NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This Saturday, it's Cats versus Cards in the men's final four as the University of Kentucky plays against Louisville. The two teams are bitter rivals, and the blue-red divide separates families, friends and neighbors. This week, police were called in after a fight broke out between two men at a Kentucky dialysis center. Both blamed the other guy for trash talking their team. So whether it's a Tigers-Tide in Alabama or Yankees-Red Sox along I-95, what's the life-and-death sports rivalry you live with?
Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jeff Duncan is a sports columnist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. He's also a Louisville native who graduated from the University of Louisville, a lifelong Louisville fan who happens to have been born into a family of Kentucky loyalists. He joins us on the phone from his home in New Orleans. Jeff, nice to have you with us today.
JEFF DUNCAN: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: And as I understand it, you're planning to host your family at your home on Saturday to watch the game.
DUNCAN: Yes. It will be a house divided down here, seven family members descending on me from various regions of the country, a lot of them coming down from Louisville. So we're very excited. You know, we've been talking about this potential for over a year once we knew, of course, that New Orleans was going to host the final four. A lot of expectations for this Kentucky team, and it's played out just as we expected. And the unexpected, of course, was Louisville showing up to the play Kentucky in this other semifinal. It's just made, as we say down here, a bunch of lagniappe or everybody.
CONAN: And are you putting away all sharp objects?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNCAN: Yes. I think that might be necessary if Kentucky is to lose. You know, this is - they're heavily favored to win this tournament. My entire family fully expects them to win, and I think they will be just devastated if they lose. Whether they lose Saturday to Louisville or not, they're fully expecting to win the (technical difficulties) thing, and I do think that if they lose to Louisville on Saturday, it would be, for a lack of a better word, cataclysmic.
CONAN: And it's not too - cataclysmic not too strong a word. This is a rivalry that goes way, way back. At one time, even more bitter, in a way, than it is now as it involved issues of race.
DUNCAN: Very much so. The difference, I think, in the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry than, say, North Carolina-Duke or Indiana-Perdue or Indiana-Notre Dame, the mix is so vastly different, is it really goes beyond sports. It goes to social-economic differences between the two fan bases, cultural differences of the city of Louisville, really the only major metropolitan area in the state. It's very much viewed by those out in the state, to some degree, as a part of Southern Indiana. They've only - I'm not sure they even consider the city to be part of the commonwealth of Kentucky.
So there's a lot of differences between the fans. And then it goes back to the days of Adolph Rupp and, you know, his racial problems with the University of Kentucky basketball team. They were one of the last teams to integrate. And then the fan bases, of course, the differences and the makeup, I think, of the fans, the fact that most of the fans, I think, out in the state of Kentucky are mostly Republican and more conservative. In Louisville they tend to be more Democratic. I'm generalizing here, I understand, but - and maybe younger to some degree, at least from my generation.
My father, of course, like most of his generation, grew up devoutly following the University of Kentucky, and Adolph Rupp, of course, had brought the program to Nashville prominence. And I came along and my generation, following the Denny Crum-University of Louisville teams of the '70s and '80s that really kind of dominated college basketball in the '80s, so for my generation it was much cooler and hipper, if you will, Neal, to follow this young upstart program in the city of Louisville than the state, kind of institutionalized, you know, almost cold environment the University of Kentucky represented.
CONAN: And - but how is it that this form of rebellion manifested itself in a house drenched in blue?
DUNCAN: Well, I think, you know, when you're young, a lot - you rebel on a lot of different ways, right? Some kids get tattoos, some dye their hair, and I chose the University of Louisville. It just seemed to me like, you know, when you're young and naive and growing up as a 10-year-old and you see the University of Louisville on the jersey and pick number one in the country back in 1975 in the Sports Illustrated pre-season magazine, I saw that cover and it struck to my heart. I lived in Louisville. I didn't grow up out in the state of Kentucky. So for me, it seems like I was going to follow, you know, my hometown team.
There is - one of the great differences in Kentucky that makes this such a huge event is there's no pro sports other than horse racing. There's no pro sports teams, of course, to divide allegiances among the fan bases. That's different than, say, Indiana, where you have the Pacers and Colts in Indianapolis or in North Carolina even with the teams in the Charlotte area. So in Kentucky, basketball, in particular college sports, is king. University of Louisville and University of Kentucky are the two highest profit - revenue-earning programs in all of college basketball. They're the dominant sports franchises, and so that's really why this is such a huge event. And I can't think of a bigger game, Neal, than this Saturday's game, maybe in the long history of this rivalry.
CONAN: A bigger game with bigger consequences - this is a trip to the finals.
DUNCAN: Exactly. Back in 1983, when the two programs first met in the regional final and the teams had not played for 24 years primarily because the University of Kentucky had refused somewhat stubbornly to play the University of Louisville or any other state schools, that was a huge event. It was labeled the dream game, and Louisville fans will long regard that, perhaps, as the greatest victory in the school's history, maybe alongside their two national titles. And I would say that this weekend's game for many people will rival that game.
