While I realize the hyperbole that may be inherent in this statement, Big Blue Madness is like a religious experience for me. I suppose maybe comparing it to fervent nationalism may be more apt, but for whatever it is, Big Blue Madness is unlike anything else in my life. Its about a codified, united people coming together in spite of all the differences of geography, creed, and ideology that may separate them in one supranational experience.
A lot of this has to do with John Calipari. He’s taken the whole #BBN, Big Blue Nation concept to a whole new level. When Cal declares that “we don’t just play college basketball, we are college basketball” he’s giving Kentucky fans exactly what they want to hear. But that statement is the true, its not just hot air. It starts with the fans. Kentucky fans form a nation. Within Kentucky basketball there is a collective identity that is truly united. But this Big Blue Nation is unique. Its not like UNC or Duke where kid’s from Portland, to Fargo, to Houston and New York City claim to make up a nation-wide fanbase.
Kentucky is widely considered one of the all time powers in college basketball, but they don’t convert kids across the nation the same way these other schools do. You can find adoptive Jayhawks and Tarheels anywhere in the United States who have never seen their team play live and might not in their entire lifetimes. But with Kentucky fans its a conversion experience. Kids are either homegrown and indoctrinated from birth or come to the Mecca of Lexington for school and become converts for life. You hear talk about UK fans in every state, but these people all seem to go out into the world to proselytize and preach the good word that is Kentucky basketball only after first being immersed in ‘The Greatest Tradition in College Basketball’ first hand. There is a nation of Kentucky basketball fans, but it isn’t multi-polar and superficial like other fanbases, its a far flung colonial empire that in spite of distance and separation always remains true to its roots.
In a way these ideals wash down to Cal’s players too, whether consciously or otherwise. Take a look at the intros for all Cal’s players on the 2013/14 team. Yes their fun and probably superficial, and I’m not saying the players sat down together on a Sunday evening to discuss the merits of Nietzsche and Kentucky Basketball Ideology, but there’s an enlightening subtext under even the choices of their songs. Jon Hood, a Kentucky kid, comes out to the Redmond’s special, Sundy Best’s “Home.” Anyone who goes to UK knows the dive that is Redmond’s and the Kentucky native’s Sundy might as well be The Beatles for all Lexington’s college crowd cares. That song sets the tone for what its like to be a college kid in Lexington, what it means to grow up around all of this. For me, anyway, his choice anchors the experience. This is Kentucky and this is our basketball team and this is our culture, our nation.
But the BBN doesn’t need to be a provincial, regionally exclusive thing. You can bring whatever baggage you have and make a home for yourself here. Sam Malone (a personal favorite of mine) comes out fist pumpin’ like a champ, bringin’ a little Jersey Shore to the Bluegrass. House music and Bluegrass couldn’t have less in common, but here those two worlds are, just hangin’ out in the same place and it couldn’t feel more natural.
Dakari Johnson, hailing from Brooklyn, New York comes out to Biggie’s “Hypnotize” immediately followed by Marcus Lee, a California native, entering to Tupac’s “California Love.” Not just the song choices, but the fact that they chose to juxtapose them as they did brings us back to the East / West Hip Hop rivalry. Sharing a very non-Kentucky culture, but one which has infinite importance to the kids who make college basketball, with the Big Blue Nation.
And let’s not forget that the 3 man core of this team all hail from The Great State of Texas, a people known for their own fervent pride.
This team covers every corner of the US and they remain a part of where they come from. But history has shown us that once you embrace the Big Blue Nation, you’re in for life.
The players come from all over, but once they’re here, Cal and the Kentucky faithful make sure they understand that this is a lifelong commitment, and in large part they buy it all up. Everyone brings a bit of themselves down to The Bluegrass State, and those things don’t leave them just because they’ve arrived. But The Bluegrass doesn’t let them stay separate for long. It’ll suck you in without fail no matter who you are.
You may be a pale, nerdy kid with an irrational love of Gimli Son of Gloin from Fargo, North Dakota or you may be a 6’11”, 270 pound Goliath of a human being from Mobile, Alabama before you arrive in Lexington. But it doesn’t matter how different you were before you got there, because once you arrive you’re all a part of the Big Blue Nation. Come in to Lexington bringing whatever baggage you want, once you arrive, you’ve found a new home.
Once basketball season starts, everyone is in it together. Its just like Cal says, its up to us as fans to “help them reach their dreams as they help us reach ours.” Everyone comes to Lexington for their own reasons, but once you get there things find a way to come together. Yeah it sucks that all these guys leave us after a year, but they do their best to make that year mean something, and we do are best to bring them into the fold.
There’s something about this rapid conversion that is really fascinating. Kentucky seems like it should be a really provincial place, hard for people from different backgrounds to find a place to fit in, but that really doesn’t seem to be the case. By the time you get to March Madness its all over. Everyone is in it together, and by the time the draft hits, even though you may be sad to see a guy grow up and leave you, you’re still rooting for him to make it into that 1st round and keep moving forward to make his dreams a reality. Or, by the time you graduate and move to Seattle, you’ll still find yourself sitting alone in your apartment watching Big Blue Madness on your computer while all your friends are out doing normal Friday night things like getting hammered and… y’know… being sociable.
Big Blue Madness means a lot to me, especially now that I’m out of Lexington. I find myself constantly thinking about Kentucky and what its like to be there, and I take great solace in the fact that little things like a basketball practice on steroids can bring me back there, even just for a night.
Kentucky Basketball means a lot of things to a lot of people, but however different these people were and may be, they’re all a part of the Big Blue Nation, and once November 8th rolls around, we’re all irrationally striving for 40-0, Title #9, and Calipari 2016 together. There’s no half way with the Big Blue Nation. Once you’re in, you’re in. And it will always be home.