TO FULLY APPRECIATE A VICTORY—TO frame it, to hang it, to wander from side to side and take in all its facets—it's sometimes worth looking upon it in the light of a long-ago defeat. Kentucky's dynamic delivery of the 2012 NCAA title invites just such an exercise, for this grand accomplishment—the school's eighth title, won behind Anthony Davis and John Calipari and the rest of the glittering, talented cast—came on a big round-number anniversary of the Wildcats' most famous loss.
If you were to survey all the sporting events in which nobody died, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of mass post-traumatic stress disorder than Big Blue Nation in the aftermath of Kentucky's 1992 NCAA East Regional final loss to Duke. Even this season, the 20th since what's widely considered the greatest college game ever played, Kentucky loyalists regard the Blue Devils' 104--103 overtime victory, which ended with Christian Laettner's last-second fallaway, as having induced a collective psychotic break.
Consider the afterimages, which linger in such contrast to the joyous embraces and giddy celebration that followed this season's title-game defeat of Kansas: UK guard Sean Woods, motionless on the floor for so long that a security guard has to come over to make sure he's still breathing; strength and conditioning coach Rock Oliver, in the locker room, squeezing a can of Coke so hard it bursts; the periodic local rebroadcasts that reliably cut the game short by 2.1 telling seconds.
The 2011--12 season supplied, in addition to the highlight-reel play of Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones, accursed reminders of that big anniversary. There was a documentary film Duke '91 & '92: Back to Back, coproduced by Laettner himself. And there was a book, The Last Great Game: Duke vs. Kentucky and the 2.1 Seconds That Changed Basketball, by Gene Wojciechowski, on whose cover Laettner rises above Richie Farmer and Deron Feldhaus. Through the past months, as the Wildcats gathered the momentum that would take them to the school's first national title since 1998, Wojciechowski pinballed around the country, hawking the book, only to hear Kentucky fans respond with an apology that sounded like the swearing out of an affidavit: "I can't buy a book with Laettner on the cover."
"I want to tell them it's a tribute to the Kentucky guys," Wojciechowski says of his book. As it should be. Because in that game the 1992 Wildcats provided one of the greatest, most noble achievements in the school's basketball history.
In the commonwealth they honor their best with nicknames: the Fabulous Five (champs in 1948); the Fiddlin' Five (champs in '58); Rupp's Runts (runners-up in '66); the Untouchables (champs in '96). But before the 1988--89 season, Eddie Sutton's last as coach, a markedly less distinguished group came saddled with a denigrating moniker: The Young and the Rexless. At a time when Duke had begun to make a habit of playing for NCAA titles, Kentucky was about to endure the hide-strapping of NCAA probation, and star Rex Chapman had bolted for the NBA. That left freshmen Farmer, Feldhaus, Woods and John Pelphrey to suffer through Kentucky's first losing season in 62 years.
Taking over a year later, Rick Pitino attracted to Lexington a lone elite player, fellow New Yorker Jamal Mashburn. Oliver, the conditioning coach, whipped Mashburn and his supporting cast into full-court shape. As a sophomore Woods would misfire in the final moments of five losses, but Pitino said, "When he's a senior, he'll make those shots." Right he was: Against Duke, Woods sank a ridiculous bank shot in traffic to give the Wildcats a 103--102 lead and apparently lend Kentucky the stamp of destiny. A shot that had every mark of a game-winner both closed Woods's personal circle and emblematized the program's larger comeback.
And then, Grant Hill's 80-foot pass, Laettner's leap, set, dribble, pivot, shot—a different sort of destiny.
Talk to those '92ers, the Unforgettables, today, and each allows that he was party to something historic, even if it would haunt him forever. Consider the words of Farmer, as he refers to the legendary Kentucky radio broadcaster who called his final Wildcats game that night: "Listening to Cawood [Ledford] call a loss, you can imagine a tear running down a little boy's check, and his mama going over to tell him it'll be all right, and the next day him going out and shooting baskets, because someday he's going to be a Wildcat and it's going to be different. That next time Kentucky's going to win."
They sound like words to a country song, something that might have been scratched out in the home in which Ashley Judd grew up. But to be part of Kentucky basketball is to have a powerful sense of being tethered to history. Many UK fans get it, understand how 2012 follows directly from 1992: Onto an image of Laettner's shot, a fan has Photoshopped a fully extended Davis, blocked shot on his determined mind, rising to do what he did this season better than anyone in the land.