The state of basketball


tosort at LOCATION GOES HERE on Sunday, March 14, 2010. Photo by Adam Wolffbrandt

To her residents, it means everything. It’s as much a part of the state’s identity as horse racing and bourbon. In Kentucky, basketball is the sport of all sports, and the UK men’s basketball team is king.

Whether you’re a family in Eastern Kentucky that’s never been to a game, a bar owner in Northern Kentucky whose business lives or dies with the Cats, a diehard in Southern Kentucky with the tattoo to prove it, or the proud hometown of a current Cat in Western Kentucky, this commonwealth bleeds blue.

This is the state of basketball.

‘It means everything’

Kaye Hitchcock seemed to be at a loss, staring into nothingness as she tried to find words to express the thoughts racing through her head. Putting her feelings toward UK basketball into a sentence didn’t seem possible. Finally, after letting years of memories ruminate, she found three words:

“It means everything.”

Hitchcock didn’t get into UK basketball until the late 1960s when she entered high school. From there, she says the moves of the players fascinated her. She’s been hooked ever since. The Paintsville, Ky., resident calls herself UK basketball’s biggest fan. She watches every game with a keen eye. Telemarketers are better off calling during dinner than a game. The walls and roof of her house are painted blue. For Hitchcock, it’s all UK, all the time.

Her husband, Fred, his daughter Lena Cantrell, and Lena’s husband, Chris, sat down together on a day in early September, itching to talk about basketball.

“We just love our players,” Kaye said. “We want to show them that we appreciate what they do. To be in a gym with everybody cheering for the same people you are, it’s just fabulous.”

For them, basketball is a way of life. At work as a dental assistant, Kaye will have the game on and give updates to the patients and dentist. For Chris and Lena, dinner is prepared earlier and rushed through so they won’t miss the tipoff.

After a loss, the house is quiet, similar to a funeral. But after a win, the mood is bright, breakfast tastes better and everyone wants to talk about the game.

As the family sits in the house two months before the first tipoff, basketball is already on their minds. As Lena ponders the same question that gave Kaye fits, the rest of the family sits in silence.

Perhaps they were thinking of the season and the reemergence of UK basketball. Perhaps they were thinking of past glory years. Or perhaps they were thinking of UK’s rich tradition. No matter what it was, after much internal debate, Lena found the words to match her feelings:

“I have God first, family second and UK basketball third.”


A bare canvas painted blue

Driving north on Interstate-75, the beauty of the commonwealth is on full display. White picket fences line the road as horse farms crown rolling hills. Just shy of the Kentucky/Ohio border in Fort Worth, Ky., is Dickmann’s Sports Cafe.

It doesn’t drip blue from floor to ceiling, and UK memorabilia doesn’t hang from the walls. On any normal day, you might not even know it was a pro-UK sports bar. But when the Cats step on the court, the walls echo with Cats chants, a sea of blue drowns the room, of green walls and concrete floors.

“I want to create a canvas for the colors to come out,” said owner Richard Dickmann, who bought the bar from his father in 1994. “When Kentucky comes in … it becomes that blue atmosphere. The sports fans make the decor here.

“I cling to sports in general, I try to provide the best place to watch sports. Kentucky basketball is a major feature.”

After John Calipari was named UK’s new head coach, Dickmann decided to buy the land adjacent to his bar and make it into a parking lot. He was having trouble fitting everyone in his original parking lot, so he bought the land for more than $500,000. Dickmann jokingly called the hire “his stimulus package.”

“When I was doing my business plan to see if I could afford to do this project, Kentucky was a major line item in it,” Dickmann said. “When you can say that Kentucky basketball is a line item on your revenue sheet, that makes it a big part of your business.”

With renewed excitement for UK basketball comes added business for Dickmann, whose bar has been almost exempt from the current economic downturn. While so many businesses are laying off employees and decreasing salaries, Dickmann’s is increasing in everything thanks to UK basketball. Business had suffered in the past two years, but things changed when Calipari arrived.

