Kentucky is the world's only imperialist army that invades with its aristocracy. Days before the rank-and-file t-shirts arrive screaming "C-A-T-S," the boosters establish the beachhead. You spot a white Cadillac Deville with Fayette County tags, then another, then around the corner another. Then a pair of Lincoln Navigators (Jefferson County tags) spill out luggage and elderly women, both of whom sit patiently while the men "take care of things" with the concierge.
"Try and catch some Catholics with the old folks, otherwise you'll meet the most miserable old crackers in the world," a Louisville fan warns me. "They come up six days for one basketball game, don't drink, don't cheer and look pissed off the whole time. They just sit there with their arms crossed expecting to always be leading by 20. That's the heart of Big Blue."
I'm not sure of Cheryl's religion, but she fishes a pony-sized bottle of Barefoot Chardonnay from her purse and pours the entire bottle into a wine glass, enough for a goblet-sized serving. This is impressive because we're standing outside of the empty Indianapolis Convention Center. Does she travel with a wine glass on her person?
Cheryl and her gaggle are bonafide blue hairs draped in sequined UK cardigans. Their true joy is culled not from a win on the court but the pleasure of 1) telling everyone back home in Corbin or Frankfort they were there, and 2) for exactly how long. Cheryl and her husband drove to Indianapolis on Thursday and will leave Monday, regardless of Friday's Louisville/Kentucky outcome. They don't want to talk to a reporter -- "unless it's Fox News" -- but they do let me in on a round of Winston 100s.
Looking for a Saturday activity between the Friday and Sunday games, Cheryl's friend reads off a listing of the convention center's weekend events from a digital billboard: a Mary Kay conference, a cheerleading competition, and the Indiana regionals of a national Yu-Gi-Oh! Tournament.
"What's that last one?"
I try and explain.
"Well isn't that strange," Cheryl says. "I wonder what kind of folks would make a big deal over that sort of thing."
"I don't ever go more than 100 miles outside of home. But everybody's here. Louisville and Kentucky, that's gonna bring everyone out." Big Boy says.
Big Boy's crew of scalpers arrived from Cincinnati, inspired by the region's lineup but late to jump on tickets.
"You know, like Frisch's Big Boy. You ever been to Cincinnati? HEY - What's my name, fam?" he shouts down to the other end of West South Street.
"That's Big Boy!" one his crew shouts back.
Today they're holding only a few seats, all 600 level singles with a face value of $55 they bought secondhand for $75 and are flipping at $120.
"You can make more money in weed, prostitution, but this is alright," he says.
The Cincinnati scalpers are posted up just a few yards from the entrance to Lucas Oil Stadium, but a block north a crew in Chicago Blackhawks hats are prowling. Closer to the hotel a gang with St. Louis Cardinals hats are doing the same. Scalpers will travel if an event is close enough to keep their overhead low or if there's a major fan base driving demand.
"Them Detroit boys down the street are killing us," one of Big Boy's crew reports.
The NCAA Tournament is particularly tricky for scalpers. Had Louisville and Kentucky been split up for a potential Elite Eight game, the market would be perfect. The two largest fan bases present would be buying twice, plus the expected influx of Louisville and Kentucky fans waiting for Sunday's game would inflate the market. If both Tennessee and Michigan were sent home tonight, relatively few tickets would be freed up and prices could inflate. Instead, one of these two massive fan bases will leave tomorrow morning, flooding the market and driving down demand.
"Still Kentucky basketball though," one of Big Boy's crew says. "Kentucky or Louisville, they gonna bring folks for Sunday. Money's there. Tennessee can't play Michigan twice."
Indianapolis is a chamber of commerce's dream blueprint. It's an incredibly (almost suspiciously) clean grid of chain hotels and eateries dotted by a shopping mall that's suspended above the heart of downtown. A rare outlier is Sensu, a nightclub where Joey Wagner's J Wagner Group is throwing a ticketed Louisville pre-party. Wagner, a lifelong Cardinals fan, is unfazed of the Kentucky impression of 'Ville fans.
"I'm sure you've heard it. Guys with line beards, designs in their hair, stuff like that. As if Louisville doesn't have any upscale fans... and like Kentucky doesn't have rednecks," Wagner says.
I manage to eavesdrop on a group of Michigan students for three blocks. They haven't been awake long after driving through the night to get here. They're now in search of a dinnerish-breakfast to line their stomachs before drinking. As they move through a crosswalk next to a Hooter's, a bearded Kentucky fan smoking a cigarette screams "TIME OUT! TIME OUT!"
"I wasn't even born yet, you fucking hillbilly!" one shouts back.
If you ask Louisville fans about Kentucky, they'll share many terrible secrets, but none worse than their freshest disgust; that Big Blue Nation, the self-appointed stewards of all basketball, are cottoning to the idea of being the underdog. Observe this drunken exchange outside The Tin Roof, home of an official Wildcats pre-party.
OLDER DRUNKEN LOUISVILLE FAN: "Preseason No. 1 with all those lottery picks and just because Johnny C can't get 'em to play together, you beat K State and some one seed from the Horizon League, y'all are supposed to be Butler now?"
YOUNGER DRUNKEN KENTUCKY STUDENT: "Hey man, as long as we beat y'all I don't care if we're UConn. Also Wichita is the Missouri Valley Conference. Learn some basketball, sir. Seriously."
SURROUNDING CROWD, AND ME: "Aw, SNAP!"
Kentucky fans will co-opt whatever narrative is most convenient. At the moment it's "disrespect to the underdog," a role that when applied to Kentucky makes most impartial observers want to gag. But I sense that ultimately most Cats fans don’t care about perception right now. Nor should they. If Calipari's lottery gang can survive one more weekend and land in the Final Four as an 8-seed, their fans can claim they told you so just a month after being absolutely terrified the very concept of Calipari's one-and-done regime was fatally flawed.
And they are lottery picks; fun, big, fast lottery picks playing for a brand name. A week ago Kentucky and Wichita were fun to watch, and that earnest excitement has brought Big Blue Nation to Indianapolis in droves. Louisville's crowd is huge, but Kentucky's is ubiquitous; when a seat opens in a bar, one blue fan takes it from another. When a car slows down to haggle with Big Boy for seats, it's a blue driver. This a fan base that's largely housed 90 minutes away from the venue, but hotels have been sold out for two days.
"Oh man, Big Blue economic stimulus," a bartender says. "They could fill up that football stadium and fill up every bar at the same time. And if anyone else's fans left, they could have more fans drive up and take their hotel just to say they were here."
He's right. There's no guarantee like Kentucky basketball fans. If you hate Big Blue on the court, it's because of how much they demand in return for that guarantee, and how often they get what they want.
Big Boy and his crew are long gone from the corner of West South and Illinois, replaced by a different kind of entrepreneur wandering the street with red and blue t-shirts pinned under the arms of his jacket. When he raises one arm of his hoodie, a t-shirt unfolds.
"Right here right here, Lexington Fucking Kentucky t-shirt. If you don't bleed blue get the fuck on, y'all hear this? Lexington Fucking Kentucky shirts. 20 dollars."
The light of the crosswalk changes and more fans approach, this time in red. The other arm goes up.
"Hey, hey, Louisville Fucking Kentucky shirts, if you ain't about the Ville then get the fuck out, yo. Louisville Fucking Kentucky. 20 dollars."
I catch the vendor's eye, and he grins.
This is the view from Section 610, Row 22, Seat 15, the one seat in Lucas Oil Stadium that's both the highest and furthest removed from the court. The face value of the ticket is $55. I paid $97 on StubHub 18 hours before tipoff.
The section is split three ways; Louisville fans, Kentucky fans and empty seats. There are multiple mixed-loyalty couples, and when the NCAA flashes a very obviously-doctored headshot of Rick Pitino during the team intros, the Kentucky man bristles.
Welcome to Jerry's World
Welcome to Jerry's World
"Well Sweet Jesus, Ricky! Was that photo taken in '85?"
Both fan bases in the section start laughing as his Louisville wife swats him.
"I can't stand this! You can't shut up for five minutes!," she says. Minutes later the Kentucky husband leaves in a huff, never to be seen again, and Rick Pitino breaks another home.
I'm alone for 10 seats on row 22. A man who introduces himself as "T" is standing in the aisle with two of his friends. He has a UK basketball track suit on, his friends are in Louisville red. T stands the entire time with his back against the concrete wall of Lucas Oil and a white towel waving from his right hand. When Louisville jumps out to an early lead, he begins screaming.
"THIS AIN'T THE SAME TEAM, THIS AIN'T THE SAME TEAM!" T says.
His Cardinal friend takes a turn after Louisville's Chris Jones drains a 3-pointer. We think.
"Another 3, Chris! Another 3! Chris! Chris! Hey, is that Chris?"
It's impossible to tell live, as the athletes in person are almost pixelated at this distance.
It's ludicrous that the NCAA even opened this section as paid seating for a basketball game on a football field. Most of the fans in 610 are facing negative space behind the curtain partitioning the stadium floor, so at least those of us at the very top of the section can make out the entire court.
But from here it's impossible to discern players, either by jersey number or appearance. Not only are we flung so far up from the court, but also at an angle so that the natural sound of the game and the crowd seems to bounce rather than carry. Everything echoes, and the delay between the game, the crowd's reaction and the jumbotron's live feed is maddening.
T and his crew give up just as Kentucky sneaks within five before the half, exiting the section for what I assume is a better view in some bar outside the stadium. I'm alone in my row for most of the game until a mother in Louisville gear shows up to put her son in timeout.
"Sorry for your loss, any tickets available? Sorry for your loss, anyone selling Sunday tickets? Sorry for your loss, Sunday tickets?"
As the fans pour out of Lucas Oil, a combination of both adrenaline-addled UK fans leaving the building and Wildcats supporters who never made it into the arena immediately take root in the flow of exiting fans, blue buoys with shit-eating grins, open for business.
This is the self-preservation instinct unique to the Kentucky fan. Mere seconds after a thrilling comeback win over their "little-brother" in-state rivals there's not a single moment to reconcile the outcome in basketball terms. For thousands of UK diehards, there is no joy. There is no time to reconcile that Louisville has been firmly put back in its place, nor is there a place for smack talk in a seller's market. Big Blue Nation's demand is so outsized that thousands of fans have wasted time and money just to hope to scalp their way into Sunday all without any guarantee of there even being a Sunday for the Wildcats.
"Hey man, good game," a UK fan says as he steps in front of a group in Louisville red.
"Go fuck yourself," a U of L fan says.
"Just do it. Might as well get some money back," another one says.
The greatest insult UK can deliver is that even against Louisville, even in the NCAA Tournament, the second a Kentucky win ends, there is only the next Kentucky game. Maybe later at the hotel, or the bar. There is no righted wrong, no dynasty preserved. There are only more tickets to be bought, as thousands of underdogs say a thousand I-told-you-so's.