CONAN: Well, we hope that you and your family enjoy yourselves. I did want to read this email we had from Cybil in Alabaster, Florida: My father was an Alabama grad, which, of course, meant that his – my - archrival is Auburn. As my daddy said, he would pay for me to go to college anywhere in the world, except Auburn. Likewise, my mother is a Florida grad, which means I don't care for Florida State at all. This just made life a little easier when there was a Bowden(ph) coaching at Auburn and Florida State. I do pull for 'Bama over Florida, however, when they play. My daddy raised me right. What does your daddy think of your devotion to your alma mater?
DUNCAN: Well, sometimes I think he thinks I might be an orphan.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNCAN: It's not just - and I'm the lone rebel in this group. My older brother, Steve, is a die-hard Kentucky fan. My brother-in-law played baseball at the University of Kentucky. We have cousins - one cousin that was on Adolph Rupp's coaching staff, so it runs deep in the Duncan family. And, you know, he's learned to live with it. He obviously respects my choice. But I learned a long time ago, Neal, you don't buy my father anything red, any kind of clothing garment to wear.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNCAN: He will not wear it, and that includes even a red stripe on a sock. He just will not do it.
CONAN: So he's never played Santa Claus, I take it?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DUNCAN: Never, unless he puts it on a blue one, I think.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much and have a great time at the - well, somebody in your family is going to be happy.
DUNCAN: And that's the way we look at it. It's a no-lose situation. And in some respects, I would - and this would be heretical, I think, to my Louisville friends, but for Kentucky to win it for my father, who's now in his mid-80s, I could live with that.
CONAN: Jeff Duncan, thanks very much for your time.
DUNCAN: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: Jeff Duncan, a sports columnist for The Times-Picayune. He joined us on the line from his home in New Orleans. Well, what's the sports rivalry that is Armageddon in your life? 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. We'll start with Herb. Herb with us from Davenport in Iowa.
HERB: Yes, sir. Good afternoon, sir. I can sympathize with Mr. Duncan as being the orphan in the family. I'm known as the traitor of my whole - I drive a Ford. I was raised in a Ford family. And, you know, I follow Chevy racing, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. when he was alive, and my whole family just looks at me and goes: Uhhh. So, you know, I'm all by myself when I get around - when it gets race day - brothers and nephews and everybody.
CONAN: What is the cultural difference between those who back Ford and those back Chevrolet?
HERB: Well, it's real men drive Ford, little boys wear bowties. And Chevrolet's symbol looks like a bowtie, so it's just a rivalry, Ford versus Chevy. And I still drive a Ford. I own a Ford. But I just - I'm more for the driver than anything else. I'm a Junior fan. I love Junior. He's a good man. He's, you know, he's good - he's a good driver. He's got a lot of potential. But because he drives a Chevy, I'm on the outside with my family on race day, so I'm all by lonesome. So Mr. Duncan and I, we definitely share the orphanage by ourselves.
CONAN: Herb, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
HERB: Take care.
CONAN: Email from Ian in San Antonio: Tottenham Hotspur football club versus Arsenal football club in the English Premier Soccer League. I am a Tottenham supporter, and these rivalries are very bitter in first-level soccer in Britain, as well Everton, Liverpool, a lot of Catholic-Protestant rivalries there. Let's see if we go next to - this is Daniel. Daniel with us from Duncan, South Carolina.
DANIEL: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.
DANIEL: I am a Red Sox fan from living there and going to that – to Fenway as a child, and my whole family is Tar Heels fans. But my next-door neighbor and best friend is a Yankees and Duke fan. So we share the exact same initials and people often confuses us as brothers, but as soon as they see us sitting beside each other with different jerseys on, they often wonder how that happened.
CONAN: I wonder, you guys must have a lot to talk about.
DANIEL: We do, and there's not actually a whole lot of trash talking. Most of it is done with switching license plates for the other team's license plates or hiding the paraphernalia in one person's house. I hid a gnome of his. It was a Yankees gnome. It took him about two weeks to find it. That was worst for him than any trash talking.
CONAN: So he hasn't asked you this year how third place worked out for you?
DANIEL: Hadn't asked.
CONAN: Hadn't asked.
DANIEL: Not yet this year. He just kind of smiles.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DANIEL: But we've had some pretty interesting pre-season games, and then, of course, I told him I was going to order a Lehigh(ph) jersey and just wear it all around. He said I wouldn't be allowed in his yard.
CONAN: OK. Thanks very much for your call, Daniel.
