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Journalism, fandom a difficult mix

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By John Herndon

As I jumped in my seat along press row during Saturday's 30th District Tournament championship game, I was reminded of the words legendary Kentucky basketball announcer Cawood Ledford said to me more than 20 years ago: You cannot cover a team and be around it all the time without wanting that team to win.

Just as you knew that Cawood was pumped up when he would say "The Wildcats are smmmmoooking," it was quite difficult to hold my excitement when I saw Anderson County, which had played horribly in the second and third quarters, suddenly spring to life and cut Shelby County's big lead to eight, then seven points.

Every time there was a close call or non-call, it was tempting to offer the three officials the use of my glasses.

Just as Cawood told me, though, you have to look for the truth, and Saturday, it smacked you in the face like a blocked shot back at your nose. Shelby was the better team that night. No question.

But this is March. It's the time for Madness and what happened just a few days ago is history. Of nearly 275 teams, only 128 are still alive when regional tournament starts in Kentucky. It's a time when you are happy if you are still playing.

128, then 64, then 32, and finally 16 teams are left standing for the big show in Rupp Arena for the boys and Western Kentucky University's Diddle Arena for the girls.

Not long after Saturday night's game, I asked Anderson boys' coach Glen Drury if he had already talked about the fact that the last time the Bearcats made it out of the Eighth Region, they did so as a district runner-up.

"We haven't, but we will," Drury said. "We can still win the region."

Indeed. In interviews for a feature series I ran to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Anderson's 1997 regional champs, several of those players pointed to that night in March on Anderson's home court when Shelby whipped the Bearcats. It was the first time all season that a regional foe had beaten Anderson.

It's eerily similar to 2008.

Anderson had not lost to a regional opponent all season until Shelby slapped the Bearcats around Saturday night. The question is whether the current Bearcats will be able to respond with the drive and determination of the 1997 team, of which their assistant coach, Bryan Hyatt, was a member. That team routed Bullitt East and Carroll County before slipping past Oldham County in the final.

The door is still open for them.

While no one is suggesting that Anderson can win both the Eighth Region and the Sweet 16, some notable district runners-up have taken the big prize, including 1971 Male and 1979 Lafayette, two of the greatest teams in Kentucky history. Male, which beat Anderson in the 1971 state championship game, lost to Manual in the district final that year. Lafayette, featuring Dirk Minniefield, fell to Tates Creek in the district final.

And, there is the remarkable story of Edmonson County, the team many say saved the current Sweet 16 in 1976. Edmonson also lost in the district final before its Cinderella run through the Sweet 16.

One of the great things about heading to a district or regional tournament is the number of former greats you can see in the crowd. During the week, I saw former Anderson County All-Stater Will Carlton, now the boys' golf coach at the high school and former Shelby County All-Staters Norris Beckley, Amanda Green and Mr. Basketball Mike Casey.

Casey, as any Kentucky fan can tell you, was one of the greatest clutch players to ever play for Adolph Rupp and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the fall of 1968.

But Casey's history also shows how precarious sports dreams really are. Most Wildcat fans will argue all day and night that the 1970 Kentucky team would have been better than UCLA had Casey not broken his leg in an automobile wreck.

Finally, a tip of the hat to Spencer County.

This was the first year the district tournament had been held at Spencer since the realignment that took effect for the 2005-06 season. Spencer was a member of the 29th District, but was moved three years ago.

Going into the tournament, there was a lot of discussion if Spencer could pull it off, given the fact that Anderson and Shelby both have tremendous fan support, much bigger than most high school teams even dream of enjoying.

But Spencer did a splendid job hosting the tourney, especially given the parking situation created by massive construction going on around the school.

Granted, Spencer's gym is small. It seats a little over 1,000. But I found I can live with it. While I am not crazy about having one game a night all week long, having the championship games on separate nights gave both a distinct air. If anything, having the girls' final as the only game in town Friday night might have added to the drama taking place in one of the all-time classics.

Admittedly, I had concerns and reservations, but Spencer principal Tracy Bale and athletic director Brian Higdon should be commended for running a first-class operation during the district tourney.

I will see you at Henry County and Shelby County this week.