I’m taking a little departure from my normal posts to share something close to my heart. Last week my grandfather passed away. At 85 years old (and being the youngest of his siblings), the number of close friends and family had dwindled so the funeral will be more of a very small memorial. My grandfather was too amazing a person to go without someone standing up to say something about what he meant to them and since he meant so much to me, I thought I’d share it here. Thanks for letting me take a break to share a little piece of my heart.
How ’bout them cats? A greeting as common for us as hello. Sometimes it was filled with an overwhelming excitement and pure joy; other times, happy relief. It could also be filled with an unmistakable disappointment, frustration or anger. Whatever the sentiment, our conversation always started the same with those four little words.
People always ask me how I became a Kentucky fan. Despite being born here, I grew up in Miami with a mom who liked sports as long as they could be enjoyed with a cocktail in hand (Absolute and Cranberry then, a generous pour of wine now) and the opportunity to socialize. My dad is a Louisville fan through and through and my step-dad is a mildly enthusiastic Miami fan (which he passed on to me a little later). But my grandpa was a Cats fan.
If you’ve spent more than 15 minutes in the Bluegrass state, you know that Kentucky fans come in all shapes, sizes and levels of enthusiasm. My grandpa wasn’t the decked out in blue, season ticket holding kind of fan mostly because he wasn’t the sweatshirt or team tee kind of guy and frankly we couldn’t afford tickets to games. But his enthusiasm was on par with the most rabid fans in the state.
Some people just become fans of a team. Born into it; decked out in their parents favorite team’s gear from birth. But I can distinctly remember the day I became a Cats fan. It was 1993 and Jamal ‘Monster Mash’ Mashburn was marching the Wildcats through the NCAA Tournament. My grandpa came to stay with me while my mom and step-dad went on their honeymoon. I was nine and at the time, didn’t care all that much about basketball. That was until I watched the Cats take on the Fab Five of Michigan.
The funny part is, the Cats lost that game and my Papaw spent the majority of it yelling at the commentators (i’ll never forget how annoyed he got that they kept talking about how great Chris Webber’s hands were), but by the end of the game I was a life-long fan. More than anything though, I think I just wanted to be like my Papaw. It was the beginning of a special bond with my grandpa that stayed strong until the day he died.
When I spent summers with my grandparents, I’d wake up every morning to him handing me the paper for my required reading – the latest recruiting news, coaches notes or NBA draft news. Every time we spoke on the phone, we’d move past the pleasantries and go straight to what was happening with the team. And after every game, we’d call each other (sometimes getting a busy tone because our timing was identical) and greet each other with the standard, “How ’bout them cats?
We only went to a game together once. Our seats were beyond horrible, high up in the dark rafters of Rupp Arena but it was always a dream of mine to go to a game together. Papaw I think would have preferred watching it together from the comfort of his home but he begrudgingly went along. His idea of a great game day involved tuning into Cawood Ledford’s play-by-play on the radio positioned perfectly next to his recliner and spending the next two hours providing his own commentary (the good, the bad and the ugly). I think sitting there watching alongside him will always be my idea of a great game day too.
When UK won the National Championship in 2012, the minute I cleared out of the Superdome I called him. I had to give him a hard time for abandoning the team after their ONE LOSS at Indiana. He didn’t think they could do it. Every game afterwards, I’d call him and convince him they could. As silly as it sounds, I’m really glad he got to watch them win one more championship before he passed away.
My relationship with my grandpa wasn’t just about basketball. He was like another father for me and the time we spent together filled countless photo albums but our shared love of the Kentucky Wildcats was something special for just us. A language that only we spoke.
Tonight is Midnight Madness (or Big Blue Madness as it’s now called around here) – the un-official start of the basketball season. As excited as I am about the Cats #1 pre-season ranking and all the hype surrounding the run for #9, I can’t help but feel a little sad (or blue to make a bad pun even my Papaw would love). It’s also the start of the first season without the person at the other end of the line. I know that when the clocks tick down on the first game, I’ll look down at my phone and have no one to call.
Sports are weird. Think about it. A bunch of grown men tackling each other in an attempt to get a small leather ball across a field. Or running back and forth incessantly in an attempt to get a round ball into a net using only your feet. And when you try to describe the point of baseball to a small child, you begin to realize how ridiculous all sports sound when you really break them down.
The thing about sports we all love so much isn’t simply the action on the court or field, it’s the people we share that passion with, the feeling it gives you when they win. For some people that shared experience means jumping up and down hugging in celebration or high-fiving everyone in sight but for me it was just picking up the phone, calling my favorite person and saying “How ’bout them cats?”