Life is full of patterns. Everywhere, all around us — complex, improbable patterns.
Patterns account for déjà vu, that sense that something has happened to you before, because it probably has — different time, different context, same thing. It seems so random — but is it really? We might see in a celebrity, or someone on the other side of the world, someone with the same features, the same mannerisms, the same something-or-other as someone else we know. It’s like a video game with background animation, where there’s a limited number of faces in the crowd programmed in, and you keep seeing the same faces at various intervals throughout — patterns.
So it is in life, so it is in basketball.
A few months ago, I unearthed a stack of old newspapers, keepsakes from the Kentucky Wildcats’ trip to the 1996 Final Four. It was neat to flip through them — something I did again this week, for reasons that should become obvious — over a decade-and-a-half after the fact and relive those times.
In case you don’t recall, Kentucky — coached by one Rick Pitino — met up with the University of Massachusetts, or UMass — coached by one John Calipari — in the national semifinal, in the Meadowlands of East Rutherford, New Jersey, on March 30, 1996.
Kentucky was considered the team to beat by most observers, due largely to a roster stacked with players presumed to be future NBA professionals. This assessment was not off-base, as all but one player in the starting line-up (the lone exception being Anthony Epps) was a first-round draft pick, several more on the bench were drafted as well (Ron Mercer, Nazr Mohammed, Mark Pope), and a couple more (Wayne Turner, Jeff Sheppard) at least got a cup of coffee in the pros. The Wildcats were a robust 32-2, their only two losses coming early in the season to an upstart UMass squad out to make a name for themselves, and in the conference tournament final to Mississippi State.
The only team seen as a challenger to UK that season? That would be Calipari’s Minutemen, owners of an even more impressive 35-1 mark, their only loss coming three games from the end of the season against Atlantic-10 rival George Washington. (It’s interesting to note that Massachusetts’ final regular season win came against none other than Denny Crum’s Louisville Cardinals.) With the exception of one guy — current Houston Rocket Marcus Camby — the Minutemen were a team made up of guys with few NBA aspirations, a gutsy group which used heart and hard work more than freakish five-star athletic ability to make it to the Final Four.
This semifinal game was the most talked-about of the Final Four, inviting more national attention than either of the potential championship game match-ups. On March 30, the Lexington Herald-Leader had published a 16-page section focused largely on this one game alone. A quote from Pitino, then beloved by UK fans, adorned the top of the front page: “The people in Kentucky love basketball so much … they’re starving for another national championship.” My favorite all-time sportswriter, columnist Chuck Culpepper, wrote, “It is almost inconceivable Kentucky will lose tonight. It is almost inconceivable Massachusetts will lose tonight. … This thing is as tossed as any toss-up can be. It can make a mind do gymnastics. It is time to play this game.” The hyperbole was turned all the way up to 11.
Any of this sounding familiar yet, people of 2012?
A semifinal game which overshadows the main event, featuring a Kentucky team with NBA dreams vs. one that overachieved, and a UK team that had two losses (one in the conference tournament finals) with Pitino and Calipari as the coaches, set in a place with a name that begins with the word “New.”
The patterns emerge. What we saw in 1996, we see again in 2012, in New Orleans, in the Superdome — home to Michael Jordan’s title-winning heroics in 1982, Keith Smart’s big shot in 1987, Chris Webber’s infamous timeout in 1993 (and yep, UK played there in the Final Four that year too), and a spot that should have been Kentucky’s but, thanks to a Keith Bogans injury and stellar play by Dwyane Wade, went to Marquette instead in 2003.
“The Big Easy” is a pattern for Pitino. Unfortunately for him — fortunately for the Big Blue — it’s not a promising pattern. Pitino coached Providence to the 1987 Final Four in New Orleans, and Kentuckyto the ‘93 edition. Both trips ended in semifinal losses. Calipari’s pattern suggests more success — a semifinal loss in his Final Four first trip in ‘96, a finals berth in his second in ‘08 with Memphis, and a semifinal loss in his third last year. If the pattern holds, Calipari’s current team (which, as you may have heard, is now Kentucky) will be playing in the final game of the season. Of course, this time he’ll want to tweak things and win it.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the old saying goes. Flipping through the old papers, it was funny to observe how young both coaches looked, both shorn of all the wear-and-tear, all the stress the years have since put on them. Pitino looks the part now of a man who has survived scandal, survived countless jokes about his personal life, survived a failed attempt to succeed with the Boston Celtics. Calipari looks the part of a man who has survived his own NBA experiment with the New Jersey Nets, survived NCAA rules violations on his watch at UMass and Memphis and the resulting vacated records, survived all the (unfair, I think, but still present) accusations of being a slimy figure in the coaching ranks.