CONAN: This email from Phillip: The greatest and most important rivalry in all sports is Army versus Navy football in December. The three - the only thing that ever got in the way of this rivalry was when it was cancelled during the war. It's over 100 years old, and the rivalry is nearly even in regards to the record - greatest rivalry ever. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Terry. Terry with us from Phoenix.
CONAN: Phoenix, New York, I should say.
TERRY: Phoenix, New York, yes. VSU(ph) fan, have been all my life, and our big rivalry is with Duke in pretty much the whole ACC. Not very happy that Syracuse is not going to be joining it. But when my 9-year-old daughter asked my husband recently, well, if Duke was playing UNC, what do wish for them? My husband looked at me, looked back at her and said, we wish for injuries.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: How generous. You're not going to miss those games with Georgetown.
TERRY: Oh, we'll miss them terrible. Not happy about going to the ACC at all. Not happy, but...
CONAN: Well, Terry...
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is Jim. Jim with us from Auburn in New York.
JIM: Hey, how are you doing today? Love the show.
CONAN: Thank you.
JIM: Our rivalry in my house is I am Giants fan. My wife is a Packers fan, and my 4-year-old daughter decided to be a 49ers fan this year.
CONAN: Well, it was an interesting playoffs then.
JIM: Oh, February was pretty bad. But it was good. I enjoyed it.
CONAN: Are they speaking with you?
JIM: Absolutely. They both put on a great Super Bowl party for me and rooted for the Giants on the big day.
CONAN: And you know the Giants are scheduled to play the 49ers in the regular season this year.
JIM: I haven't checked that out yet. So - well, sorry for my daughter.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Thanks very much. Email from Anne: I'm a Jayhawk living in a Missou Tigers town. That can be difficult. This from Adrian: I'm from Salt Lake City. Ours is the holy war with Brigham Young University and the University of Utah. It's sometimes one of the most intense things I've experienced because it's sometimes viewed it also as a cultural, religious and moral battle. Let's see if we go next to - this is Steve. Steve with us from Arnold, Missouri.
STEVE: Good afternoon, Neal. In 1985, I was living in Akron, Ohio, going to school, originally from the St. Louis area and living there again and - but I had been in Kansas City before that and lived in Kansas City a lot longer than I've lived in St. Louis, actually. So the 1985 World Series, specifically game six, but the final result is still in the craw of Cardinals fans.
CONAN: I was just going to say the name of Don Denkinger plays prominently in your voodoo games.
STEVE: Oh, sure. I'm one...
CONAN: He was the umpire who made a decision that did not sit well with one side.
STEVE: And it was a blatantly blown call, yes. But I'm one of the few that I know - and there are others, I realize - who say, you know, the Cardinals cost the game themselves. There were too many other things that happened before and after. You lose it after a bad call, you don't deserve to win anyway. I was squarely on the side of I don't care who wins. It's just fun to see both of those teams in the World Series. You know, so I really didn't care who won. After game six, though, I put my Cardinals hat away and wore my Royals hat with game seven.
CONAN: Steve, thanks very much. You've turned (unintelligible).
STEVE: Yeah, thanks, Neal.
CONAN: This from Scott in Columbus: I live in Columbus, Ohio, in the heart of the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry. It's just engrained in the hearts and minds of fans of these two schools. My son's uncle taught him to say blah every time he hears the word Michigan even if we're just casually talking about the state. Even if my 2-year-old hears that word, he says blah. Let's see if we go - finally to Brock, and Brock's with us from Valley Springs in California.
BROCK: Well, good morning. I have so many to choose from, and if we have time, I'll tell you about the fact that I was at Dave Righetti's no-hitter in 1982 in Yankee Stadium.
CONAN: July the 4th.
BROCK: George Steinbrenner's birthday, against the hated Red Sox. And I've seen footage of the Nuremberg rallies, and I'll tell you, it was the same kind of mass insanity. But I have a personal rivalry that, I guess, would be unique to me, and that is my parents attended UCSB in Santa Barbara, and they were seniors in the spring when I was born - their senior year. They didn't want to stay home every night, so they made a deal with a local high school coach to tutor one of his stupid athletes who couldn't stay eligible in return for him then sitting there doing his homework, watching me in the crib. He didn't have to do anything, so he's my first babysitter. Well, he turned out to stay in touch with my parents over the years, and he wound up being Eddie Matthews in the Hall of Fame.
CONAN: Oh, the great player for the Atlanta Braves.
BROCK: Well, and more so, the Milwaukee Braves, who faced the Yankees in 1957 and '58 in the World Series, and he left tickets for us for both.
CONAN: They won one and lost one.
BROCK: They did indeed. And that for me was my personal rivalry, Braves/Yankees.
CONAN: Brock, thanks very much for the call.
BROCK: You're very welcome.
CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here for a conversation with neuroscientist Eric Kandel about "The Age of Insight," his book on the intersection of science and art. We'll see you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan, TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.