Kentucky Blues

During a break in Kentucky’s dismantling of Alabama on the hardwood Saturday, announcer Kara Lawson noted that the movie “Selma” was playing in theaters around Tuscaloosa, as it was in theaters across the country. “We can’t forget the image of Governor George Wallace at the Alabama campus, standing in the school doorway, denying entrance to African American students,” she said, invoking the spirit of Martin Luther King on the weekend of his holiday.

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The colorful Alabama contingent: At least it wasn’t white sheets.

No, we can’t. Thank you Kara for bringing a little reality to this college game, my favorite game, on this important holiday weekend. There is an important back story about these young men, these students and dreamers who play this game at such extraordinary levels. In this game, as in many other college games across the country, they are almost all African Americans, and they are living the Martin Luther King dream as fully as anyone who strives to achieve in our society.

Kentucky has nine McDonald’s High School All-Americans, half just out of high school, almost all on the threshold of becoming millionaires. I hedge that bet, since I don’t know who among them will not make millions playing basketball, here or abroad. The record suggests that none will fail.

Basketball truly is an international game nowadays, and many of the most talented, skilled white players come from Europe. But in the college game, African Americans still dominate. The fact that they are the heart and soul of Kentucky, the winningest team in college basketball history, and perhaps fielding the greatest team ever with this 2014-15 group, is a testament to how far we have come in the past 40 years.

As a native Kentuckian, I am keenly aware of the ugly legacy of racism that accompanies the fabulous basketball tradition of my home state, and particularly its university. Adolph Rupp was one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time, but the evidence suggests that he did not seriously recruit the great black players – some of whom were Kentucky schoolboys. Was he a racist? Well, he was not doing the right thing.

I remember, as a high school senior working the sports slot at my hometown newspaper, the Henderson Gleaner, in March 1966, listening (only radio back then) in disbelief as Kentucky fell to Texas Western for the NCAA title. It was insane, Pat Riley and Louie Dampier and Larry Conley and that whole cast of brilliant Rupp’s Runts, losing to a bunch of unknown black players from a minor school in Texas.

Rupp had made half-hearted overtures to Clem Haskins (1963), Wes Unseld (1964), Michael Redd (1963) and Butch Beard (1965), all great Kentucky high school players who happened to be black. Now, in 1967, the year after being dispatched by an all-black starting five in Texas Western, Rupp had a chance to make amends, and to face reality.

Instead, in a year in which Kentucky schoolboys included 7-foot center Jim McDaniels and fellow African-American hotshots Jim Rose, Clarence Glover and Jerome Perry, Rupp whiffed. All those players ended up at Western Kentucky University, which beat Kentucky, 107-83, in the 1971 NCAA regional finals and finished third overall in the tournament that year.

Rupp retired in 1972 and Kentucky basketball hasn’t been the same since, except for the winning. Joe B Hall recruited two great black players from Lexington, Jack Givens and James Lee, in 1974, and the two led the Wildcats to the NCAA championship in 1978.

Kentucky has won eight NCAA championships, second only UCLA’s 11, the remarkable record of the Wizard of Westwood, Coach John Wooden, another Hoosier refugee. This year Kentucky could have No. 9 in its sights.

If you haven’t already bet on Kentucky to win it all, sorry, it’s too late. The Wildcats are the prohibitive favorites. They feature two teams, actually, each of which could play in the NBA, and will play in the NBA. Six of these players came back from last year’s national championship game, rather than going on to play in the NBA, including the twin guards, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, at 6-6 bigger than a lot of front-court players they’re playing.

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The Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, tower over opposing guards.

Willie Cauley-Stein is a 7-foot defensive demon who is an NBA lottery pick even without a legitimate offensive game. Karl Anthony Towns is a skilled 6-11 freshman center who may be the second player picked in the NBA draft this year. Trey Lyles, the smooth 6-10 freshman from Indianapolis, completes the first team, the White platoon. They are imposing, to say the least, from 6-6 to 7-foot.

And there is a second platoon, the Blue team, that features 5-11 sparkplug Tyler Ulis and 6-6 shooting phenom Devin Booker, who leads the team in scoring. Dakari Johnson is a 7-footer with muscle who pounds the ball inside. And 6-10 Marcus Lee is a shot-blocking machine. Kentucky’s most athletic player, Alex Poythress, suffered a season-ending knee injury early in the campaign, but that has made room for Kentucky’s high school Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins, now a sophomore.

