Bedford, Indiana isn't a place with much.
A population of 13,000-some drops you directly in some sort of amenities abyss -- you're just large enough to attract all the major low-end fast food chains and a big-box store or two but just small enough for those chain establishments kill off the small sole-proprietor, mom-and-pop shops and diners that construct the quintessential imagery brought forth when small-town Indiana comes to mind.
For most anything of importance -- a date, furniture shopping, whatever, you make the short 18 minute trek to Bloomington. (Yes, It's exactly 18 minutes from my parents' house to the first Bloomington exit, I timed it in high school.) I spent enough nights there growing up for golf lessons or indoor soccer games or family dinners or high-school mall trips to consider it home, too. Still, as close as they are, the two towns could be separated by oceans if judged culturally, economically, and politically. If Bloomington is the cultured and well-educated college town, Bedford embodies the id of Indiana University -- a blood-red, blue-collar small place that might be the single most basketball-crazy town in America.
There's a long-running joke that the American South begins somewhere between Harrodsburg and Judah, along the Lawrence-Monroe county line. And it's probably true, too. Bedford's nearly equidistant from Indianapolis and Louisville gets Louisville TV networks. Four high school conference rivals play in towns where you can cross a bridge into Kentucky. High school football sectional finals, if you can make it there, are oft held in Evansville's Reitz Bowl. My first career plan was to replace Jay Cardosi on WLKY one day. The Kentucky Derby matters far more to me than the Indy 500 could ever hope to, rightly or wrongly. It's a culturally more Bardstown than Bloomington in most of southern Indiana -- with accents changing the further you continue south on Highway 37 or I-65. This pseudo-demarcation is very real in Indiana and something different and something to embrace, at times.
More days than not, I'm proud of the unique upbringing the force-fed me fried chicken and Achy Breaky Heart -- like when I'm able to witness the rebirth of French Lick at the Senior PGA Championship. But there's still the sadness and embarrassment that runs similar to what you'd expect from the rural American South, too. The job losses, the heroin epidemic that's crippling lives in Southern Indiana, and days like today, when I remember the confederate imagery all too familiar to high school parking lots in my hometown, are the sad realities that drive so many young people like myself out of the area. We leave, never to return except for an occasionally holiday or Mother's Day surprise, only hanging on to the fond memories that can be picked up and re-located to chase dreams in far-away metropolitan areas.
Like so many young boys growing up, so many of my memories are tied up in or tied to sports. And in southern Indiana, your sports baptism is the by-birth immersion into the Indiana-Kentucky rivalry.Two of my childhood best friends, from who I’ve now largely lost touch, had parents hailing from Kentucky. They were rabid, terrible, obnoxious Cat fans and I was cursed to deal with them every day at the lunch table, on the golf course, wherever. We’d scream at each other to the point of fisticuffs on occasion, over the most trivial stupid arguments, young boys that took two basketball teams way, way too seriously.
Told you Ron Mercer would suck in the NBA!
But he won a title, what’s Indiana done?
You probably cheated!
Bob Knight beat his players!
Rupp was a freakin’ racist!
NO HE WASN’T
OH YEAH WHAT ABOUT THAT MOVIE
NO YOU SHUT UP
*rasslin’ match ensues*
From the earliest days, everything that shade of Blue was evil embodied to me. Tony Delk was the first sports person or thing I truly ever hated, and I couldn’t tell you why. Then Ron Mercer. Ooooooooh, Ron Mercer. I still don’t like Ron Mercer. This hate was born mostly out of jealousy, watching my friends get to enjoy their team’s continual success right as we’re just starting to fully comprehend this whole sports thing. Kentucky won titles, Indiana got run out of the gym by Boston College, Colorado, and Pepperdine. Pepperdine, man. PEPPERDINE.
My 8th birthday was the day my Kentucky hate reached a fever pitch. March 14, 1999. Kentucky was coming off two titles in three years, and I’d had to deal with the flak from my Cat-cheering school friends for each of those seasons. I was a hot-headed kid anyway, and I’d been in a perpetual state of jealous rage that had driven me to take up weirdly cheering on Michigan and Tennessee football to fill some void. I just thought this is how sports worked. Sure, my heart was still with Indiana, but they always sucked. At everything. So I came up with a simple answer – pick new teams to cheer for. Well, let’s see. We vacation in Michigan. My aunt lives in Oak Ridge and brings me this Tennessee stuff sometimes. GO VOLS!
