Why We Love Kentucky Basketball
I woke up this morning trying to do my early morning devotional routine, but I must confess, I was distracted by my other religion. Jesus forgive me, but I couldn’t stop thinking about five college students trying to throw a ball through a metal circle. Alas, I will try to redeem my idolatrous tendencies with a blog post examining my idolatrous tendencies.
Why do I care so much? Why do you care so much? It’s just a basketball game, for crying out lout. The answer of course is that there is more going on here than a simple game. For Kentuckians, basketball isn’t a sport; basketball is a religion. Actually that’s not strong enough, because religion can be dead. In the state of Kentucky, basketball is worship.
There is something going on beneath the service of our state’s obsession with basketball, something fundamental to what it means to be human. In the same way our bodies hunger, our souls are hungry. We have longings inside that cannot be turned off or dismissed, longings that must be directed toward something, and that something, for generations of Kentuckians, is basketball.
What are these longings we entrust to a basketball team? There are many, but I’ll give you three—glory, community, and identity.
We humans are made to admire glory. It’s why we hike mountains and attend concerts. We were created to be fans of something. And our demands for glory are pretty high. We don’t want to behold a puddle; we want the ocean. This is why nobody would pay a nickel to watch our church’s basketball league, but they will spend thousands to see the glory of this Kentucky team.
But is this glory is sustainable? Of course, we know glory fades when they lose, but I believe even the heights of glory will eventually run dry. Suppose I could give the most rabid fan courtside seats at Rupp Arena for the Louisville game, and I could guarantee a victory. They would literally think they had died and gone to heaven. But could this vision of heaven sustain them? Suppose they came back the next day to do it all over again. And the next day, and the next day, and the next day… I wonder how many games it would take for them to get bored with this glory? If March Madness was January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December Madness, I wonder if it would be as captivating? As glorious as it may be, UK basketball is an exhaustible glory that will leave us wanting.
We humans are also made for community. Every community is formed around a communal love. So for Kentuckians, the basketball team becomes the basis of community we all want and need. As Coach Cal likes to say, “From Paducah to Pikeville the Big Blue Nation is bound together by our passion for this team.” And without a doubt, the BBN is an impressive community. Everywhere I go, even around the world, I seem to meet someone from this community and immediately find commonality.
But how deep is this community? Sure we can reminisce about UK glory, we can talk about this undefeated season, we can swap stories of our personal experiences, but then what? Cal likes to call the program a family. Really? What’s his definition of family? Is he planning on leaving me some of his inheritance? Players say things like, “We love our fans.” Really? What’s their definition of love? Do they want to hang out this weekend? I’m not saying Cal and the players are being disingenuous, but come on, they don’t even know our names. If this is a family, it certainly is a shallow one.
Finally, we humans are made to identify with greatness. We instinctively know that we ourselves just aren’t that great, and so we seek to unite ourselves to greatness. This is what we are doing when we wear our KY gear or when we speak of the team with first-person pronouns (we won). We align ourselves with that team, and they become our representatives. When they are great it feels like we are great. And, no doubt, UK basketball is an impressive representative—the most wins of all time, the highest winning percentage of all time, 8 national championships, more SEC championships than the rest of the league combined, and on and on the greatness goes.
And yet we must identify with their defeats as well. This year’s team has the same name across their chest as the NIT team a few years ago. Even with all its greatness, KY has only ended a season with a victory 8 times. Think about that. Since the first season in 1903, our representative has failed us all but 8 times. The basketball team is the identity and pride of many Kentuckians, and this affords us moments of great success. But often they fail, therefore often we fail.
Why do we get so worked up by a college basketball team? Why will these next few weeks lead to either mass euphoria or mass hysteria? We have more invested than we realize. We look to KY basketball to satisfy our deeper longings like glory, community, and identity. The problem is that a silly game cannot bear the weight of these deep longings of the soul. The Bible calls this folly idolatry, and the Bible warns that every time our idol will fail us.
This only begs the question whether there is anything that can sustain our worship? Is there a glory that will never fade, a community that will never fail, and an identity that will never fall? There is.
What if KY basketball was never intended to be the ultimate destination of our longings but was intended to stir our longings for something else? I think that is what the joys of life are supposed to do. They are foretastes of something greater, and the greater is God.
We discover a glory that is inexhaustible—we are worshipers of the Triune God, and 10,000 ages from now He will still amaze and excite us.
We discover a community of endless depth—citizens of God’s Kingdom, members God’s household, sons and daughters of a Heavenly Father who knows us by name and loves us forever.
We discover an identity that is unfailing—represented by Jesus, who through His cross and resurrection is forever victorious on our behalf.
Kentucky basketball is a great thing, worthy of our love…But not ultimate love. As March Madness begins, my desire and prayer for the state I love is that we would enjoy our basketball team rightly. Let’s have some fun, but let’s not look to it as the answer to our longings. Let’s allow the smaller joy of a basketball team evoke longings for a greater joy, the greatest joy, the source of all joy, the God for whom we were made.
And to everyone else in this tournament, prepare yourselves. Our idol is about to embarrass your idol.