Kentucky at a crossroads of race, hoops

I moved to Louisville in 1987, after Rex Chapman's freshman year at the University of Kentucky. Everywhere I went, people rhapsodized about King Rex.

And then they'd literally lower their voices and say, "You know he has a black girlfriend, don't you?"

Yes, it was out there. And yes, it was considered too scandalous to be spoken in normal conversational tones.

I believe everything Rex Chapman told The (Louisville) Courier-Journal this week about the institutional and popular backlash to his occasional dating of black women. I believe some Kentucky officials warned him to keep it on the down-low, and I believe some fans reacted like Neanderthals. I believe it because I've lived in conflicted Kentucky for 18 years now, where race and basketball have always been fractious.

(He said some of the same things to ESPN.com Page 2 writer Jason Whitlock about his rookie season with the Charlotte Hornets last week.)

Chapman's statements are hot news, creating a national curiosity. Everyone wants to know: Is today's Kentucky the same intolerant and benighted place that Chapman endured in the 1980s?

The answer is not as simple and sweeping as most folks would like.

Kentucky has made huge strides since the days when the Wildcats went until 1970 without a black scholarship basketball player. It has continued to make strides since the days when Rex Chapman's interracial dating caused folks to speak in low, disapproving voices.

Rick Pitino won a national title in 1996 starting five black guys – and people hardly noticed. The school hired Tubby Smith as its first black coach in 1998 – and if Kentucky possessed a truly intolerable racial climate today, Smith wouldn't be entering his ninth year on the job. The most popular Wildcats of this century have been two black kids from California, Chuck Hayes and Tayshaun Prince.

Now here's the other half of the answer:

You can still find people who don't like Tubby Smith because he's black – and you don't have to go on a monthlong search to find them. Like many African-American men of his generation, Smith prefers to publicly ignore the intolerance he faces; he'd rather give away his game plans than talk about his hate mail. But he's not deaf and blind.

You still hear bigger cheers for white players in Rupp Arena than their contributions merit. They're ready to build statues to Caucasian jump shooter Patrick Sparks, pride of Central City, Ky., after a single season in a Kentucky uniform.

You could find talk-show callers and e-mail writers who complain that Tubby doesn't recruit enough white players (a preposterous criticism when you consider the numbers).

And you always seem to find more white ex-Wildcats than black ex-Wildcats "on scholarship for life," as they call it, in terms of employment and popularity. Case in point: State agriculture commissioner Richie Farmer. The 5-foot, 11-inch guard from the hills of Appalachia was a career single-digit scorer who wrote a book and won an elected office. A kindly soul who has worn his celebrity well since his days as a high-school hero, Farmer would probably admit that his life would have turned out far differently if he were a black kid from Louisville.

So, yeah. Kentucky has come a long way. It needed to. And there is a long way still to go.

We're talking about a state that has wound itself in knots over race since the Civil War. A border state with strategic importance, Kentucky tried to stay neutral in the war. It wound up loyal to the Union, but many Kentuckians fought for the Confederacy.

By the middle of the 20th century, basketball had established itself as the state religion, and race became intertwined in an ongoing cultural tango.

In 1966, Adolph Rupp and his all-white team met Texas Western and its all-black starting five for the national title. An old white man who was a product of his times, Rupp had hardly embraced the rise of the black man as a basketball force – and in that game he became the symbol of racial intransigence, overrun by the irresistible force of progress.

Meanwhile, the state's other promiment basketball programs were rising on the shoulders of black Kentuckians who either spurned Rupp or felt as though he recruited them only reluctantly. Western Kentucky had Jim McDaniels; Louisville had Butch Beard and Wes Unseld.

Then Denny Crum began taking Louisville to Final Fours with largely black teams that played the game with what could only be described as soul: big afros, alley-oop dunks and the occasional poem from Poncho Wright. When Crum's free-wheeling powerhouse was set against the uptight Big Blue monolith, the state's battle lines were firmly drawn.

Beyond school loyalties, this came down to regionalism – folks out in the state have always had an abiding mistrust of everything that comes out of Louisville, except tax dollars – and racism. Some Kentucky fans called the Cardinals the Black Birds; some Louisville fans considered the Wildcats to be the KKK's team.

And around that time, along came Rex. The white kid who "played black," from the bedrock Big Blue territory of Owensboro. When Chapman lit up Louisville in Freedom Hall as a freshman, some Kentucky fans had their Fantasy Moment: a white guy in their uniform running past and jumping over the team that allegedly had cornered the state market on athleticism.

If only Rex had stayed away from the black women. Kentucky fans might have had him for more than two years, and then his place in UK lore might be inviolate – right up there with Dan Issel.

But here's the thing: I've seen King Rex come back to Rupp Arena, and heard the applause showered on him. Nobody in blue seems to hold a thing against him today. Times have changed, and the program has changed – at least a little – as well.

It's not yet reached the age and stage of complete enlightenment, but Kentucky has a better grip on race and basketball today than ever before.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.