Tuesday, March 24, 1998
An anti-fan suffers from Wildcat envy

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The last thing I'd ever do to a perfectly good book is pretend it's some kind of moral lesson. Or, worse, a book about politics gussied up as something else. But Blue Yonder, which is supposed to be about Kentucky basketball, is more than five guys in shorts bouncing a round ball.

It may help explain why the city of Cincinnati cannot talk to the county of Hamilton without frothing at the mouth. It may help explain why 100,000 people clamored for season tickets when Rupp Arena was built in Lexington - a city of fewer than 200,000 - while the Bengals have been peddling 66,965 seats in the new Paul Brown Stadium for a year.

ESPN-free zone

It may help explain why Ohioans and Hoosiers vacationing in Branson and at Disney World identify themselves by their towns, and Kentuckians by their state. (Unless they are talking to other Kentuckians, in which case they identify themselves by county.)

The only other place inspiring similar loyalty is Texas. But, of course, Texas was settled by Kentuckians. So maybe it is genetic. Or maybe, at least since Adolph Rupp, it's basketball. Blue Yonder (Orange Frazer Press, $29.95) announces on the cover that Kentucky is the ''United State of Basketball.''

Author Lonnie Wheeler isn't lying. He isn't even exaggerating. If you have been living in some sort of ESPN-free zone and need further proof, I offer the following.

Mary Anne Fitzgerald, 28, postponed the birth of her son last Sunday so she could see the University of Kentucky Wildcats beat Duke. She was watching television in the delivery room of a Louisville hospital, peering around equipment and nurses.

''I was trying to watch the game around them,'' Mrs. Fitzgerald said. ''They asked me if I wanted to slow things down some, and I said yes.''

You what? May I just speak for the women of America who have given birth outside the state of Kentucky, when I notice that this is nuts. Crazy. Painfully provincial.

Then to top if off, the Fitzgeralds named their son after Scott Padgett, who sank a three-pointer putting the 'Cats ahead and sending them to their third straight trip to the Final Four. What is with these people?

Three elderly ladies in a Berea gift shop last weekend gathered around a portable TV. ''Mohammed is missing his three-pointers today,'' one said. The other two nodded solemnly.

The Bluegrass State? Thoroughbred racing? It's a sport. Basketball is a religion, a common language, a passion. Turfway Park, publicizing its biggest event, Saturday's Jim Beam Stakes, is at great pains to let patrons know plenty of televisions will be available, tuned to the semifinal game of the NCAA championship.

There will not, I feel sure, be televisions tuned to the Beam at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

''In Kentucky,'' according to Blue Yonder, ''they even have a name for the basketball off-season. They call it the Kentucky Derby.''

A common passion

I didn't think I would read Lonnie Wheeler's book when I first heard about it, although I admire the way he writes and also he once bought me a bowl of chili, so I kind of owe him. But a basketball book is not my cup of tea.

It isn't a basketball book, although I suppose there's enough talk of dunking and dribbling to satisfy a fan. It's a Kentucky book, a story about a state with a common language and a common passion. ''It goes deeper than I ever imagined,'' Lonnie says, ''and it's disarming and likeable.'' Enviable, really.

When the 'Cats win, a wonderful thing happens to the people of the commonwealth of Kentucky - to little old ladies in antique shops, to students with their faces painted blue, to their egghead profs, to mechanics and women in labor. Everybody wins. They know where they came from.

We should all be so lucky.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com