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THE GAME is only second to what it could have been

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Yes, we are overwhelmed by UK vs. UofL in the NCAA semifinals. But, oh, what it could have been long ago.

By Steve Doyle

This week, our so-called one percent is made up not of an economic group but of those Kentuckians who are not incorrigibly immersed in college basketball.

Are you thinking of anything other than Saturday’s big game in New Orleans? Can you wait? Breath bated? Bets down? Pride bursting? Have family gatherings, civic events and, oh, nuptials and funerals fallen off your Super Doppler?

To heck with Florida vs. the United States Department of Health and Human Services. This is UK vs. UofL in the NCAA semifinals.

Has there ever been anything bigger, a more dominant topic to consume us? Do you think, maybe, more people in this state care about this than who the next president could be?

Yes, this is the stuff that scripts cliches, that fires feuds, that razes relationships. This is a game when not losing may be far more important than winning.

It has the governor trying to play the middle more squarely than on any political issue. Mayors are wagering, tongues are wagging and smack is flowing.

This game is a cottage industry unto itself. Can someone calculate its gross domestic product? If we could monetize Blue or Red pride, we all would be rich.

So, are you contemplating anything else?

No way.

Could there be a greater day for this state than having the Cards and Cats fight it out to make the national final?

Well, yeah, Vern, there could.

And that’s why I’ve been thinking of Terry Howard, the man who decades ago cost the state the potentially greatest moment of its basketball life.

You likely know the story: Howard was a backup on Louisville’s team in the 1975 NCAA semifinals.

Kentucky had beaten Syracuse and was waiting for its opponent in the final, and all the Cardinals had to do was run out the clock against UCLA.

The state would have both its most beloved/behated teams playing for the NCAA title. Those of us who care were paused at the top of a great roller-coaster ride, ready for the payoff.

Howard, a star from old Westport High School, had been used regularly by Coach Denny Crum to help dribble out the clock because he was a great free-throw shooter – perfect for the season, even.

But that afternoon in San Diego, he missed the first of a one-and-one, giving John Wooden’s last team the opportunity to make the tying shot and to go on and win in overtime, 75-74.

Can you  imagine how deflating this was? A dream on the almost-automatic verge of reality only to bounce off the iron.

You see, as consumed as you are about this year’s semifinals, that almost game in 37 years ago had more mystique, more mind-blowing mirage, more of everything than this year’s.

This time, the teams already have played. We know how they match up. We know their styles and their tendencies and who has the most tattoos.

In 1975, it was like that first date with the school’s hottest number: It was all about the mystery, the allure, the unknown.

Who in the world would win a game between these two – much less for the national title? Predictions were much more inferred than informed.

Oh, we peach-fuzzed futurists had our hypotheses. We had watched the few games that had been on TV, listened and read about the rest.

But we were like weather forecasters in the pre-Doppler days: We were guessing, under-tooled and not well-schooled.

These teams neverplayed, at least not since 1959, when Louisville had KO’d Kentucky in an NCAA regional semifinal. To play for the championship would have been ultimate irony.

Kentucky featured Jimmy Dan Conner, Kevin Grevey and Mike Flynn and had conquered undefeated Indiana in a classic regional semifinal.

These Cards composed Crum’s first great team, anchored by transplants Junior Bridgeman and Alan Murphy and homegrown Wesley Cox. They finished 28-3.

This would have been a fast-breaking, cool-shooting against fierce defense and better-than-advertised rebounding.

Those perceived strengths and weaknesses became a siege of speculation in the days long before sports talk radio was anything but occasional and Al Gore wasn’t yet developing the Internet.

And boys and girls who cut their basketball teeth by pretending to play for one team or another while shoving long-range shots at baskets bolted into wooden backboards in a hayloft or back yard were in awe.

One of those boys had grown up a bit, was working for a living in the newspaper business, had covered UK’s first-round game in Tuscaloosa. He had conviction.

On that Saturday, before the semifinals, he was in the office of his newspaper, rolling up the old tickertape that spit out of The Associated Press machines, and he came across a story written by AP Staff Writer Craig Ammerman, a native of Kentucky, predicting what such a final would mean back home.

Sadly, it was never published. Terry Howard saw to that.

I do not mean to be-Satan, Howard, whom I knew to be a very good player and unworthy of anything more than a line on a yellowed play-by-play.

But it took eight more years before the teams would play, then in a regional final, which UofL won in overtime, and the following fall the so-called Dream Game became a politically positioned annual celebration. Coincidentally, they played again the following spring in the NCAA, and UK won that time.

Believe it or not, back in those pre-playing days, the fans argued long and loud about superiority, just not as many people heard them. They talked tradition, style of play and sadly even invoked race to make a decisive point.

There was an immense amount of love and an insufferable amount of hate.

Those partisan lines were even harsher, starker and more uncrossable than today. Intermarriages were frowned upon, and second-generation shifts were seen as thumbs of impudence into the eyes of good upbringing.

That was our world, those were our thoughts, those were the days.

So we arrive now at a new day, new stars, new coaches and a different objective – hopefully fuzzy faces have mellowed with time.

Perhaps a Terry Howard will emerge. Perhaps this will be no contest.

No matter, what we are left with is the second-best moment of the state’s basketball life.

And, to me, there is no loser.

No matter who wins Saturday, I’ll have someone to cheer on Monday.