The game clock on the massive scoreboard in the middle of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was at thirty seconds and rapidly decreasing. Six levels up in the nosebleeds, almost exactly center with the court, I proudly joined my fellow members of Big Blue Nation in standing and ravenously cheering. I panned my surroundings. The expressions ranged from those gleaming, ear-to-ear grins of the Kentucky faithful to heartbroken looks of despair on the faces of those clad in Louisville red and black. I couldn’t help but talk even more trash then. This was a rivalry game, after all.
Ten seconds were left now. Victory was well at hand. The Civil War had been won. Knowing the 69-61 outcome was practically written in stone, the miniature players were at a standstill on the raised court.
I didn’t hear the final buzzer. It was engulfed by every Kentucky cheer imaginable. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the free Final Four seat cushions that sat in every one of the Superdome’s 76,468 seats before the game being thrown like frisbees by Kentucky fans into the air. They knew they weren’t going to need those cushions. They’d be back on Monday night for the National Championship game. There’d be another opportunity to claim those cushions. For the Louisville Cardinals and their large, loud, and spirited following, however, the road ended here.
The Road Ends Here. That seemed to be the slogan of the 2012 Final Four Weekend. Everywhere I looked around the city of New Orleans, I’d see it. The Road Ends Here. It was on lanyards, banners, and shirts. It was even on the Superdome court. The Road Ends Here. I first saw the phrase on a banner as I made my way into the Superdome Friday afternoon to catch each of the four teams’ open-to-the-public practices. With the warm Louisiana sun pounding on my neck, I took note of the banner and its slogan. Ironically, the place where the road ends is exactly where my road began.
I was surprised with this opportunity to head to New Orleans the Monday before when my friend offered me a spot on an RV that his father and a few of his friends had rented for the occasion. I filled the last spot. Like the underdog team that surprises everyone with a run to the Final Four, I was just happy to be there.
Final Four Friday continued that “we’re just happy to be there” sentiment. Fans of each school, myself included, put Saturday’s looming showdowns to the side, and focused on taking everything in. Instead of intensely watching Louisville’s practice and making detailed notes about possible weaknesses Kentucky could exploit, I was scanning the sidelines and press area. The Superdome was littered with sports media icons that I had only read in newspapers or seen on TV. Instead of talking trash to the Cardinal fans in my vicinity, I cheered on my friend’s father, a Louisville fan, as he participated in a musical chair/layup challenge on the Superdome floor, and laughed hysterically when he was the first one eliminated. Even at night, when we made our way to Bourbon Street, the crowd didn’t seem hostile. Granted, there were enough chats from fans of every team to drive someone insane, there was no over-the-top trash talking that I saw. It was just an overall sense of pride for what the four schools had accomplished in the crazy month of March. Even a heavy dose of rain didn’t put a damper on spirits. Everyone was just happy to be there.
Waking up on Saturday morning, I still had that “happy to be here” feeling. That didn’t last long. While eating breakfast in the French Quarter, highlights from the 1983 UL/UK Elite Eight matchup, “The Dream Game”, came on the TV showing ESPN College Gameday, a college basketball pregame show. Suddenly, that “happy to be here” feeling was gone. A “win or go home” came over me. It was time to get serious. It was time to beat those dirty Cardinals.
Things got even more serious when my friend’s father informed us that he was getting us tickets to the game. I had planned on finding a sports bar to set up camp, and watch history be made, but this announcement quickly cancelled those plans. I was going to be in the Superdome. I agreed to help my friend mow grass for the summer, but I was going to be in the Superdome. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make.
The proceeding events all seemed to happen in fast forward. The walk through BracketTown and the Coke Zero Concert Series, the walk back to Bourbon Street to claim our tickets, and the short break at the RV campground all happened in a flash. Before I knew it, I was in my throwback Kentucky shorts, grey Kentucky basketball shirt, and 1996 National Champions hat headed up the Superdome ramp. Through the droves of people making their way into the arena, I saw the banner again. The Road Ends Here.
The excitement that seemed to be overtaking my senses was subdued by a sense of awe. Was I really about to witness a Final Four game? Am I really about to watch the biggest game in Kentucky history in person? Waiting in the line for security, I was ready to burst inside the arena. I had to get inside. I had to get away from the Ohio State fan, whose yell of “O-H” every time fellow Buckeye fans crossed her path were like fingernails on a chalkboard. The anticipation was slowly killing me. Once through the doors, my friend and I bolted up the ramps to our section. I didn’t care that our seats were in one of the top sections. I didn’t care that my friend was decked out in his Louisville gear. I was inside. That was all that mattered.
By the time we made it to our seats, game time was just around the corner. I booed as loud as I could when the Cards, glowing like traffic cones in the infrared uniforms, took the court. I confidently cheered on my Wildcats when they followed. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I was nervous. The possibility of Kentucky being on the wrong side of the scoreboard when it was all said and done haunted my conscience.
Then came The National Anthem. I don’t remember the singer’s name, but I remember the silence that overtook the arena. The sold-out crowd was silent. Rivals and enemies, UK and UL fans stood united. The silence gave me chills. My thoughts drifted back home, to Kentucky. As divided as the commonwealth was about to get, citizens everywhere had to have felt an immense sense of pride for their home. No matter the outcome of the game, the commonwealth was already a winner.
The song ended. An eruption of cheers came from the Superdome crowd. As the starting lineups were introduced and the teams took their places for the opening tip off, nobody left their feet. At this point, they were well aware that the road does in fact end here.