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Judy Clabes: Observations from Big Blue Nation & the "Mom Factor"

I have watched with seasoned amusement this year the mercurial nature of UK basketball’s diehard fans, coupled with the officiousness of the sports-writing pack and the talking heads who have to fill air time – even if with hot air.

Really, don’t you have to ask, “Don’t these people have a life?”

I have been extraordinarily amused at this season’s extremes. Coach Cal is the worst/best recruiter with the worst/best recruiting class; he is the worst/best coach with the worst/best talent – and neither he nor the freshman recruits know how the heck to make a “team” or – holy cow – where did this magnificent group of kids come from and what magical tweak-secret was the greatest coach of all time keeping from us? These One-and-Doners are a plague on the glory of college basketball; how dare a coach make the best of a bad situation. Wait a sec – these Won-and-Doners are the greatest thing since buttered popcorn.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan – true blue, bleed blue, see blue. Goes way back to my starry-eyed college days, when I had to pinch myself for a reality check. Yes, I really was a student at the University of Kentucky and, yes, I could step into the hallowed halls of Memorial Coliseum and be part of the thronging mass watching Rupp’s Runts work their magic. Wow. Just Wow.

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And I well know the mysticism of UK basketball for a state eager for something to be really proud of. I watched my then 80-something mother-in-law, her ear glued to the radio, hanging on every Caywood Ledford breath. She was a devout Christian, but she actually believed Rick Pitino walked on water. And I’ve seen my 10-year-old grandson holding his breath as the final seconds of a buzzer-beater game tick down and I’ve heard him say as he exhales when UK’s basket seals the game: “I’m surprised I’m not having a stroke.” There was no coercion in his fandom for the ‘Cats, no brainwashing, no demands – but he’s going to be one of the crazies; his ample brain is already full of stats.

UK basketball matters to Kentucky in an inexplicable way. It just does. The quip that – when UofL won the national championship – “they may have been No. 1 in the nation, but they’d always be No. 2 in Kentucky” – well, it’s just the way it is. That is not about the University of Louisville’s basketball program; it’s all about what UK basketball means to Kentuckians.

All that said, I’m not the kind of fan Coach Calipari is talking about when he says “you guys are nuts.” I’m not one who’s watching more film of the next opposing team than the coach does. I’m not one of those analyzing every statistic or obscure nuance of the play or sideline-coaching or second-guessing every ref call. I just like to watch the kids play, and I like watching the coaches coach and seeing the difference it makes as the season progresses. I understand that teaching and learning is a process. I’m no hater of other Kentucky teams. When they aren’t playing the ‘Cats, I’m all for them. Of course, I like winning better than losing – but I’m a fan either way.

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I have to say that I have become a particular fan of John Calipari’s. I’ve met him but don’t really know him except from afar, yet I really, really like him. I like the way he talks about his players – “his sons” – and stays in touch when they move on.  I like that he’s a devoted family man himself, that he has religious values he translates into practice through his generous philanthropy and his leadership example, that he remembers his players’ birthdays (and his wife makes them brownies), that he sets standards as well as an example.

I like his extraordinary leadership and mentoring skills.  I like his sense of the absurd — and his sense of humor.  I like his understanding that basketball is an art as well as a game – and that what really matters is what a kid can learn from it to be better person and make a meaningful life.  I like that he expects more of himself than he does of his players – that he assumes responsibility for figuring out how to make a disparate group of testosterone-driven high school superstars become responsible grownups who understand the life-value of team play. I really like that he cares about helping these kids grow into responsible adult men who understand the importance of giving back when their proficiency at playing a game makes them incredibly wealthy and enormously vulnerable. I like his style. I like his passion for coaching and teaching. I like the look of genuine affection for his players – as well as the stern one when it’s deserved.

And this brings me, oddly perhaps, to Marian Harrison, mother of the finally-fabled Harrison twins.  Mr. Harrison, the super twins’ father, is always present at the UK games.  Mom rarely. I wondered, so I went checking. What I discovered was a woman I would very much enjoy knowing.

Turns out Mom Harrison isn’t overly smitten with basketball; watching her sons play makes her nervous. One report quoted Dad Aaron Harrison saying that in all their sons’ years of playing hundreds of games, she had attended only a handful. Co-owner with her husband of their car sales business, she is very much in the picture even if you don’t see her on TV.  Mr. Harrison does most of the talking and is quoted in interviews saying “she is interested in two things – her sons’ education and their safety.”  He was firm in the point that she played a very big role in “vetting” coaches and the decision about where her sons would play – and get an education.

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Not surprisingly, Coach Calipari passed the “Mom” test – and it’s a tough and important one. Reportedly, on her subsequent visit to UK, Mrs. Harrison was most impressed with the wall where the players’ GPAs were posted.   And she liked, too, the good manners of the players she met – and how that reflected on the program. She’s apparently lukewarm on a hasty move to professional play – again, education and values are top of list for her.

She trusted her precious sons to John Calipari, and that’s about as good an endorsement as anyone could get. Frankly, in her shoes, I would have done the same. The “Mom Factor” matters – and that, you crazy Cats fans, is something you should really be proud of.

Judy Clabes is editor & publisher of KY Forward