Jay-Z, Drake, and Matt Jones: The Rebirth of Big Blue Nation

Behind the 69-62 final score, something bigger happened Saturday afternoon in Lexington. It wasn’t Michael Kidd-Gilchrist or Russ Smith’s stat line. It wasn’t the horrid officiating.

Jay-Z, arguably the most popular rapper in the world, sat courtside at Rupp Arena. If you aren’t familiar with Sean “Jay-Z” Carter, you may know his pregnant wife Beyonce. Or perhaps, his current collaborator, the ever controversial Kanye West.

Jay-Z in Rupp? How Is This Possible?

A friend helped it sink in at a New Year’s Eve party. “Why would Jay-Z spend his New Year’s Eve in Lexington, Kentucky?” The answer is simple, but the ramifications are boundless.

Thanks to John Calipari and his mega-teams of future pros, Lexington is experiencing a rebirth. Suddenly, a town known for Horse farms and rolling pastures has become the “Hip-Hop Capital of College Hoops.”

But this isn’t just thanks to Jay-Z attending one game. The world’s hottest up and coming rapper, Drake, has been on record numerous times about his love for Kentucky Basketball. When it came time for Drake to tour the nation for his superb sophomore album, the artist spurned the larger, fancier, and more urban KFC Yum! Center in favor of a concert at Rupp Arena. That event that will likely turn into something of a UK pep rally in the middle of conference play.

Thirty years ago, Louisville was the more culturally relevant squad. Denny Crum’s crews that featured Darrell “Dr. Dunkenstein” Griffith and “Never Nervous” Pervis Ellison had the precursor to the urban swagger that we are seeing out of Lexington. Maybe Grandmaster Flash or Run DMC didn’t make an appearance in Freedom Hall, but the Louisville Cardinals had a sense of “cool” that hadn’t been seen before.

Most importantly, Crum made Kentucky and Joe B. Hall look old. Louisville was fine being little brother then, a younger, fresher, and more culturally relevant little brother.

In many ways Calipari has done the same exact thing to Pitino. Since his arrival, Cal has aged Pitino tremendously. His comments and enthusiasm for his program make Pitino seem like a crotchety old man at times, despite the fact that Calipari is only seven years younger than Pitino.

Cal’s arrival sparked a revolution. It is a rebirth for a program that was on the ropes after the disastrous Billy Gillispie era. Today, Big Blue Nation is seeing national press and exposure for its growth in popularity. Nationally, it’s publicly acceptable and even trendy to be a Kentucky basketball fan, even if you live hundreds of miles away from Kentucky.

Only in this sort of atmosphere could something like “Louisville Doesn’t Exist” receive national attention. A campaign based on Calipari’s comment that Kentucky was the “only major basketball program” in the state. A Lexington clothing store ran with it and created huge media buzz and a trending topic on twitter.

The pure stupidity and absurdness of the shirt has been well explained by plenty of Louisville fans and commentators but was best deplored by the Courier-Journal’s Eric Crawford, who turned the campaign into a terrific parody of “It’s A Wonderful Life.”

However, instead of being taken for what it was, a funny and smart attack on a dumb sweatshirt, it was criticized the Big Blue Nation Army. Especially by Major General Matt Jones, owner and operator of Kentucky Sports Radio and all of its subsidiaries.

If Kentucky basketball is seeing a revolution, then Jones is its Warhol. A curator and kingmaker of everything Big Blue, Jones aims to present Kentucky athletics “in the most ridiculous manner possible.” Jones is exactly what New Lexington embodies, young, smart, and hip. His writing contains some of the best commentary on UK athletics on a regular basis, something that is rarely seen from an independent sports blog. Through KSR, Jones has caught the attention of many of the nation’s best sportswriters and recently provided a guest post on ESPN’s culture site Grantland.

However, behind Jones’ amusing and smart analysis of the Cats, controversy has ensued. Last year Jones infamously got caught up on the bad side of WDRB’s Bill Lamb in a story that was well reported here. But Jones’ latest tussle came with Crawford.

Jones spent much of his weekend wrangling with the C-J columnist first on his disdain for “Louisville Doesn’t Exist,” then for whether he was actually in attendance for Saturday’s big game. The Twitter battle culminated in Jones calling Crawford a liar on live radio Sunday morning and Crawford receiving word via Twitter. Jones has since apologized twice on air, but the damage has been done.

In his eternal effort to feed the mouths of his Big Blue Lunatic following, Jones has stepped on the feet of the mainstream media. Not because he’s necessarily a bad guy, but because that’s his M.O. Jones is the Howard Stern of Kentucky; ticking people off just to see how they react. Jones is loved because of his shock-jock attitude. His fans adore him because he is Big Blue through and through. Jones’ remarks against the “mainstreamers” is just another ring in his circus, and the crowd eats it up.

Jones and Kentucky Sports Radio represent the best and the worst of the UK rebirth. With its new found cultural prominence, Lexington’s largesse is also inflating. Cats fans have a reputation around here for their annoying fan base, and Big Blue Nation’s increasing swagger is bound to have an opposite reaction. Today it’s a growing sense of ill will toward Kentucky fans, but who’s to say what tomorrow will bring.