I found out quickly this was empty and stupid and fake and futile, that no team could bring my even half the joy that a very mediocre Indiana could. For whatever reason, I thought the ’98-’99 team was good enough to change those mid-to-late-90’s Knight postseason fortunes. 3rd in the conference, AJ Guyton, whatever. For an eight-year-old, this was something good. There was hope. My birthday always fell during the first weekend of the tournament, and my parents had rented out the entire Limestone Girls Club in Bedford to throw me a March Madness-themed birthday party. This is Bedford’s best answer to Kim K renting out the Staples Center for Kanye. It was a big deal and a normally a very cool thing for a young kid to have all of his little school friends to get to have a basketball gym and whatever other things are in that place to themselves for an entire afternoon. Thank you for that Mom and Dad. I am sorry I was a sports-obsessed you that failed to relate to other children or classmates in any other way for approximately 20 years.
All that was cool, but I didn’t give a damn – if an eight-year-old is capable of doing such a thing. Indiana had a second-round game to play against 3-seed St. John’s, and I was affixed to a 30-some-inch basement television, stuffing my face with cake and having no time or spatial awareness of anything occurring around me. Any joy lasted for a fairly short period of time – because St. John’s wiped the floor with the Hoosiers during that game. That Big East team was far too talented for Indiana to hang with, and it didn’t help that Mike Jarvis coached circles around Bob Knight by breaking out a zone that Knight’s Hoosiers couldn’t hang with. They got blown out, while three young Kentucky fans popped in again, and again, and again to laugh hysterically and send third-grade taunts in my direction. I’m pretty sure I threw a full piece of cake at one of them, broke down into tears, and got sent to timeout at one point during all this, but I’ve blacked that out from memory.
This is growing up in southern Indiana. Hoosier basketball is the region’s lifeblood, where local cult heroes like Pat Graham, Damon Bailey, and Cody Zeller plied their trade and brought national recognition to an oft-downtrodden and forgotten region of the state. But if Indiana basketball is in the blood of southern Indiana residents, Kentucky fans are the region’s chronic bacterial sinus infection. It doesn’t exist in critical mass, and it won’t threaten the Hoosier dominance of the region. But the presence of the expat-BBN is with you daily, sliding in to remind you of Kentucky’s recent superiority, and you know that another round of doxycycline won’t do anything to clear it up. You live with it daily, hoping like hell something magical will happen for you to wake up, take a big deep breath, and ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Of course, the common refrain for Hoosier-lovers was always the Kentucky jokes or the moral high ground to fall back on. They were the hillbilly enemy, we were the civilized northerners. They were the cutting-corners cheaters that had lived through the NCAA’s death penalty in the 50’s, we were Knight’s right-doers – failing to record a single violation in the program’s history. In those days, I bought that line of logic. Who’d ever want to go to Kentucky for anything? It’s not until you leave the region that you realize that if not for a the demarcation of a river, southern Indiana and Kentucky are the same damn place, with the same passions, with the same challenges, and the same cultural influences. Chief among those passions is basketball, and that’s why it’s completely stupid and absurd that two groups of adults can’t figure out how to get a game scheduled between the nation’s two most virulently passionate fanbases.
Kentucky fans have gone to the "we don’t care about Indiana" refrain, and forever, it made my blood boil. Look! Look at this video of this crazy fat fan making videos in his car! You do care! See! Or maybe they don’t. Kentucky basketball has been wildly successful year in and out now for since the 90s. Indiana, like it or not, hasn’t been consistently there. At the same time, Louisville has emerged from a commuter school into, probably, the most dominant of all three school across all sports. Our sports world’s gotten bigger, too. Big TV money allows for more national games with national programs, making the regional non-conference rivalry less necessary. Kentucky can grab yearly games with Kansas, or UCLA, or Michigan State. Maybe, in Kentucky, they don’t care about playing Indiana anymore. Maybe they do. I don’t know. The reality is it probably does matter more to me. I’m totally cool with that.
The joy of sports comes from being able to walk over to your neighbors house, bang on his door, yell "HEY BUDDY EFF YOU", and proceed to light bottle rockets in his front lawn after kicking the dogshit out of his team. For years throughout my childhood, this was what I dealt with more often than not. 2012 might have made up for all of that, sure, fine. Until my Kentucky fan friends were able to retort by holding up another national title trophy. It sucked, sure. But god-dangit, the screaming, the debating-over-beersing, the I-AM-BETTER-THAN-YOU-BECAUSE-SPORTSing – that’s fun. And more than anything, that’s Indiana-Kentucky to a person in southern Indiana.
Sports are fun. That’s the whole thing, the whole dang point. Regardless of the posturing by coaches or the it-matters-more-to-you debate, Indiana-Kentucky basketball is fun as hell. And it’s damn time these two groups of adults figure out a place and a way to play the thing once again.