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Stories from those who crossed enemy lines
As much as their fans don't want to admit it, the two basketball powers of the Commonwealth have more in common than the last two national championships. Probably too much for comfort.
When Louisville claimed the 2013 national championship, the Cardinals ensured that the trophy wouldn’t leave the state after Kentucky’s 2012 title. During the last four seasons — since John Calipari’s arrival at Kentucky — the two programs have combined for 233 wins and four Final Four appearances.
The fanbases always have shared close quarters, especially with the state’s population center Louisville supplying students and basketball players to Lexington, and UK sending them back. The Cardinals’ hire of Rick Pitino in 2001 meant that the two programs shared a coach as well. And as Pitino hired some of his former UK players and staff to work with him at U of L, he ensured that fan favorites would become rivals.
Kentucky and Louisville are once again poised to be two of the premier teams in 2013-14. With the Wildcats’ freshman class — considered to be the best crop of newcomers in the history of the sport — and Louisville’s title-winning veterans, this showdown may not be completely settled until NCAA Tournament time (again).
Pitino isn’t the only key figure who has had to walk the line between the two rivals. In anticipation of the Bluegrass State ruling college basketball this season, Athlon Sports wanted to learn the perspective of the souls whose rooting interests are divided — or not so divided as it seems.
PAUL ROGERS, THE VOICE
Rogers grew up in Louisville, graduating from Eastern High in 1969 before going on to the University of Kentucky. He returned to Louisville 40 years ago to work in sports broadcasting for WHAS. He’s been the play-by-play voice of Louisville football since 1992 and Louisville basketball since 1995 in addition to calling events at Churchill Downs.
“I grew up a Kentucky fan. I followed Louisville, but Kentucky was my team. That’s very common here. People consider it to be half and half, but in recent years it’s grown to be more pro-Louisville. There are definitely a lot more Kentucky fans in Louisville than Louisville fans in Lexington, though.
“It’s my 40-year anniversary at the station. I came here after college and worked here ever since. I’ve heard, ‘He’s really a Kentucky fan.’ But I’ve been with Louisville long enough where sometimes when people hear I went to Kentucky, they’re surprised to hear that. With the younger generation, they know less about your past than your present.
“If I ever say anything halfway critical of Louisville or halfway complimentary of Kentucky, there will always be a few people out there who know about my background who will say, ‘You know he’s really a Kentucky fan.’ But it’s not a major issue. I can’t recall pissing the other side off, though I’m sure from time to time I have.
“One of the weirdest experiences I’ve had was two years ago when we were playing in Lexington, we were setting up at the (broadcast) table. We hadn’t gone on the air yet. We do a 90-minute pregame, so it was at least a couple of hours before the game. Things were really quiet. This guy walks up to me and says, ‘Are you Paul Rogers?’ I said yes. And he said, ‘I’m from Eastern Kentucky. I hate Louisville. I hate the school. I hate everything about it. But I think you’re the best announcer I ever heard.’ It floored me.”
STEVE MASIELLO, THE OUTSIDER
As a kid, Masiello was a ball boy for the New York Knicks while Rick Pitino was an assistant under Hubie Brown. After high school, he walked on at Kentucky for Pitino with intentions of getting into coaching. He graduated as a co-captain under Tubby Smith in 2000. His major break as an assistant came at Louisville in 2005, where he stayed before taking a head-coaching job in his home state at Manhattan in 2011.
“It’s really different as an outsider, someone not from the state of Kentucky. When I was at Kentucky as a player you didn’t realize the impact it had on the fans and the alumni. You knew it was a big game and you knew you were supposed to hate them because that’s what you’re told.
“When I was at Louisville, we came out and we knew we were hated but you didn’t realize how hated until you walk out into Rupp Arena. That’s hatred at its highest. When I was a player at Rupp and Louisville came in, you knew it was a big game, but I didn’t remember it being that way. I think the Coach Pitino factor has a lot to do with it, but I remember the first time walking into Rupp against Rajon Rondo’s team. I was an assistant at Louisville. I’ve never seen anything like that in anything. You really thought these people personally hated you. They might have. That may have been the case.
“When you’re a player, the players hang out. I had friends who played at Louisville, and when I was an assistant at Louisville, our guys were friends with the Kentucky players.
“You could never win. To the Louisville fans, I was always a Kentucky player. To the Kentucky fans, I was a traitor. But those four years I spent at Kentucky were probably the best four years of my life. The six years I spent at Louisville were probably the most important of my professional career, so I hold both places very dear to my heart.
“That Final Four game (in 2012), I recruited a lot of those players (at Louisville), and I worked with Richard Pitino and Coach Pitino. I had some really close relationships and bonds with those guys. I was pulling for Louisville. If you were to ask me years from now — and Rick Pitino’s not the coach of Louisville and none of the players are there — will I still cheer for Louisville, probably not as much.”
