I remember 1998 like the back of my hand (why no one remembers the front of their hand, I have no idea). It was the year Tubby Smith took the helm of the Wildcats from the then beloved Rick Pitino and led the “Comeback Cats” to a title in his first season in Lexington.
I was 15 at the time and had just went through my parents’ divorce. Despite the fact that their split probably saved both their lives, it was a traumatic experience for a kid already dealing with the awkwardness of Freshman year. Like Alanis, I needed something to cling to.
Enter the aforementioned Wildcats.
The 1998 team was far from dominant. In fact, they had a knack for falling behind early and coming back to win late, hence the “Comeback Cats” moniker (we’re pretty literal here). Anyway, something about that team’s run to the title absorbed my attention as sports had never done before. I found myself living and dying, screaming and crying with every made or missed shot. All of it culminated in the happiest ending of all, a National Championship. Little did I know, but my UK fan experience had peaked already.
It’s been 14 years since the Kentucky Wildcats last won an NCAA title. In a fanbase like UK’s, those might as well be dog years.
Over these long years, the passion and expectation my glorious first experience with the Wildcats generated has never dwindled. I’ve spent 14 years living and dying with every shot, as each year ended with a tournament loss including one in the NIT.
With each passing season, my disappointment and subsequent rage has grown stronger and more pathetic. I’ve screamed at Rajon Rondo. I’ve murdered Billy Gillispie in my mind. I’ve broken a remote (or two or seven) over falters and failures that have all culminated in this… Our year.
With the Wildcats in the title game for the first time since I was 15, this has to be the year they close the deal.
Unlike those come-from-behind Cats (I’m just sick of typing it), this year’s UK team has been a spectacle of dominance. With a roster stacked with NBA players and the Player of the Year in Anthony Davis, Kentucky has spent the better part of the year ranked #1 in the country. A title for this team isn’t just possible, it’s expected.
As the day of the title game has finally arrived, the usual combination of dread and excitement is coursing through my blood stream. All the talking heads are picking us to win. Vegas has the Cats favored by 6.5 over a team they’ve beaten once already. People are openly discussing whether this is one of the greatest teams of all time.
All this on our side, and I still won’t believe it until I see it. 14 years is a long time for a young(ish) adult to live with yearly disappointment. It won’t be over until it’s over.
If I step outside myself, I have to think that Kentucky beats Kansas tonight. I have to think that this is their year.
Then I hear that familiar voice of caution chasten me, “Unless it isn’t.”