This is a bunch of individual high achievers, playing like one smooth machine, in large measure thanks to Coach John Calipari, the maestro of the “one-and-done.” Yes, they’re all African Americans, and they’re the best of the best. And they’ve all come together to sacrifice for a common goal, to win a championship, playing together as a team. I don’t see the Wildcats losing a game this season, and I have decidedly mixed emotions about that.

In another of my graduating years, 1976 at Indiana University, one of the greatest college basketball teams of all time finished undefeated, 32-0. The previous year, the Hoosiers had only lost one game – to Kentucky in the NCAA regional finals. That was a team – with Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy and John Laskowski – that played together flawlessly. No team has gone undefeated since.

I believe they’ve met their match with this Kentucky team. Just look at the stats. The Wildcats are choking other teams, setting defensive records, leading the nation in multiple categories. Even the two overtime victories during the SEC season show their resilience more than vulnerability.

I believe Dr. King would be proud of this advancement too, that Kentucky may be a little more color blind today because of the preeminence of African-American heroes. Whether it’s sports or cinema or business or politics, black leaders are assuming their roles in our society, and that is good for everyone.

Take Kara Lawson, for example, our sports narrator during the Kentucky-Alabama game. Kara is an African American woman who rose to stardom playing basketball in my neighborhood, at West Springfield High School in Fairfax, Va., while I was coaching my daughters in a neighborhood league. She went on to star at the University of Tennessee for the great coach, Pat Summitt, and on to a WNBA championship and an Olympic gold medal.

She may be the best basketball commentator on television today, able to reflect on the messages of our times as well as the plays of the game. But her most important role may be leading my Washington Mystics back to the WNBA playoffs this season. I’m counting on her.

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A Fine Madness

March is roaring in but who cares if the weather is frightful? Inside gyms and arenas across the land, college basketball players are reaching for the brass hoop, and the crowds roar. It’s a beautiful thing, this March Madness. This year, it’s anyone’s game to win. Will Cinderella crash the party?

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Few college basketball seasons in recent memory have produced such a competitive field. Any one of a dozen teams could win it all, with the right breaks. This year more than many others, it may come down to the breaks. It will pay to know the players, and consider wild cards.

Some of the traditional powers don’t even make the field this year, including Georgetown and my beloved Indiana Hoosiers, who didn’t even deserve an invite to the consolation NIT after stumbling through the home stretch. Upstarts are legitimate: Wichita State is the first team to go undefeated through the regular season since UNLV in 1991, playing in Larry Bird’s old conference. Virginia got a No. 1 seed after winning the ACC for the first time since 1976.

Naturally, I’m tracking the event closely, as the inveterate basketball junkie, with a “virtual office pool” for friends and associates that is largely for bragging rights. Bracket mania sweeps the cubicles heading into Thursday’s opening games, and Yahoo and Quicken Loans are teaming for a $1 billion payoff (maybe, if you act fast, and tell about your finances and take loan pitches, etc.). Games are cropping up all over.

The Big Game is on the court, and I’ve been watching closely.  Front and center are the shooting stars, the one-and-done freshman phenoms who are positioning themselves for a top NBA draft slot. Jabari Parker (Duke), Julius Randle (Kentucky) and Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) are auditioning for the pros. Kentucky has at least three other freshman players who will turn pro after this tournament, and many others will come out.

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Will Tom Izzo lead the Spartans back to the Final Four?

While the traditionalists may mourn the passing of the old college spirit, the steady turnover of all-stars hasn’t hurt the game that much, thanks largely to the coaches. If you follow college basketball, you know the coach is the most important part of the game – a teacher and motivator as well as crafty tactician, and strategist. Nowadays, he also has to be restoration artist, building a new team every year.

Chances are good, once again, that Rick Pitino (Louisville), Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Billy Donovan (Florida) will guide their teams into the Final Four, with five championships between them. The other guy could be Bo Ryan, the steady if unspectacular defensive guru at Wisconsin, who is due (and who may have the easiest road, through the West Region).

But others are worthy, and I’ll probably change my mind before the ball goes up on Thursday. The phenoms at Kentucky, Kansas and Duke could will their teams into Final Four. Three great coaches lead those teams – John Calipari, Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski – with multiple championships among them.

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Does the Cinderella slipper fit Steve Alford and UCLA?

Cinderella, oddly, this year could take the form of the winningest NCAA tournament basketball program in history, UCLA, with 11 national championships. The Bruins are back after many lean years, beating No. 1 seed Arizona in the PAC-10 tournament. Guiding UCLA is first-year coach Steve Alford, the shooting guard for Indiana’s 1987 NCAA champions.

