COMMENTARY

We shouldn’t rush to bring back the Border War

Updated: 2012-04-02T12:56:29Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

— This isn’t the column I wanted to write. Actually, this is the opposite of the column I wanted to write. That one, the fun one, would’ve been about the beautiful hatred between Kentucky and Louisville fans driving one of the best Final Fours in recent history.

The connection back to Kansas City is obvious, and on the surface instructive. Kentucky-Louisville is another heated rivalry borne out of more than just sports, one that went dark for a time because of ego and deeper complications but is now played every year in the regular season and taking a deserved turn in the national spotlight here at the Final Four.

I wanted this column to use the UK vs. U-of-L blueprint as what Kansas and Missouri could become: a rivalry that engrosses an entire region with a history of over-the-top hatred even though the combatants no longer share a conference.

Then came the fighting geezers. You probably read about these men, each around 70 years old, throwing punches at a Kentucky dialysis center. One man rooted for Kentucky. The other for Louisville. They exchanged words. A middle finger. Then fists.

Then another fight happened Wednesday night, on Bourbon Street, and the surprising news would be if we all woke up this morning without hearing of another fight last night. Rivalries are the best part of college sports. This one, though, went straight past fun a while back.

“When senior citizens get violent, that’s just crazy,” Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis says.

Somewhere in all of this is a lesson for Kansas and Missouri. KU administrators and basketball coach Bill Self are the ones who effectively ended the Border War, mostly because of ego and hurt feelings, but this week is giving us all a much better reason to put the rivalry on rest.

We’re not ready for it to come back. Not yet, anyway.


It’s Thursday afternoon, and the rain is pouring down on Canal Street. It is the kind of hard and fast rain you get used to after living here for a few years, but it catches tourists by surprise.

There’s a Louisville fan named Greg Cherry in the lobby of the downtown Marriott, and I can’t resist asking the man whether he would let a Kentucky fan share an umbrella. He looks at me as if I insulted his mother. Then he hears about this column.

“Put it this way,” Cherry says. “I wouldn’t give him an umbrella if he was getting drenched in (urine).”

Then Cherry laughs, and not in the way that makes you think he’s joking. He sounds very serious.

This is a pretty good indication of his home state, a place where a grown woman can’t tell anyone she now roots for Louisville because it would crush her mother; where people compare winning or losing this game as “life or death” without any hint of hyperbole.

Kentucky discontinued the rivalry in the 1920s until the ’80s, a trivializing move that told Louisville where it stood. The feelings go beyond personal insults, too, and it figures that in a state that’s served as the butt of too many jokes — with no professional sports teams — that the passion would grow hottest around its terrific college basketball.

This is a rivalry with racial roots, country vs. city, progressive Louisville vs. the much-slower-to-evolve Kentucky. The last bits of racial subplots probably dissolved when Kentucky hired Tubby Smith as head coach, but it sure didn’t muzzle the rivalry.

“The lines are no longer racially motivated,” says Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who won a national championship at Kentucky. “It’s just pure hatred.”

The whole thing produces something fascinating: college kids at the center of this firestorm are much more reasonable than the adults around them. Louisville forward Chane Behanan is 19 years old but gives what amounts to sound parental advice to the brawling geezers when he says, “there’s no reason to do that.”

Behanan, in fact, says he respects Kentucky coach John Calipari and loves Kentucky freshman Michael Gilchrist “like a brother.” Louisville freshman Peyton Siva calls Kentucky’s Darius Miller “the coolest guy I ever met.” Calipari and Pitino have a feud that adds drama, but players on both teams say the coaches don’t directly badmouth each other during practice or film sessions. That’s fine, because the fans do plenty of that.

We take pride in the Border War passion back in Kansas City, and rightfully so. Ours is a rivalry that goes back to the Civil War, to the day that Lawrence literally burned to the ground. Even now, many people decide which part of Kansas City to live in based at least in part on the rivalry. Missouri fans buy Bucknell T-shirts, and Kansas fans laugh at Missouri celebrating Selection Sunday with confetti.

Especially this year, the Border War might be college basketball’s most intense rivalry. But if so, UK-Louisville isn’t far behind, and with the thing being played in the Final Four, the consequences for the loser might literally be life-altering.

Kentucky vs. Louisville is as much a way of life as it is a rivalry, hatred piled upon rivalry piled upon hatred until it’s hard to see reality.

Someone mentioned the old men at the dialysis center to Pitino. He smiled.

“Did we win the fight?” he said.


Maybe you remember the tension in Kansas City a few weeks ago at the Big 12 tournament. Maybe you saw a fight or two. A former KU football player now working in the athletic department needed surgery for facial injuries. Maybe you can imagine the hostility if KU and MU played again this soon, with stakes this high.

These are the actions of the unstable minority, of course, and we should always keep that in mind, but it’s also unsettling for the reasonable majority. How can a rivalry’s better qualities be celebrated when the worst qualities are leading to fights?

Kansas administrators won’t say these types of things, at least not publicly and at least not yet. But the simmering hatred out of Kentucky this week is reinforcing their decision to end the rivalry. From this perspective, it’s hard to argue.

The attention focused on UK-Louisville is helping create a combustible atmosphere, with some fearing the dialysis center fight and a few scuffles on Bourbon Street are only the beginning. Basketball fans back in Kentucky will feel the aftershocks from Saturday’s game for years — especially if Louisville wins.

There is too much history, too much passion in the Border War to end it permanently. For now, the rivalry lives mostly on message boards. And for now, that’s probably where it belongs. The Final Four profile is bringing out the worst in too many.

It took more than 50 years for Kentucky and Louisville to begin playing again. We can wait a few years to make sure the Border War brings out our best.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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