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You just can't beat the State Tournament for a sports stage

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By Steve Doyle

   Here, on St. Patrick’s Day, the green you see is not just from the Irish among us but is worn on the faces of hundreds of other communities across Kentucky.

They are envious of us. And it’s not just because of our beautiful, rolling farmland, proud horses and charming communities. It’s because our Rockets are still playing past mid-March, starting today in the greatest show in basketball. And, heck, we like the Wildcats, Cardinals and Racers – no matter the order in which you list them – just as proudly as everyone else, too. With all due respect to Andy Williams, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. (Have I used that line before? Feels familiar.) Anyway, is there another place in the state today where a larger segment of the population has its chest pumped out to thumping distance, its head held high and jaunty and its walk just a bit more strutty? Yes, there are larger schools than Shelby County playing in the State Tournament, but they come from counties where there is more than one school. Here in Shelby, it’s united we stand, and divided we fall. The census isn’t complete, but we know that, today, we are about 40,000 strong in our support for the Rockets. That’s the way we have been for 35 years now, having carefully meshed ourselves together from a disparate set of roots to plant a beautiful flower of success on the state’s sports landscape. If we see pedals of gold and purple – OK, you now say blue – on every horizon, that’s because we stand together. Our evolution to such unity was not without enmity. Days of periodically poisonous barbs between supporters of schools spread across the county remain vivid in many of our memories. Much like the Cards and ‘Cats, we cheered for ourselves and against each other for decades, but slowly but surely we put aside those prideful prejudices and left the rancor to the mothballs and tattered newspaper clippings. Thankfully, we are Shelby County, and we are one. You may have been cut from Red Devil duds or Bobcat bearings, you may have rooted for the Tigers, the Bulldogs, the Warriors, the Panthers, the Wildcats or even the Gamecocks, but you now cloak yourself in Rocket revelry. I’ll bet you didn’t know that there have been three schools from Shelby County to play in the State Tournament. Not just SCHS and Shelbyville – which Bobby Cook led dramatically and wonderfully to the quarterfinals in that school’s final season – but also Bagdad, which accomplished earned a special trip in 1952. The star of that team was Ken Slucher, who was my elementary principal, early coach, first Converse salesman and unmatched disciplinarian. The man seemed a mountain to us, and he must have been as well to those who faced him in the tiny gym off Elmburg Road, where he led the Tigers to the purest sports event in the world. If the World Series is the most historic, the Super Bowl the grandest stage and the NCAA Tournament the most breathtaking, no event has any true advantage over our little old 16-team bracket, which was March Madness before the copyright. If you believe that the fact that Shelby and Ballard are playing today – two teams with expectations to win the whole thing – seems sad and wrong, well you’re wrong.  They were paired not by some argumentative process called seeding – and please understand that no matter what a talking head or clicheé-ridden typist may tell you, teams are not seeds; they are seeded teams – but by the random act of a draw. Simple, pure, unfiltered and unencumbered chance determines your opponent in the State Tournament, which is much more logical and wonderful than anything with bytes or bites ever could hope to be. Face it, if UK were to play Kansas on Thursday, only persons with offices on Madison Avenue should care.  Because if you’re going to win a title, you have to beat the best. And you might as well do it the first day as the last. So if you were bemoaning the Rockets’ fate in drawing Ballard, forget it. They are much fresher and better prepared for this than they would be on Saturday. Let’s get on with it. And let’s win this thing. I always root for the Rockets, but this time it’s more personal. You see, when Ballard was formed in the late 1960s, the district chose as its first principal a man named Pat Crawford, who happens to be my uncle.  He is the man who named me (don’t ask), who first carried me to the top of Natural Bridge (really don’t ask) and the one who helped foster my early interest in sports by giving me my first baseball glove, my first golf club and more balls of different sorts than you could count. He built Ballard’s sports legacy – hiring Richard Schmidt as its basketball coach and Bob Redman as the football coach along the way – and the school rewarded such foresight by naming its stadium in his honor. If you don’t know my Uncle Pat, I would describe him like this: He isn’t tall, but he isn’t small, and his personality is wall-to-wall. He told me a lot of stories about the accomplishments of Ballard – and with alums such as Jeff Lamp, Jerry Eaves, Allen Houston and DeJuan Wheat, you understand why – and he would gig me from time to time about SCHS and our alums. So today, yes, I want the Rockets to pound the Bruins, and I’d love it if they yelped so loud Pat could hear them all the way down to Sanibel Island, Fla., where he makes his winter home. There can be no St. Patrick’s celebration that this Patrick. That would be pure joy. And it would come on basketball’s purest stage.