Also resembling Cinderella is Wichita State, which has a shot at being the first undefeated champion since Indiana in 1976.  (I just can’t stop saying Indiana! Indiana! Indiana!) Leading the Shockers is Gregg Marshall, a Roanoke, Va., native who coached little Winthrop University to a series of NCAA tourney appearances before leading Wichita State to the Promised Land. Hmmmm.

But the tournament poobahs appear to have stacked the deck against Wichita State, which will come out of the Midwest Region. Hurdles include Kentucky, Louisville, Duke and Michigan, coached by John Beilein, one of the smartest coaches around. Maybe it’s his turn to win a championship.

Grab those brackets and jump in a pool! It’s March and the water’s fine.

Lincoln: Making History

Abraham Lincoln is a son of Kentucky, a point he makes during the legislative wrangling over the 13th Amendment, as Steven Spielberg tells it in “Lincoln,” a great new movie that is much different from most cinematic fare today. He was born in Kentucky and raised in southern Indiana, before he became famous in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. But he was a son of the South, he was saying. It was important to the debate.

Kentucky plays a pivotal role in how the vote comes down on the 13th Amendment, to abolish slavery, hinging in part on the young Kentucky representative who heard Lincoln out, but who argued that the country simply was not ready to assimilate 4 million new black people. How do we make it work? Will they now demand a right to vote? We’re not ready!

“Are we ready for the war to be over?” Lincoln asks. “What will we do now?”

Lincoln knew it was now or never, and he cast a folksy spell over the young Kentuckian and a few others whose votes were critical, who understood that this was history, a statement of a young nation, destiny. And he lost a few, including one man who declared, outright, “I am a prejudiced man.”

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“Lincoln” comes at a good time, as we reflect on an historical passage into the second term of Barack Obama, who idolizes Lincoln not only as the “native son” of Illinois, but also as someone who asked this nation to rise above race, to recognize the humanity in us all. Obama has the potential to be a great president, in the mold of Lincoln, and I hope we give him a chance.

In Lincoln’s time, in Lincoln’s words, we were “testing whether (this) nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” We were testing the basic tenets of our democracy, and our republican system of government – and the purpose of our “Republic” was to preserve the common good, to ensure that government would not be ruled by private interests, but in the public interest.

That was the whole basis for the Civil War.

That is perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of “Lincoln,” to watch the Republicans as the good guys, the “radicals” for freedom and justice. The Democrats in 1865 fought for narrow interests within their states, with little regard to the public interest. This year, in 2012, we had the Republican candidate for president shilling for people who are the top 1 percent, owning massive wealth, a class he represented well, against the public interest of the 99 percent, who together fight for their dignity, if little else.

The Republicans today are still searching to energize a “Real Majority” defined by Ben Wattenberg and Richard Scammon during the Nixon era as very conservative socially, and especially resistant to change, guardians of the status quo. They were more likely to follow George Wallace than to follow George McGovern, as Republican strategist Kevin Phillips argued in “The Emerging Republican Majority,” published about the same time. Today, not a majority, this group is at the heart of the Tea Party.

Ironically, Nixon probably changed government to favor the public interest more than any other president in modern times, establishing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, programs passed by congressional Democrats. He engaged China in a global conversation, and he created wage and price controls that worked.

Still, using the Wattenberg-Scammon-Phillips model, Nixon developed a “Southern Strategy” that used racial overtones to turn Dixiecrats into Republicans. By pursuing this divisive strategy, Nixon set the stage for the rise of the Tea Party and the racist birther and “Obama is a Muslim” movements.

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When you look at the electoral map from the 2012 election, you can’t help but see the stamp of the Solid South, with the Mountain West Territories sidling along, all resistant to a new order of rainbow America. This is the legacy of Southern Strategy, as honed by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove and that next generation of windmill tilters, and we can only hope that they are, indeed, history.

Listen to Lincoln, as he spoke to Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president. during decidedly one-sided negotiations. Bluntly, he named the southern states that were likely to ratify the anti-slavery amendment. It would win, he said. Get used to it. Slavery is dead.

Today, we are still fighting bigotry, but we have champions for equal treatment under the law, the case that Thaddeus Stevens made so well, if reluctantly in “Lincoln.” We have made a remarkable passage in 150 years. You only have to look at the headlines today, and contrast them with the headlines of 1865.

Fine acting and production values give “Lincoln” an Oscar sheen, and don’t be surprised if it wins. And I hope screenwriter Tony Kushner also gets credit for bringing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” to life. He is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (“Angels in America”), but the jury is still out on “Munich,” his other film collaboration with Spielberg. There’s no question about “Lincoln,” however: He is a superb storyteller.

