NEW ORLEANS — Kentucky coach John Calipari likes to say there are no rivalry games at this point in the season.
Try telling that to the Bluegrass State, where basketball’s version of the civil war — Kentucky vs. Louisville, winner plays for the NCAA title — has so divided the small state that senior citizens have actually come to fisticuffs.
“The fans take it as, whoever loses, it’s their funeral, really,” Louisville senior guard Chris Smith said. “It’s really cut-throat, I would say.”
The game Saturday is the fifth time top-seeded Kentucky (36-2) and fourth-seeded Louisville (30-9) have met in the NCAA tournament. They split the previous four meetings.
Basketball purists may argue Duke-North Carolina or Kansas-Missouri are the game’s biggest, most intense rivalries. But those are like quaint tea parties compared with the animosity between Kentucky and Louisville, which required government intervention to get them to schedule each other.
No, think Auburn-Alabama on the hardcourt, and you get the idea.
“We get along with most of them,” Kentucky fan Pat Stahl said of Louisville fans, “as long as they don’t talk to you.”
Or, heaven forbid, say something at a dialysis appointment. A 71-year-old Louisville fan punched a 68-year-old Kentucky fan earlier this week after their discussion over Saturday night’s game got out of hand.
To be fair, police say the Kentucky fan did flip off the Louisville fan.
“It all started with the racial lines in Kentucky,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said of the rivalry. “Now (it’s) no longer racially motivated. It’s just pure hatred.”
It’s a given that Louisville and Kentucky would be rivals, their campuses a mere 70 miles apart in a state where basketball is king. To hear fans of both schools tell it, however, the programs might as well be on different planets.
Kentucky is a college basketball blue blood, its seven national titles second only to UCLA, while Louisville has a nice little tradition going with two national titles.
Kentucky is the bigger school, and its campus is set in bucolic hill country. Louisville sprawls over several city blocks, smoke from a soy processing plant billowing overhead and railroad tracks cutting through the center of campus. (If the Louisville lacrosse coach never sees a train again after she retires, it’ll be too soon.)
Big Blue counts most of the state among its fan base, too, while Louisville isn’t necessarily even No. 1 in its own city.
In fact, about the only thing the two schools have in common is Pitino, who led the Wildcats to one national title and two other Final Four appearances in eight years at Kentucky.
Forget that engendering any warm-and-fuzzy goodwill with the Kentucky folks, however. Now that Pitino isn’t theirs, Kentucky fans hate him, too.
“Since we got Rick, (the rivalry) is more on their part,” Robert Coke said. “They’re used to getting the cream of the crop and being top-notch, so it’s hard when they see someone else doing well.”
Think it’s a coincidence that Kentucky sped up its plans to renovate Rupp Arena after Louisville decided to build the KFC Yum! Center?
But the bad blood has been simmering for generations.
Kentucky never scheduled in-state schools under coach Adolph Rupp, and former assistant Joe B. Hall dutifully followed suit when he took over as coach. Gov. John Y. Brown stepped in following their matchup in the 1983 NCAA Mideast Regional finals, now known around the state as The Dream Game, and told the schools to start playing each other.
Kentucky currently holds bragging rights in the annual in-state rumble, winning 18 of the 29 games, including a 69-62 victory at Rupp Arena on Dec. 31.
“All you hear from the fans is, ‘Don’t lose to the Cardinals. Whatever happens, Big Blue Nation better not lose to Louisville,'” recalled former Kentucky guard John Wall.
Fan is short for fanatic, after all.
There are some fans who can view the rivalry with detachment, however. Or at least reason.
Coke and his wife, Denise, sat behind Stahl, his brother Jim Joe, and their brother-in-law, Jamie Solomon, at open practice Friday, and security didn’t need to run interference. When the Cardinals took the floor, one of those standing to applaud was Ken Berkins, proudly wearing his Kentucky blue after flying all the way from the Middle East to see his beloved Wildcats in the Final Four.
“My family would probably hang me if they saw me clapping for Louisville,” Berkins admitted. “But we’re just unbelievably excited to have two teams from Kentucky in the Final Four.”
Solomon even said he’d root for Louisville if the Cardinals beat Kentucky on Saturday night.
“But I’m a transplant,” Solomon quickly added, as Pat Stahl shook his head in disgust.
Try as they do to rise above the nitpicking, even Calipari and Pitino can’t resist the fray.
Both coaches were reminded Friday about a comment Calipari made back in October about Kentucky’s uniqueness, which sure sounded like it was a slap at Louisville.
“There’s no other state, none, that’s as connected to their basketball program as this one,” Calipari said then. “Because those other states have other programs.”
Asked about that exact comment Friday, Calipari said, “I didn’t say that,” explaining that what he meant was Kentucky fans are scattered across every inch of the state while Cardinals fans are more concentrated in and around Louisville.
“We sleep with the enemy in Louisville,” Pitino acknowledged. “We have many Louisville men and women that marry into Kentucky families. It’s very difficult to swallow, to see that happen.”
Pitino seemed to try to give Calipari the benefit of the doubt, saying the third-year Kentucky coach hasn’t been around long enough to really appreciate the depth of the rivalry.
But Peyton Siva, Louisville’s guard by way of Seattle, has been around the same amount of time as Calipari, and he sure seems to get it.
“For outsiders, I’d just say wear white,” he said, “so you can blend in.”