” Murphy replies.
“When has the Kentucky caravan come to Shelbyville?” Harris rephrases.
Harris, sipping a margarita, is used to these sharply-divided loyalties. He sits elbow to elbow with his girlfriend, Debbie Bailey, who proudly wears a Kentucky sweatshirt. She’s draped their house in UK blankets. He claims a Cardinal red bathroom. Even the flag that hangs outside reflects dual ties.
“The way the flag faces the street, Louisville’s on top, Kentucky is on the bottom,” Harris points out.
“He’s really a Kentucky fan underneath,” Bailey says, laughing.
Harris denies it. “I’ve been born and bred Louisville. There is no Kentucky. I live in the state of Kentucky. That’s all I recognize.”
Proving that while geographic boundaries may blur, fans always know what side they’re on.