The amazing cast brings the story home – not only Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln but also Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican leader from Pennsylvania who quarterbacked the victory for the 13th Amendment. Stevens was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the watchdog who raised the hackles of Mrs. Lincoln. This is a great exchange during a White House reception, holding up the receiving line:

As we march toward the “Fiscal Cliff” at the end of 2012, it’s worth reflecting on how this House of Representative resembles the House that Lincoln had to confront, except that the enemy were hard-headed Democrats, not Republicans. Can Nancy Pelosi speak as bluntly to John Boehner as Stevens does in lambasting George Pendleton, the Democrat from Ohio who led the pro-slavery lobby.

Why not, Nancy? Speak up!  Let’s call a spade a spade!

As a native Kentuckian, I’ve always felt an immense pride in Abraham Lincoln, a man of the people, born in a log cabin in Knob Creek, Ky., raised and schooled under harsh frontier environments in Kentucky and southern Indiana. He rose to be one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States, perhaps the greatest. He sacrificed everything to save the Union, to unite us all, whether we wanted it or not.

But as I watched the Kentucky legislator at the heart of the struggle to win the 13th Amendment, I couldn’t help but remember that Kentucky did not ratify the amendment until 1976. And that’s shameful. Virginia, where I live now, was the first Confederate state to ratify the Amendment, two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered, and Georgia sealed the ratification in December 1865, the 27th of the 36 states. It took Kentucky 111 more years to get it right.

Lincoln would have been sad about that. He would have hoped that his home state would ride the great tide of history, and become part of it, instead of dragging up the rear. Sadly, the modern legislative face of Kentucky is Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose No. 1 goal has been to bury Obama. It’s time for some new sons of Kentucky to ride in.

A Pause That Refreshes

We interrupt this weeklong train of political thought for a refresher – today is the first day of college basketball season. For fans like me, that means an exciting game tonight between No. 3 Kentucky, the defending national champion, against the upstart Maryland Terrapins in the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.

Maryland will be good as the season develops and it will be interesting to see how Dez Wells performs. He’s the Xavier guard kicked out of school over sexual assault charges that apparently weren’t substantial enough to warrant prosecution. I’m not in a position to judge him any way other than by his performance on the court. The NCAA has ruled him eligible to play this year, without the usual one-year wait.

And that brings us to Kentucky. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should check out the

new ESPN series, “Kentucky: Full Access,” or as John Feinstein calls it, the best recruiting tool in the history of sports. You get an idea of the mania that grips my home state this time of year, every year. The Wednesday night series follows Coach John Calipari through another season of rebuilding – six new core players on a team that lost six to the NBA draft, including No. 1 and No. 2.

When 25,000 people show up at Rupp Arena to watch the first practice, “Midnight Madness at UK,” Calipari takes the mike and tells the people, “You all are crazy, you know that, right?” Standing ovation.

Calipari is truly in his element here – at Kentucky and in this very personal documentary. He’s the star of the show. No matter how you feel about his record of mentoring young men, you can’t argue with 15 NBA draft picks in the past three years. That’s why the kids keep coming back. Here’s what he says about it:

The “one-and-done” rule in college for NBA prospects is a fact of life, and Calipari has managed to corner the market on the best kids looking for a springboard to the NBA. By contrast, consider my alma mater, the No. 1 Indiana University Hurryin’ Hoosiers.

Christian Watford, a talented small forward who hit the last-second shot that gave Kentucky its first (of two) losses last year, returns as a senior. Other talented seniors and juniors return, as does the preseason college player of the year, 7-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller. The Hoosiers also have a talented group of incoming freshmen, including Yogi Ferrell, who will contend for the starting point guard slot.

Indiana is rated No. 1 in the country in preseason polls. Kentucky is rated No. 3. The Louisville Cardinals, coached by former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, is ranked No. 2. As a proud Kentuckianian – native of Kentucky and graduate of IU – nothing could be better.

I attended IU when the basketball team only lost one game in two years. The 1976 team – with Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy and John Laskowski – is the last undefeated team in college basketball. Given IU’s cupcake schedule leading up to Big 10 play, this year’s edition of the Hoosiers has a chance to win them all. Tonight they face some college named “Bryant,” and I don’t expect Kobe to be there in Bloomington to represent.

Grab a chair! There will be tons of these games from now until March. I can’t help myself but to provide a bit of armchair commentary. Hey! Maybe we’ll be able to see this again and again: