They say basketball to Kentucky is what football is to Florida. The game bridges the state's economic disparities and generations, from coal mining grandparents to Xboxing adolescents.
Passion arrives at your door in droves when the University of Kentucky Wildcats visit, and the Tampa invasion has begun.
The "sea of blue" supporters are among 18,000 college basketball fans landing downtown for the NCAA men's basketball tournament. They're squeezing into downtown parking garages, riding InTown Trolleys and streetcars and reserving hotel rooms from Westshore to Harbour Island.
Basketball followers know the drill: Eight teams, including the Wildcats, are part of a 68-team field trying to advance to the April 2 Final Four in Houston. The mad march begins today at the St. Pete Times Forum, which hosts regional second- and third-round competition, drawing teams that include UCLA, Michigan State, Florida and Kentucky. Combined, those four have amassed 22 national titles.
Tickets start at $77, but on Wednesday, spectators got to see teams practice for free.
Wildcat fans lined the tunnel when their team came out, reached out for high fives, clapped in unison and held up placards as their fight song blared. They skipped work, pulled on royal blue T-shirts and pinned "True Blue" buttons to their chests. They made their children do the same.
"The game of basketball is woven into the fabric of Kentucky like hunting and fishing, coffee in the morning, the Kentucky Derby in May, and the bluegrass itself that gives the Commonwealth its nickname," Glenn Logan wrote Wednesday on the UK blog, A Sea of Blue. "Basketball in Kentucky is an obsession."
You could see it on the faces of Verna Lotze, 68, and her husband, Lawrence, 67, snowbirds from Louisville, who sent three sons to the university. The Lotzes back their team's coach with blind devotion.
"Can't do any wrong," Verna said.
You heard it in the stories of Lisa Andrews, 49, who lives in Land O'Lakes but grew up on a Frankfurt tobacco farm drawing up a scorecard, using X's to mark points and filled in O's for made free throws when her team was on TV.
"That's just what you did," she said. "You watched TV but you listened on the radio because that's just what daddy did."
As she came into the Forum, someone yelled out "Sea of Blue," and she felt she was among family.
"I saw all these Kentucky fans, and it felt like home," Joe Bennett, 42, of Lakeland said. He grew up in Lexington and relived the time he ditched high school in 1985 to watch the Wildcats practice during the Final Four. On Wednesday, he ditched again, this time leaving his environmental engineering firm in the lurch for a few hours.
Besides revisiting past memories, the games allowed families to inspire and instill Wildcat passion into the future.
Terry Graves, who lives in Lexington, has made burgoo, a Kentucky stew and tailgating staple of three meats and vegetables, for her St. Petersburg grandchildren, to give them a true taste of Kentucky.
She brought them to Wednesday's practice session and made her grandson, Josh Graves, 9, form the letters C-A-T-S with his arms.
Across the court, Norris Clay's 2-year-old daughter, Ramiyah, wore a Kentucky cheerleading outfit.
"I want them to have the same type of experience I had as a kid," said Clay, 36, a Pinellas County Sheriff's deputy.
Scattered around the arena were fans of other programs. Paul Graziano, 54, and Fred Best, 72, came from Santa Barbara to cheer on their UC Santa Barbara Gauchos.
Gator fans had a visible presence, as well.
But even they acknowledged the sea of blue.
"I don't like Kentucky but you have to appreciate the following," said Mike Helfand, 46, from Spring Hill.
"Well, we've got better weather," said Marcy Ryan, a Gator alum from Tampa, whose kids Michael, 12, and Rex, 14, joined her.
"No one travels like Kentucky," acknowledged Bob Bohanan, 72, of Tampa, whose orange shirt stood out like the sun in a blue sky.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]