By Greg Downs
Most people misunderstand Kentuckians’ particular feelings for Rick Pitino. But then people misunderstand most things, especially the important ones. If you don’t get a couple of old chestnuts—love and greed—you will never really get the way Kentuckians feel about Rick Pitino.
The particular hate that Kentuckians feel for Rick Pitino is not a hate at all but one of the less happy variants of love, a variant so vital to the word’s meaning that to excise it would be to leave love in the corner, weeping into its sentimental sleeve. But love is anxious; love is unkind. Love envies, love boasts, love records wrongs on the heart’s stone tablets. Love delights in evil. And, mostly, love—like King James’s charity—“suffereth long.” What does not last is not love. What lasts is, in the end, a kind of love, even if we would prefer not to sully our sweet hearts by thinking so.
Kentuckians love Rick Pitino and they hate Rick Pitino. They hate him because they once loved him, and they love him because they still hate him. They hate him in the way an ex-wife hates the feckless first husband whom she put through med school then lost to a woman who is no longer a nurse. They brag on him in the same hateful way that ex-wife brags on her ex-husband’s riches, his patients, his practice. The way a sister can’t keep from talking up the worldly success of the brother she cut off 15 years ago. The way an ex-husband tells the world his ex-wife’s new man isn’t good enough for her, nobody is. The way duelists composed odes for the men they killed.
Hating someone unworthy of being hated is the worst kind of smallness. An adult wants to hate someone big enough to hold the hate, to make the hate righteous by transforming vapor to solid, emotion into concrete fact. Hating Pitino is not a feeling; it is an element. I have no trouble finding it on the periodic tables I consult. And so we honor, venerate even, what we hate as a way of making our hate worthy of us. If that grudging veneration isn’t love, then what is? Tell me what lasts longer.
Rick Pitino loved us and left us, and so at first we wanted what all the forsaken want: we wanted him to graciously disappear, to evaporate into the atmosphere. And yet having not disappeared ourselves but grown fat and full and—precariously, perhaps temporarily—happy, we want also to show him that we are better off without him. But when he was lowdown in the gutter, in his 15 seconds of sin with Karen Sypher, the equation was too easy. Who would want such a pathetic figure? And that too is an insult, for we wanted him once, badly, so badly that we—let’s be honest, I—cried openly when he left us for the North.
In the paralysis of last year, it was unnatural to celebrate Pitino’s downfall; it was an insult against our own best and worst selves. It made our own pain as pathetic as his. So, for a Kentuckian of the kind I like, the past two weeks have been giddy and dreadful. He has returned like an ex-husband at the front door in the middle of a weekday night. The man worthy of our love, the man capable of alchemically making the straw of our feelings into gold.
Worth being loved, he is once again worth being hated. Saturday is not France against Germany, is not Al Qaeda against the United States, is not even Guatemala against El Salvador. It is not war but catharsis, a soul straining against itself.
The reason why this is so, I think, points to the other thing that people misunderstand: our greed. Make no mistake. Kentucky fans are greedy. Have we won more than anyone except the cheating-tainted John Wooden-era UCLA? Then let’s top UCLA. You say that beating Wooden means cheating more than John Wooden? Then, cheat more than John Wooden did. There is no point in hiding this. Kentuckians have loved the coaches who cheated, and despised—the way we despise ourselves—the un-mercenaries who would lose before they would dirty their own fingers.
Save our souls for heaven. Where are our victories in this world? We want to win and win and win and win. There is no bottom to the need, no balance to it. Everyone knows the story of the radio caller who told then-Coach Tubby Smith that UK had to be the worst 20-2 team he had ever seen. “But I haven’t given up on them yet,” he said. Four weeks later they won the national title. Nine years later, Tubby Smith was gone.
Greed deforms the mind first, then the soul. In a place like Kentucky, where the worldly goods have been stacked North, it fosters a doubled self-loathing. We sinfully wish to be greedy, but we suspect we are not even capable of sinning properly, of gaining what greed promises. I believe, despite the impossible breadth of this statement, that we hate and love Rick Pitino so much because we cannot believe that we—or someone like us—can deliver on our greed the way a Northerner can. The glib-tongued get the girls and the goods.
Tubby Smith or Joe B. Hall were what we might hope to be, good, stuttering, determined men, successful and yet at some level resigned to their defeat even though they were defeated less than any people the game has ever known. Did they live to win? They did. Would they kill to win? I don’t know. Would Rick Pitino? John Calipari? Let the dead record the sins that men do on my behalf. I want to sip the wine, and then say that my lips are clean.
Victory and sin came down from the North, first in Kansan Adolph Rupp, then in our two recent Italians, glib and shameless, the both of them. They are not halves of our selves; they are not our selves at all. They are the selves we wish we were and are grateful not to be, our past and present fears and longings at war with each other. It would be inhuman to expect us to hate the past. It would be even less human to expect us to root for the past.
I want to spend the wages of sin; I do not want them marked against my soul. I want to make it to the next world; I want to delight in this one. And on Saturday night, I want to remember why we loved Rick Pitino, why we awed at what was grand and mighty in him, and then I want John Calipari to crush our past cares and future fears under his mighty and—I admit it—soiled heel. Heaven is the today that never remembers yesterday, never needs to worry of tomorrow.
About the author: Greg Downs was raised in Kentucky and Hawaii (he is not quite as passionate about University of Hawaii hoops). He’s lived everywhere but is now a history professor in New York City. He contributes to the New York Times’ Disunion Series and is the author of the acclaimed 2011 history book Declarations of Dependence. In 2006, his book Spit Baths won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. On Wednesday nights in NYC, he can be found on a basketball court, where he’s tough in the post and solid from 15 feet.