What's The Deal With Me And Kentucky Basketball? TuneIn

Fun fact: For a short (I emphasis short) period I attended Liberty University. Yes, that Liberty University, which, given the school’s history and depending on what side of the liberal-conservative fence you’re planted on, may or may not seem like an interesting choice for perusing my degree in—I think it was political science? Who knows anymore? It was 20-some years ago, but whatever the case, apparently that one semester was enough to qualify me for frequent (mail) flyer miles on LU’s alumni donations list. (I swear, I could move to outer Mongolia and those guys would find my mailing address within a week.)

I do, however, recall without relying on raw brain math, that it was the spring of 1992. Why is this particular bit of trivia so prominent in my mind? In a word: basketball. More specifically, March Madness. Even more specifically, The East Regional Finals in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on March 28th between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Duke Blue Devils. And to be even more specific I’m referring to “The Shot.”  

If you’re any kind of a college basketball fan then you know exactly what I’m referring to—Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beating, overtime shot that put Duke in the Final Four, and broke the hearts of millions of Wildcats fans, me included. Sporting News rightfully referred to the see-saw battle as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” and so it was only fitting that the contest should be topped off by an event so epic it demands, without prompting, that people recount what they were doing and where they were at that exact moment much like our parents at the mention of JFK’s assassination.

This then begs the question as to my precise whereabouts, I mean beyond at a large, non-profit Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia whose mascot, the Flames, may or may not have been a reference to hell. The answer to this would be under a crusty pile of dirty laundry in the closet of my dorm room. I know what you’re thinking, and I should probably explain the rationale involved here. You have to understand that given LU’s affiliation and beliefs, the school had implemented certain, let's call them, parameters for students to abide by. Among these it was written that no one living in the dorms shall be in possession of a TV or radio.

Draconian as this may seem today, back then the rule didn’t pose much of a problem for me personally (I still had the newspaper which was printed on actual paper in those days.) March, however, was a different story. I’ve loved college basketball since I was 11. I could spout off players and stats like the NCAA version of Rain Man. I kept up with every development through the regular season, the off season, the recruiting season, and the pre-season with the same regularity as nature’s equinoxes and solstices. And come those glorious weeks in early spring I had my brackets filled out the instant the selection committee made the announcement, applying a patented combination of logic and gut feeling that usually worked out pretty well for me. (Too bad I wasn’t a betting man then or really even a man at all.)

In 1992 the team I had picked to cut down the nets in Minneapolis was Kentucky. My allegiance to the Wildcats, though, extended beyond mere statistics. I loved Kentucky basketball. Sure there’s all the history that goes way back to the beginnings of the game itself validated by a string of early championship. My fondness, however, can be pinpointed to a single event—the day they named Rick Pitino head coach in 1989.

Coach Pitino first caught my attention in 1987 when, after only two years, he took the once abysmal Providence Friars to the Final Four. I am a sucker for underdogs anyway, but what really stood out was the story of how he had lost his six-month old son to congenital heart failure earlier that same year. You can say what you want about Pitino as a coach, and yes, he’s not without controversy, but for a father to endure an event that gut-wrenching takes something special, and even though I was only a teenager, the story had an impact on me I couldn’t quite explain then. (Oh yeah, and he went on to coach the Celtics, the one team I love more than any other in all of sports.)

Coach Pitino’s job coming into Kentucky was not an easy one, and expectations were high. The school was limping through NCAA sanctions brought on by former coach and thinning pubic hair toupee model, Eddie Sutton. To my delight, in just three years Pitino had the Wildcats steaming through the East Region and on the doorstep of the Final Four with only #1 seed Duke standing in the way. I simply could not miss this game.

The obvious problem was, of course, getting my hands on a TV or radio, a challenging proposition not only because of the official rules but also given the technology in that era. Lucky for me an underground economy built on bartering contraband was alive and well throughout the school, and for the mere price of a cassette recording of Nirvana’s album, Nevermind, I was able to procure a portable television roughly the size and weight of a cement block and with the same black and white picture quality I might add.

TV in hand, I couldn’t just hang out in the middle of my room enjoying the game. The Resident Advisors (RA’s) tasked with maintaining order within the confines of the dorm patrolled the halls with the same clockwork regularity as guards at a POW camp, and armed with master keys, they had no qualms about popping in for surprise visit under the guise of, “seeing how we were adjusting to college life.”

To counter this possibility I devised a tactic which I carried out with the same precision demonstrated by the escapees in the The Great Escape. So, yeah, I basically hid under my dirty clothes with the sound turned way down. Uncouth? Maybe, but so totally worth it. By halftime I didn’t even notice the smell.

The contest was everything a serious fan could ask for with the leads for each team flipping back and forth more than a congressman taking bribes. Overtime played out the same way, but when Kentucky’s Sean Woods banked in crazy high shot with less than 4 seconds on the clock, I thought it was all over. It wasn’t, not by a long shot (pun intended). What happened next is now a part of college basketball lore, and the reason I swore for the next 15 years that if I ever saw Christian Laettner walking down the street minding his own business, I’d punch him in the throat. (After his NBA career, I realized it was time to let it go. Truth be told he's actually a pretty good guy despite the fact that based on his Twitter profile it's clear he's never going to let Kentucky forget.)

Too young to know what I'm talking about? Too old to remember? Catch the highlights.

Although Chris Farley’s retelling is much better.

For those of you wondering if I was ever caught by the RA’s, the answer is yes. My explosive reaction to the outcome warranted investigation, and the TV lying on its side in the closet along with the dress sock draped over my shoulder pretty much filled in the gaps for everyone. In my current emotional state I didn’t care that I was being written up for the major violation of having a TV, or for the additional infraction of telling the RA to, “Screw off.” It didn’t matter anyway. I would be gone in a few months never to return. What did matter was that, despite the odds against me, I witnessed that momentous game, something that ranks right up there with at least one of my two marriages and the birth of three children (all mine).

In the years since I have missed more than a few Kentucky games. I catch everyone I can, but that’s not always possible. Recently, though, I was introduced to TuneIn. TuneIn is a free app for iOS and Android that never lets you miss a game. TuneIn allows you to listen to both football and basketball games for 85 college teams including Kentucky, Duke, and Texas. Why do I mention Texas? Last week I easily downloaded TuneIn on my phone to hear #1 Kentucky host the #6 Longhorns in an early season showdown between undefeateds. Naturally, I was cheering for the Wildcats which admittedly came with some degree of soul searching since I actually attended UT, but that lasted for something like 5 seconds. 
Celebrating UK's win over UT
The game wasn’t quite the same as that cold day in March against Duke, but it was still good, and the quality of the sound was excellent even while I was driving. It was also nice that after a close first half, Kentucky won prompting my son and I to have a little tailgate celebration. One thing’s for sure--this season I’m going to catch a lot of Kentucky basketball …well, and Louisville too for obvious reasons.

In the years since Coach Pitino restored Kentucky to the status of perennial powerhouse, the program has had its ups, its downs, and its controversies. I’m not denying that there are major issues that need to be addressed or inconsistencies plaguing the system as a whole across collegiate sports. Fingers could be pointed in all directions. Maybe you can’t stand Pitino or you hate Kentucky or maybe you’re Christian Laettner and after reading this you’ll want to punch me in the throat. That’s perfectly okay. Picking a side and staying loyal to it through thick and thin is the essence of what it means to be a fan. And on a deeper level, it's about identifying with winners because it speaks to our innate desire for excellence. It's also what makes moments like “The Shot” (excruciating as it was) worth breaking a few rules and burrowing into two weeks-worth of crumpled boxer shorts.

Pick a side and #TurnTheGameUp with TuneIn.      

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Disclosure: I have partnered and was compensated by Life of Dad, LLC and TuneIn for this promotion. This, however, did nothing to influence my feelings on Kentucky basketball, Coach Rick Pitino, and even Christian Laettner.

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