Calipari rejuvenated the fan base from Day 1. And when the No. 1 sport and the No. 1 team in the state is UK basketball, more people come to Dickmann’s. Right now, Dickmann said, times are very good and he’s never been so excited about the Cats.

“(UK basketball this year) is going to have a huge, huge impact on my business,” Dickmann said. “There’s no doubt. My whole life revolves around UK basketball.”

A family tradition

Shain Sizemore, a resident of Flatlick, Ky., a small town just north of Tennessee, hasn’t been a diehard UK fan his entire life. Still, he’s just as passionate as those who have been.

At 25, Sizemore’s lived through some of UK’s better years and also some of the darker times. He’s seen two national championships, a runner-up finish and some of the worst losses in the program’s history. But for Sizemore, the Cats are more than a favorite team. They’re a constant reminder of his late uncle, Bill Sizemore, who died from cancer in 1998.

He can’t explain why the state clings to the Cats, or what it is about the Cats that make his eyes light up. He can only laugh about it and think back on all the memories UK basketball has given him — especially memories with his uncle Bill. Sizemore started following the team during the 1995-96 championship season.

“Watching my uncle watch the game and his excitement is what got me into it,” Sizemore said. “I wanted to be like that. Watching that (’96) team play will get you hooked.”

Sizemore just went to his first UK game this season. When watching the games on TV, Sizemore is as animated as a fuming coach. He’s superstitious about where he sits, yells at the TV, punches holes in walls and finds himself on his knees praying for the Cats.

His actions change with every game and his emotions sway back and forth with every bucket, but one person is with him in every game: his uncle Bill.

“Every time I watch a game, I think about my uncle. Him cheering on the Cats. It’s sad memories, but it’s fun at the same time, you know?”

Ward of the state

Madisonville High School head coach Marty Cline grew up following the Cats like many others across the state — with the TV on mute and Cawood Ledford calling the game over the radio.

He grew up in Hopkinsville, Ky., and would sometimes take girlfriends on dates to the gym where he would ask them to rebound while he shot. He won a State Championship in high school at University Heights and later went to the Sweet 16 and state Final Four as a coach at University Heights, and the Sweet 16 as an assistant coach at Madisonville. Playing at Morehead State, Cline remembers playing at Rupp Arena against the Cats and looking up at the stands.

“I won the (State Championship) in Freedom Hall, I know what it’s like as a player,” Cline said. “But as a coach, doing it in Rupp Arena, there was no comparison. It felt different in Rupp Arena, and, granted, I was a coach, but it still felt different … and it felt different because of the storied history of Kentucky basketball.”

Cline knows the pressures of leading a basketball team in this state. To take the head coaching job at UK, Cline said you have to be able to deal with the high expectations and know anything short of a Final Four is considered a rebuilding year in many people’s eyes.

“In Kentucky, every fan in the gym is also a coach,” Cline said. “They know more than we do, they’ve been in more situations, they’ve played more possessions, they’ve made more shots, but the amazing thing is they’ve never missed any … What you get with the negative can be ten-fold with the positive.”

UK freshman guard Jon Hood played for Cline and Madisonville last season, following UK greats Frank Ramsey and Travis Ford. Now playing for the Cats, he knows the impact of the program. Through the recruiting process, Hood said he could have gone anywhere that seemed to be the right fit. But now that he’s at his home state’s school, Hood said it’s finally set in who he’s playing for and what that represents.

“Living in Kentucky, you have to be a UK fan,” Hood said. “It means everything — it’s live and die sometimes. (In) little towns in Western Kentucky, stuff shuts down. Barber shops shut down, restaurants, whatever. They all shut down, and it’s to go watch UK games. Once the game is over, they’ll come back up — if we win. If we lose, they don’t open back up, they just sit there.”

Cline said when high school recruits come in and understand the importance of UK basketball to the state, that’s when the recruit truly wears the UK uniform. Conversely, when they don’t understand that impact or importance, that’s when they go to North Carolina, Duke, Indiana or Louisville.

“Once you put your name on that letter of intent, you belong to the state,” Cline said. “And that’s not a negative thing.”