By David R. Wheeler
It was like a hostage situation.
My mother, a mild-mannered kindergarten teacher, was holding a Duke University coffee mug over her head, threatening to shatter it on the kitchen floor.
“Mom, it’s okay,” I remember saying. “Just put the mug down.”
It was March 28, 1992, the night Christian Laettner made the at-the-buzzer shot in overtime that put Duke ahead of Kentucky by one point, thus securing a spot in the Final Four.
Everybody alive in Kentucky in 1992 has a story about that night. My story from that game is about redemption — how my brief teenage rebellion against the Kentucky Wildcats, and thus, against my entire state, was cured in a moment of sadness that drew all Kentuckians together, regardless of race, creed, politics, or regional origin. (Pennyrile, Bluegrass, and Eastern Coalfields were, and still are, in this together.)
I was a freshman in high school at the time. When Kentuckians get together, we sometimes share stories about that night. Were you with your family? With friends? Watching it on TV with the volume down and the radio up to hear Cawood Ledford?
One of my friends, in middle school at the time, was traveling on the interstate, listening to the game on the radio. When Duke won, his dad pulled the car over to the side of the road.
They sat in silence for 15 minutes.
At my house, in Ashland, we were watching the game as a family in the basement. We had just returned from North Carolina, where we were visiting family friends in Durham. It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Kentucky fans did not hate Duke any more than they hated any other successful college basketball program. In fact, as I recall, before the 1992 East Regional Final game against Duke, Indiana drew the most contempt from Kentucky fans. At least I know this much: When I played Nerf basketball by myself in my dad’s workshop downstairs, I always imagined a Kentucky-vs.-Indiana game.
When you’re a teenager, you have to rebel against something. As a 14-year-old youth-group kid, my idea of shocking the adults around me was to wear a U of L sweatshirt. But like the girl who dates the school rebel to make a point (you can’t tell me what to do!), my heart wasn’t in it. Sure, there were some awkward moments when I tried to show the world that I was my own man, that I made my own decisions, that I — and nobody else — got to choose who I would root for in college basketball. But when you’re born and raised in Kentucky, you can only deny your identity for so long.
In an early indication of my chosen profession (journalism), I was selected to host a kids’ news program at the local CBS affiliate. One day I wore my U of L sweatshirt. The whole tri-state — Huntington, Ashland, and Ironton — would see my infidelity to UK. I would bring shame on my family. But like Atticus Finch, who ignored Scout’s comment to “pass the damn ham,” my parents knew that drawing attention to my transgression would only make things worse. They shook their heads in disgust, but didn’t forbid me to wear it.
Then, on March 28, 1992, I was chastened. I was corrected. I got back on the straight and narrow. I remember the moment it happened. Sean Woods floated a shot over Laettner’s head in overtime, putting Kentucky ahead by one point. I don’t remember which commentator it was, but I remember his words: “How did he find the courage to take that shot?”
Who was I kidding? This was my team. My state. And we were going to win. We could put NCAA probation behind us.
Of course, Kentucky did not win, but that legendary game gave us a foretaste of championship celebrations to come.
In 1996, I was a freshman again — this time in college. And like all college freshmen, I had to learn the ropes all over again. I would be naive. I would make mistakes. One of those mistakes was to join my fellow classmates at Asbury University to watch the '96 championship game. Although Asbury is located just a few minutes from Lexington, the student body at the time was composed mostly of out-of-state students, and to my horror, half the room was cheering for Syracuse.
When I was in college, there was a "Got Milk" commercial in which a man dies and goes to what he thinks is heaven. There's beautiful music playing. There are chocolate chip cookies everywhere. But when he opens the fridge, all the milk cartons are empty. "No, no, no," he says in desperation.
In a room 15 minutes from Lexington, watching people root against Kentucky in the championship game, I felt like the guy in the milk commercial: Where am I?
The next time Kentucky won the championship, I knew where to be: in Lexington, celebrating at the corner of Woodland and Euclid, lost in a sea of UK fans, unified with my state, my people, my homeland.
I'm not a perfect UK fan. I backslide sometimes. I'll go for long periods of time without watching a game. Once when I arrived late to a family gathering where there was no television, my cousin asked how "the cats" were doing. "The cats?" I said, confused, because my wife and I only have one cat. To my disgrace, I didn't even know there was a game that day.
Another confession: As I've gotten older, my wife and I try harder and harder to distance ourselves from the couch-burning celebrations near campus. We grumble about game-day traffic. We hide from the excitement.
But at the same time, as you get older, you know yourself better. I know my relationship with my Wildcats. When Sean Woods made that shot in '92, I knew where I stood. I understood my mistake, and I understood that I would need to make things right, once and for all.
"Just put the mug down, Mom," I said. "It's just a game."
But it's not just a game, is it? It's a ritual that transcends boundaries and brings all Kentuckians together.
We didn't need to say anything else. Our eyes said it all. In lieu of Mom literally smashing the Blue Devils to pieces, I would smash them in my heart. I would exorcise those devils, those demons, and embrace my team again. My state. My people. My Wildcats.