Yet here they are again, 16 years after they coached against each other on March 30 in the Final Four, coaching against each other on March 31 in the Final Four. Here they are with one man coaching a team that is loaded with NBA potential, slobbered over in the national media, weighed down with championship expectations by a fan base that has not brought home the big trophy in more than a decade — and the other man coaching a team that wasn’t expected to be here, at this place, at this time, but earned their way.
Except this time, Pitino and Calipari have switched teams — the former coaches the plucky underdog, the latter coaches the freakishly-talented giant. And oddly, they seem as completely at home with their new roles as they once did with their old ones. Calipari seems happy to have traded guys with names like Edgar Padilla, Camelo Travieso, and Dana Dingle (Who? Exactly) for guys with McDonalds All-American status like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Pitino seems very comfortable developing players like Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan throughout the year, getting them to their peak potential by the end of the season, rather than throwing Tony Delk and Antoine Walker out there with a basketball and letting them run roughshod over everyone from the get-go.
Last time these two men met at this late stage of the season, the game was so epic because their teams had been the cream of the national crop all season long, basically handing off the top spot in the rankings to each other on those rare occasions when one of them would lose. This time, it’s because of the history shared between their programs, Kentucky and Louisville — bitter rivals who wouldn’t play each other until the so-called “Dream Game” of 1983, when they met in the Mideast Regional finals in Knoxville, and have played every year since.
(Incidentally, though the Cardinals won the ‘83 game and advanced to the Final Four, where they lost to Hakeem Olajuwon and Houston, the two Bluegrass rivals would meet again in the next year’s Sweet 16, and UK would advance on to the Final Four, where they lost to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. Ewing would beat Olajuwon in the NCAA Championship that year; 10 years later in the ‘94 NBA Finals, Olajuwon’s Houston Rockets would beat Ewing’s Knicks for the league title. See? It’s all about the patterns.)
Sure, it’s the age of the Internet, but the beauty of a newspaper made of, well, paper is that it’s something you can hold in your hand, or fold up and store away in a drawer only so you can dig it out again, say, 16 years later to look at it. Thankfully, such newspapers still exist.
I urge all of you to whom sports in the Bluegrass State matter — all who call themselves proud Kentucky fans or Cardinal loyalists — to save up all the memorabilia you can from the very special game that will take place today between UK and U of L in the Final Four. Save all the sports pages, all the special sections you can get your hands on, and keep them somewhere safe, somewhere out of the way but where you‘ll remember to find them.
Then, when the patterns repeat again — as they almost certainly will, patterns being patterns and all — you can dig out the articles and photos and hoopla surrounding today’s big game and relive it in your memory, as clear as if it was yesterday. You can look at the coaches and see how they’ve changed, consider how many striking similarities exist between the people and programs in play, and remember how you felt to watch your favorite team win — assuming your favorite team wins, of course.
(Odds are they will, since the favorite team of most of this paper’s readership is likely to be UK, and the Cats are not only favored to beat Louisville, but to win the NCAA title, take down the Washington Wizards, establish peace in the Middle East and stop any approaching comets from colliding with the Earth. They’re that talented. Just ask anyone — other than Bobby Knight, I mean.)
Keepsakes like the papers I found allow us to be archeologists of our own pasts, to dig up rare gems of facts and photos and artifacts of games long forgotten and buried. They remind us that running through life are veins of patterns, tying together distant places and times in ways that few could anticipate. They suggest that there just may in fact be a logical scheme to his big, crazy mess we call life, and offer the comforting sense that maybe, just maybe, we can make sense of life, the universe, and everything after all.
The patterns are everywhere — and tonight, they’ll be dressed in blue and red down in New Orleans, screaming their hearts out and making memories.