A reflection on covering my home state’s biggest game
When you cover sports, a game is more than a game. It’s a set of things happening on a court, or a field, that you try to make sense of as they happen (you don’t always), or that you pick through for interesting pieces (sometimes just one interesting piece) that you can polish and turn into a column. Or the beginning of a column.
People ask, “How do you stand these games that are so exciting?” Mainly, because my drama isn’t taking place on the court, but in my head. Any writer who has experienced deadline will tell you. The game might be thrilling, but the adrenaline comes in trying think about the words that will describe it.
One of the most dramatic moments I’ve ever covered in sports is that moment when Butler forward Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave was in the air. There’s a picture I found in some postgame coverage, where I can see my blurry image on press row, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I’d been that blurry in person, given the idea that, within five minutes, I’d either have to submit a story about Duke winning a national championship, or one of the great upset runs in the history of the tournament.
I use that picture and moment when I talk to writing classes or journalism classes, to note that sometimes it’s about more than just knowing the stats. Moments like that call out the poet in you, if there is any. They require it, if you want to match the moment with your words.
That long winded introduction is to say that, when you’ve covered sports for 20 years, as I have, the wonder is in the process more than it’s in the games, most of the time.
But not this week, for me. I don’t suppose I was struck by the cultural magnitude of this Louisville-Kentucky Final Four matchup until I paged through a stack of copies of The Courier-Journal from March of 1983, when UK and U of L met for the first time in 24 years, the original “Dream Game.”
I was a freshman in high school. I can remember the hallways at school abuzz with talk about that game. Every conversation. Any one you could pick out of the crowd.
The teams, of course, had not played in our lifetimes. I’ve said, they didn’t need to teach debate in Kentucky high schools. We learned it instinctively, by arguing about those teams.
There actually was a board game, with cards loosely based on the team’s players, and dice with Cardinals and Wildcats on them, that I probably wore out by playing it in the dining room floor. I played the game in my head on the dirt spot out beside the house.
It was as big a deal as I could remember in my young life. Looking at the newspaper pages lying in front of me now, I can remember them, the picture of the UK and U of L cheerleaders arm-in-arm. Rodney McCray and Lancaster Gordon, standing up next to the rim, the nets half cut, holding a sign that read, “Cardinals Best in the State.”
The morning before the game, sports columnist Billy Reed wrote that, “For a while there last night it looked as if the only way we were ever going to get a Kentucky-Louisville basketball game was for the NCAA tournament committee to set up a special sub-regional at the Waddy-Peytona truck stop.”
I remember that, because Waddy was not far from where I lived.
But more than that, I remember how I felt about that game, about those guys in the paper, Billy Reed and Mike Sullivan and John McGill and Rick Bozich. The Courier even sent Metro Columnist Glenn Rutherford to the game.
I suppose more than it will even walking into the Superdome, seeing those long-ago newspapers has impressed upon me the fortuitous circumstances that have allowed me the opportunity to see this second coming of the state’s greatest game from such close range, and the rather high privilege having having a forum in which to write about it.
I know, without question, that a great many people, from Kentucky at least, along press row will feel similarly at some point this week.
In about two hours I’ll be in New Orleans and the job will switch to trying to write about how the coaches and players and fans handle all this. Before I arrive (and probably again once it’s over), I wanted to show how I will.