It was 1992 with 2.1 seconds on the clock in overtime. The score was 103 – 102. The winner of this college basketball match between bitter rivals Duke and the University of Kentucky would advance to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament. Duke in-bounded the ball and threw it across the entire court. Christian Laettner miraculously caught it, turned, shot and made it. My beloved UK Wildcats lost. The backstory makes it all so much worse. It’s the only time I cried over a game.
The UK Wildcats is the winningest team in college basketball. We take much pride in that. No one likes to play us at home because of the fans. We are proud and we are loud. Very loud. We’re also very arrogant and hated by many. Which only amuses us. All of that came crashing down in 1989.
Head coach Eddie Sutton was under pressure from fans to put a winning team together. We don’t take losses well. The coaching staff apparently heard violate NCAA rules and send money to a player’s family via Emery Worldwide. An Emery employee picked up the package and $1,000 “fell” out of it. A scandal erupted. Have I mentioned people hate us?
Across the Commonwealth we were livid over the disgrace and humiliation. It crushed our pride. The NCAA mulled over shutting down our entire program. In the end, they suspended us from tournament play for two years and our games wouldn’t be televised. We accepted our fate. Enter Rick Pitino.
Pitino, a former NBA coach, replaced Sutton. Fans were pumped at the notion of bringing in a big gun like Pitino. We were crazy hyped. We took the song Funky Cold Medina and turned it into Funky Coach Pitino and put it on blast. We were coming back with a vengeance.
The 1992 season was our first off probation. We were back on tv and in tournament play. We were tearing it up. Pitino put together a fantastic team and gave us our pride back. This was our year to rise from the ashes like a phoenix. We never wanted a NCAA title more.
Laettner should’ve been tossed from the game long before he made that buzzer beater shot. Laettner’s reputation was that of a dirty player. He didn’t mind. One of our forwards, Aminu Timberlake, tumbled to the floor landing on his back. Laettner saw him and deliberately stomped on Timberlake’s chest. He received a technical but should’ve been ejected from the game. It was a flagrant foul that took him 20 years to own. Laettner was Duke’s star player. Without him we would’ve likely won not just that game but the championship as well. The loss shattered fans. All our hopes and expectations died in 2.1 seconds.
The sting of that game nearly 30 years ago came flooding back as I read the account of England’s loss to Italy in football/soccer. The ache of defeat does not justify verbal abuse. There is no one feeling worse than Bukayo Saka today. It is reprehensible what alleged fans are doing to him and the other two black players, Marcus Rashford and Jadon SanchoEuro. Racism is the epitome of stupid. And attacking people through social media is the path of a coward.
A number of England fans resorted to racism but not all. We must remember the overall collective group did not engage in such repulsive behavior. Never let one bad apple spoil the bunch.
For all the proclamations of making this a better world, nothing shows us failing more than when we don’t get what we want. Too many people run lawless when they don’t get their way. It’s time it stopped. Character is built more in our mistakes, let downs, and heartache than our successes. How we conduct ourselves in the midst of crushing defeat reveals the true measure of man. Let’s all do better.