Last Saturday, I skipped watching nearly all of the basketball game between the universities of Kentucky and Louisville for the first time in my memory..
Once “must-see TV” in our household, my interest in watching this year was somewhere between that of viewing reruns of old TV shows and observing the last dead leaves fall from the Magnolia tree just outside my study window.
It’s not just that this year’s version of the UK Wildcats just wrapped up what is undoubtedly their worst non-conference slate in history. It’s more like the proverbial last straw.
My interest in UK basketball — once an obsession for me — has been on the wane for about five years. There isn’t one reason I can put my finger on. It’s a combination of different things.
I don’t watch nearly as much television as I did in my younger days. I just don’t find sitting in front of a TV screen as enjoyable as I once did. And when I do watch, I prefer high-quality drama, comedy, or educational programs to sports.
I still enjoy watching sports on occasion, and this time of year, I tend to watch a lot of football. I consider football the most entertaining sport.
But it’s not just that I don’t watch many UK basketball games these days. Neither do I consume radio programs, newspaper accounts, or Internet sports sites related to college basketball. It just doesn’t hold the interest for me it once did.
And it’s not that Kentucky basketball is no longer relevant. Far from it.
Despite their struggles this year, the Wildcats remain among the most successful programs over the last decade or so. UK is still among the elite college basketball powers.
I think the main reason I no longer get the enjoyment I once got from closely following the boys in blue has little to do with what happens on the court.
I believe it has more to do with the so-called “one-and-done” system that now dominates not only our beloved Wildcats but most major college basketball programs. For the uninitiated, one-and-done refers to the fact that most of the recruits UK coach John Calipari brings in are considered locks to spend one or at most two years playing college basketball.
These young men have their sights set firmly on the NBA, where they stand to earn hundreds of millions of dollars playing the sport as professionals. And Calipari has arguably been the most successful college coach in history at recruiting future NBA stars.
And there is nothing wrong with that.
The coach gets fame and fortune, and so do (most of) the players that enter his system. The fans get to see some of the most talented players in the country put on the blue and white and go out and (most years) make deep runs in the NCAA tournament.
Everyone is happy, right?
Except for this fan. And, I suspect, many others who may be suffering in silence.
One of the most enjoyable things about being a fan of college athletics is watching players develop over three, four, or even five years. Seeing young men like Scott Padgett or Darius Miller come in and underwhelm as freshmen, then over the course of a few years, blossom into significant contributors to championship teams.
Incidentally, both went on to successful NBA careers despite not being considered major talents.
Over the course of a full college career, we get to know the players not just as athletes but as young men. We cheer for them not only because they wear the word “Kentucky” across their chests, but because we feel we know them. They become like family to us.
You can’t form those connections in one year. I can barely remember the names of last year’s crop of NBA-bound freshmen. But I can name every player on some of my favorite teams from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Call me a fair-weather fan if you like. I plead guilty. But I see no moral imperative in sticking by a sports team no matter what. Sports in America is a business, be it professional or big-time college. It’s a money-making enterprise, and the fans are the consumers.
We don’t feel compelled to support a business that fails to produce a product we find useful or satisfying. We feel entirely justified in rejecting a company for poor service or products that fail to meet our needs. I say sports are no different.
Some fans say, “support our team if you want to see better results.”
I say, “Give me a product deserving of my support, and I will do so.”
This article appeared in the print edition of The Winchester Sun on January 1, 2021.