DEREK ANDERSON, THE TRAITOR
Anderson starred at Louisville (Ky.) Doss High but left the Commonwealth to sign with Ohio State. After two seasons, he returned to his home state to play for Kentucky and coach Rick Pitino. He started for the Wildcats’ 1995-96 national championship team and had his final season in 1996-97 cut short by injury. Anderson retired from the NBA in 2008 and started the Derek Anderson Foundation, based in Louisville, to aid abused women and underprivileged children.
“I love Coach Pitino. I’ll always wish him well, but I’ll never cheer for him at Louisville. He understands that.
“Everybody was mad that I didn’t go to Louisville, but that was Louisville’s fault. ... I always wanted to play for Louisville as a kid. That’s where I wanted to go, but Denny Crum didn’t recruit me and didn’t do what he was supposed to. My whole thing was about loyalty. ... I went to Ohio State, but Coach Pitino told me he didn’t have any scholarships, but he wanted me to come. He respectfully told me he would let me walk on. At least there was respect enough to tell me.
“(At Kentucky) we played against (Louisville) twice and beat them twice by 20 points. I loved it. The first game was at Rupp, and the second game was in Louisville, but I don’t remember if I got booed because I was so focused, I zoned out. Four of my first five buckets were all dunks. I don’t remember if the crowd cheered or not. I couldn’t care less at that point.
“I’m happy for (Pitino’s) success. When he first got to Louisville, I used to go work out with his players. I lived in Louisville, so I went over there a lot. I never thought anything of it. I’ve always supported him and I always will, but I’ll never cheer for Louisville.
“They always say I should have (gone to U of L), but they all like me now because they know me as a person and not as an athlete. My foundation is still in Louisville, people just embrace me as Derek from Louisville, not that I didn’t go to Louisville.”
TERRY MEINERS, THE JOKESTER
Meiners grew up in Louisville, attended Kentucky in the mid 1970s and later took courses at U of L. He returned to the Derby City 33 years ago to work in radio. He’s hosted his afternoon drive-time program on WHAS for 28 years, where he’s used his platform to parody Rick Pitino, Joe B. Hall, Kentucky fans and Louisville fans over the years. He’s also built a strong friendship with Pitino. Meiners also has hosted Pitino’s weekly television show.
“I went to Kentucky. I loved UK, but I had pictures of Louisville players in my dorm room. It’s my hometown. I grew up here. I’ve sold Pepsis in Freedom Hall. When I was a little kid, I lived a block or so from the arena. I had an affection for Louisville. When I went to college, it wasn’t like my memory banks were cleared.
“In Louisville, I do a radio show every afternoon, and we do parodies and voices. When Pitino was hired at Kentucky, we had a guy with a thick New York accent, and a guy doing a real thick Southern accent, and they had trouble understanding each other. The Kentucky (sports information director) heard about it and asked for tapes, and Rick called and asked (me) to go on a trip with them, a road trip to Georgia. Tubby Smith was the coach at the time, and we’ve been friends ever since.
“I get a certain amount of smack talk for both sides. I always remember what one guy said to me after Rick had been here a few years. A guy walked up to me at a mall, and I thought he was going to shake my hand. He walked up to me and said, ‘You used to be a Wildcat, but now you’re an a**hole.’ He was just so offended that I went to UK and worked so closely with Louisville.
“What people don’t realize is that I was the last guy in Rick’s house in Lexington begging him not to take the Celtics job. I was begging him to not take the job and an hour later he’s at a press conference, so that’s the influence I had.”
WINSTON BENNETT, THE FAVORITE SON
A graduate of Louisville (Ky.) Male High, Bennett was Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball in 1983. He elected to play for Kentucky despite the Wildcats’ lingering reputation of racial strife, where he spent two seasons under Joe B. Hall and two under Eddie Sutton. After spending some time in the NBA, he returned as an assistant at Kentucky from 1995-97.
“It’s hard to live in Louisville at that time, especially as a minority, and not be a Louisville fan. Most of the time you heard a lot about Kentucky being prejudiced during the Rupp era, so there was a black cloud over Kentucky at the time.
“As an eighth grader I was a ball boy for the University of Louisville. Darrell Griffith was kind of our Michael Jordan for the young kids of Louisville. All that meant a lot to me. As I continued to progress, I began to hear a lot about Kentucky, and I had parents who wanted me to experience my own life and (said), ‘Why don’t you check it out yourself.’ And that’s what sold me on Kentucky.
“There were some upset people during that time, as you would imagine. The recruiting war got a little hostile. My father drove around town — once I chose Kentucky — in a big, blue Wildcat van. He did carpet cleaning, so he worked out of his van. He’d be bold enough to ride around in this big, blue van. It was kind of throwing salt in the wound of some of the Louisville fans, and even some of our extended family.
“I root for both teams except for when they play each other, then I go with the team where I spent my blood, sweat and tears and that’s Kentucky. Other than that, I’m a huge Louisville fan.”