Surely somewhere in Emile Durkheim or Max Weber is a reflection on religiosity and March Madness. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament brings out the fanatic in every fan, and inspires behavior that would be puzzling to the uninitiated—for instance, a thirty-third-degree Mason making the sign of the cross before the first free throw in the University of Kentucky’s opening-round game in the legendary season 1966.
Prayer was needed in 1960s northern Kentucky if you wanted to pick up the Wildcats on the radio. My family lived at the bottom of a steep gobbler’s knob that blocked reception from WHAS in Louisville. The local Cincinnati station persecuted its low-church Confederate neighbors by broadcasting only the Cincinnati Bearcats and the Xavier Musketeers. Having followed UK in the 1940s on a crystal set in a barn loft, however, my anti-Catholic Scottish Rite father was used to adversity. He would turn off all the lights in the house, put the Sears transistor on the bottom rung of an aluminum ladder, and strain for the scratchy baritone of Caywood Ledford’s country-preacher voice. I kept as still as a boy in Sabbath School. “Be quiet,” my father would whisper. “Hit’s coming in.” The sound waves chugged and gurgled like a broken tremolo on an old church organ.
If UK jumped ahead to a solid lead, my father would settle for a night of oscillating static. If it was close, though, we needed the car radio. He drove our Ford Fairlane, with its tricky heater, to the top of the knob, parking well away from the electric lines. We had to empty our pockets of penknives and change. Depending on the wind, we risked frostbite or carbon-monoxide poisoning. My father got excited and revved the engine during a ten-point run or ran out and adjusted the idle if we were down by five. I could get a pretty good idea of the score from whether the heater kicked in.
“Do you know what it means to go undefeated in this day and age?” he whispered one freezing night in 1966 after a victory over Georgia, making me contemplate the mysterious pull of perfection on the broken human heart. That was the famous season they made the movie about, with Jon Voigt playing a racist Coach Adolph Rupp. The Georgia game had gone down to the wire, and the car had stalled out with two minutes to go. My father had pulled on the choke and floored the accelerator, but when the carburetor flooding cleared, the game was over. “It’s not winning that counts, it’s whether it’s on free throws or mid-ranges or defense,” was his moral lesson.
During the road game that year against unpredictable Vanderbilt, the reception was so bad and his mood was so foul that I became desperate. I told him about my buddy Rooster Hicks, who had the only pair of braces in our grammar school. Rooster could faintly pick up Cincinnati’s WSAI when he grinned, but I didn’t know if his signal was strong enough for Louisville’s WHAS. Anyway, it was one thing to listen to rock music on braces, but play-by-play was another level of frequency entirely. That was enough. Dad sped us out to Rooster’s farmhouse. Cars and pickups sporting red swag were parked clear to the highway. A big Cardinal flag was on the front porch. “You didn’t tell me that lame-brained Rooster was a Louisville fan,” Dad hissed, turning the car around to catch the second half on the knob.
After we lost to Tennessee in late February—our only loss of the regular season—my father made us leave the car up there and walk down like penitent pilgrims. “I’m giving up smoking so they don’t lose again,” he said. It was then that I first glimpsed the logic of penance and the Treasure House of Merit.
We drew the Marist Dayton Flyers in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Of course, Cincinnati broadcast the Bearcats against Texas Western. My grandfather, however, lived on the other side of the knob and had a 1955 Motorola that could, with Providence and a little jerry-rigging of aluminum foil, just pick up the Dayton channel. In his dark back room, Grandpa held a cigarette lighter while my father babied the foil onto the tips of the stretched-out rabbit ears. “Stand right there behind it,” he instructed.
“It ain’t going to work,” I said.
“Have faith,” he replied. Then he went ecumenical: He made the sign of the cross right in the room where my Shouting Methodist grandfather hid his whisky.
When I stood by the window, shadowed a free throw, and followed through, my hands were elevated like a priest with the Blessed Sacrament, and suddenly we could just make out Louie Dampier on a court as snowy as Mary Maggiore in August or the Packers’ field in December. If I dropped my arms, like Moses, Rupp’s three-man weave was a misty ice cloud and the 1-3-1 defense turned into slush. My arms nearly gave out late in the second half, but we held off the last run because my dad forced them up like Aaron.
When Cincinnati’s WCPO finally showed UK, it was in the famed championship game against Texas Western. Famed because the Miners had an all-black starting lineup, and if they won the championship they would be the first team with that distinction to have done so, and they would do it against Rupp’s all-white squad (hence the movie). What I most remember, though, is my father’s Agony in the Parlor. He rolled with the picks, his legs kicked up in knots, his fists doubled, and he fell several times to his knees. He had the game face of a man who had to see his team win or he’d die a little. It was the face of a woman who sits up with her sick children, a face stricken with fear and pale with interior prayer, a face you see in funeral parlors and hospital waiting rooms and church pews. It scared me, and it gave me pause. The whole season I had thought the tension, the headaches, and the eyestrain were on account of the poor reception.
When the Miners rolled the ball to midcourt, savoring the last seconds of their upset, my father looked up to heaven, justly chastened. “It’s what we get.”
I thought he was talking about the blood from the slave driver’s lash in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, but in fact he was thinking of another sin punished by divine wrath. “New York City!” he declared solemnly. In the last perfect regular season, 1954, Coach Rupp had refused to return his team to that den of gambling thieves that had corrupted his countrified cagers a few years before, and, though undefeated, they had had to sit out the tournament. The temporal stain of sin persisted, disordering the cosmos, visiting the sins of the elders on my generation.
Eighty-inch HDTV screens, the ESPN SEC Network, and Calipari’s big-time recruiting have come too late for my father, who wouldn’t have been impressed with the last. “You don’t give a country preacher credit for the Second Coming,” he always said of UK coaches. As I say, I can’t explain it. I understand righteous indignation, but I can’t justify a Kentucky cousin’s smashing his brand-new cable box with an unopened twelve-pack when UK went three for thirty-three in the second half of the semifinal game against Georgetown in 1984, nor his breaking the replacement with a metal ball bat when Christian Laetner stepped on Aminu Timberlake in the 1992 East Regional Final. I don’t know why, blacked out from the SEC and in exile from the NCAA, I once risked a lightning strike with a long copper T-antenna in a dark Maryland attic to hear the resurrection of UK under Pitino during a thunderstorm. Nor why the atheist grandson of a no-nonsense tobacco farmer followed the line score of the UK-Columbia game a few years ago on his smartphone at two in the morning in Spain, texting his unchurched nephew in St. Louis that Coach Cal was “Big Blue’s Savior.” Nor why he put sixteen hundred dollars on my credit card to fly home last-minute that spring, only to watch the undefeated Cats fold to Wisconsin in the last minute of the semifinal. We know perfection is not possible in this vale of tears.
But the same transcendent foolishness blows on the buried embers of love and belief, and is not entirely ridiculous.
Kenneth Colston's essays on literature have appeared in LOGOS, The New Criterion, New Oxford Review, Crisis, St. Austin's Review, and First Things.