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Hoosier finds spot in his heart for Wildcats

I watched Kentucky beat Kansas 67-59 in the NCAA championship game at a bar called Scooter’s Pub on Rainbow Boulevard on Monday night with about 100 people from Kentucky who kept chanting C-A-T-S … CATS! CATS! CATS!  

In time, I may get over it.

Actually, these Kentucky fans were nice people. Not insufferable in the least.

Having grown up on the Indiana side of Chicago, I have had a bone to pick with Kentucky and Kentuckians ever since they stole Mike Flynn, Indiana Mr. Basketball of 1971, from a place on our side of the Ohio River called Jeffersonville.

Then they stole Kyle Macy, Indiana Mr. Basketball of 1975, who led the Wildcats to the 1978 NCAA title after transferring from Purdue. Apparently, they brainwashed him like Patty Hearst because he’s still down there, serving as a Wildcats broadcast analyst.

This is part of the reason people from Indiana generally do not care for people from Kentucky, at least from October until April. The Commonwealth, as they call it, has this annoying habit of stealing Indiana basketball players.

They stole another one this year: Marquis Teague, the Wildcats’ outstanding freshman guard, played at Pike High School in Indianapolis.

Plus, Kentucky now has eight NCAA championship banners. Indiana has five. This sticks in the craws of Hoosiers like a plug of Redman tobacco.

For the record, we both have lousy football teams.

"We had about 20 people from Indiana in here (during the Sweet 16)," said Heather Bressler, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the Kentucky Alumni Association, which has about 435 members.

Bressler, who was wearing a royal blue Kentucky scarf and a UK tattoo on her neck — under her long, dark brown hair, so as not to upset her father, a former Kentucky football player — nodded toward a back door. "They were pretty quiet when they left through that exit over there."

She was just needling me, but I had started it by mentioning that I wasn’t sure this was a Kentucky bar, because everybody was wearing shoes and nobody was strumming a banjo.

Actually, before the Wildcats were through running and dunking and blocking shots, all of these Kentucky stereotypes I had been carrying around would be put to rest. I met a guy from Lexington who has been accepted to Columbia of the Ivy League and a Las Vegas dentist whose Kentucky-bred father was a nuclear physicist and even a young man from the original Mideast Region, the one in Israel.

"People from Kentucky are passionate about basketball," said Leor Reginiano, who grew up in Givatayim, a suburb of Tel Aviv. "People from Israel are passionate about everything."

Lexington native Sean McLain soon will be watching Columbia play Harvard and Princeton and Dartmouth and Brown in ivy-covered gymnasiums. This is what a Kentucky fan calls a halftime adjustment. Or a midlife crisis.

Kentucky fans may be passionate, but how passionate can one be watching future investment bankers set screens and make backdoor cuts?

After serving six years in the Marines, including a stint in Iraq as a C-130 airman, McLain will study political science and economics at Columbia in the fall.

"This is like a little slice of home," said McLain, who seemed to know everybody in the pub, which was remarkable, considering he found it by Googling "Kentucky fans" and "Las Vegas bars."

McLain seemed to be gravitating toward Wildcat fans of the female persuasion and large glasses of copper-colored ale. He said that at some point between now and the start of classes, he will have to fall back on some of that discipline the Marines taught him.   

Watching Kansas mount a comeback in the closing seconds was like pulling teeth for Dwight Brooks, which also happens to be his day job in Las Vegas. The 67-year-old dentist, who grew up on a tobacco farm in Princeton, Ky., goes all the way back to the days when The Baron, Adolph Rupp, coached the Wildcats with a stern hand and an iron fist.

"We were both Masons and we met at the lodge," Brooks said as the throng in the bar continued to quaff beer and do that C-A-T-S cheer.

The Kentucky fans got a little quiet when Kansas was making its late-game run but booed only once, when they showed how logistics helped Christian Laettner sink that shot from the top of the key to beat Rick Pitino’s "Unforgettables" in that equally unforgettable 1992 regional final.

"That was the first time I saw my dad cry," said Heather Bressler, who grew up in Florence, a town of about 30,000 on the northern tip of Kentucky best known for its water tower that says "FLORENCE, Y’ALL."  

"The second time was when he watched ‘Rudy.’ "

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@review journal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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