Mr. Rupp, Meet Mr. Berry; Mr. Berry, Meet Mr. Rupp: Thoughts On Place And College Basketball
February 27, 2009
So in case you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a very nice article profiling the Elliot County, Kentucky high school basketball teamat ESPN.com, written by my former home-town sportswriter, Pat Forde. It’s one of those underdog stories (like Hoosiers, to borrow Forde’s analogue), but in Appalachia rather than the Rust Belt/rural Indiana (which makes it more of an underdog story, really, because Appalachia is poorer and more generally forgotten). Anyway, that’s nice and all, but the really intriguing line of thought comes in the second comment on the piece, by a certain “cstorm06”:
Now, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a hell of a lot wrongwith my Wildcats right about now. And this line of thought — that what they need are a few sharpshooting hillbillies or small-town kids, raised on Kentucky basketball but undersized and “undertalented” so with a chip on their shoulders — isn’t uncommon. In fact, I remember saying aloud after Billy Gillispie was hired that I hoped he’d go get a couple of under-sized clutch-shooting kids from Eastern Kentucky.
To continue drawing examples from my own experiences with Kentucky basketball: I used to predict the outcome of the Kentucky-Louisville game based on which team had more native Kentuckians; it worked for two or three years in a row, actually. I thought for a long time that Chuck Hayes — the under-sized, “under-talented” power forward who through sheer force of will has developed an NBA career — was a native Kentuckian; in my family, the highest praise a player can receive (and it was frequent for Hayes) is, “He plays like he’s from Kentucky.”
The theory isn’t that the size or haircuts or whatnot make them that good; it’s where they’re from. That, because of place-a sense of “from-ness”-they will play harder, and have more devotion than anyone not from Kentucky and not raised on Kentucky basketball. That, contra Seinfeld, the “Kentucky” they’re playing for isn’t just a set of jerseys, or a university over in Lexington. It’s not even a state, this line of reasoning goes, but the state-the one that raised them, that they’ve grown up in. That, in addition to everything else that can come with/from playing college basketball for what is (still) the winningest program in the NCAA, there is a sense of playing for the place which one is from. That it raises the performance of individual players, and therefore of the team.
That’s nice and all, I can hear you saying, but come on! And I would think that, too. Only, somehow, history supports the view that being from a lifelong Kentucky fan makes a Kentucky player better (particularly if one is a guard). Forde mentions King Kelly Coleman and Richie Farmer; but three of the four seniors of the 1992 Unforgettables were from small-town Eastern Kentucky (John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus along with Farmer) – they were a team that over-performed their way into the Final Four and would have over-performed into the Finals were it not for a certain Duke thug named Christian “That Bastard” Laettner. Not to mention: Patrick Sparks, Ravi Moss, and Cameron Mills (who avenged ’92), among others.
And, at the risk of opening up an entirely different can of worms, Adolph Rupp on his recruiting practices: “It’s got to be a Kentucky boy or from a neighbor state. We can’t go raid some schoolyard.” And it didn’t work out too poorly for him, at least not until John Wooden came along and built himself a few basketball teams.
So I haven’t meant this as simple glorification of the grand past of Kentucky basketball because I can’t bear to look at the present (though that’s roughly where I’m at this season); but as another piece of evidence that there is meaning and importance in one’s native hill, wherever it may be. I can’t, of course, call for a team of all Kentuckians and expect “greatness”: but on those great teams-and the not-so-great ones-the players with a habit of over-performing and rising to the occasion when the situation most demanded it have a disproportionate habit of being Kentuckians. And warnings be damned: it can’t just be dismissed as random correlation.