Alabama basketball lost its biggest fan with the passing of Luke Ratliff, and I lost a friend | Hurt
Often, as we try to find our way through the gray, impenetrable cloud of grief that can accompany a sudden, unexpected death of a young person, we try to find comfort in the phrase that the final days were their happiest, that they were “doing what they loved.”
Those words have never been truer, nor have they ever brought less solace.
Luke Ratliff, who passed away Friday at 23, loved Alabama basketball. He wasn’t just a fan, although he was certainly that. He loved it in a big, broad, exuberant way, the way he loved life. On the last day I spoke to him, just before Alabama was set to play in the NCAA Tournament at Bankers Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, he told me he had never been happier.
That wasn’t because he was the center of attention during Alabama’s big postseason run, a sort of plaid-wearing symbol. He was actually ambivalent about that sort of spotlight for himself, but he was passionate about anything that brought attention to his beloved basketball team.
That fandom was how we met. He had a presence on social media, well-known as “Fluffopotamus88”on Twitter. He’d reply to something I’d posted, or post something funny himself, and eventually I spoke to him and his Crimson Chaos group in passing before games.
In the 2020 season, I asked him if he was going to make the trip to Kentucky. He said he really wanted to go, had never been to Rupp Arena, but wasn’t sure if he could. So I told him he was welcome to ride along with me. On the long eight hours up, and eight hours back from the Bluegrass, we became friends.
Luke talked about all sorts of things, not just basketball. We talked about the Bourbon Trail and his love of NASCAR. He would talk about his battles with anxiety, which he had shared on social media. Easygoing and intelligent, his interests were wide and his heart was big.
So we’d speak at Coleman Coliseum, or when I would see him on the road. I rarely saw him in Tuscaloosa – he was 23 and, at 62, the social world of the university is not my world.
Then the 2021 basketball season arrived, unlike any other. Attendance at home games was limited by COVID-19, and Alabama fan presence on the road was essentially nonexistent except for Luke, who was there every time.
He’d make long, hard road trips to places like College Station, Texas, and Columbia, Missouri. You would notice him in a crowd of 15,000, but in a near-empty area, cheering for the visiting team, he stood out. He stood out so much that occasionally the opposing players would shout back at him, or opposing fans would target him for abuse – which he took in stride, more or less.
He ultimately made his peace with South Carolina’s Frank Martin. I won’t conjecture about LSU's Will Wade.
His unique effect on people had two qualities. First, his own wit and good nature became apparent if you knew him. The outpouring of online affection Friday night, from a devastated Alabama coach Nate Oats to the extended fan base that his father, Bryan Ratliff, called his “other family,” made that obvious. Second, there is something about seeing someone as passionate as Luke was about basketball: not just because the team was winning, but because the way he embraced every aspect of it, victory or defeat, is rare and cannot help but stir something.
When Alabama clinched the SEC regular-season championship in Starkville, Mississippi, Luke was overjoyed, as the SEC Network video made clear. Luke and his friends cheered on the Crimson Tide afterward, stayed to cheer the team as it boarded the bus. Then, at some point while he was on Highway 82 and I was still writing in Mississippi, he called me.
“How’s it going?,” I asked. “Great. We just passed the bus. We’ve got to get to Coleman (Coliseum) before they do, so we will be waiting for them.”
He did. And there he was, chomping on a big cigar and reaching across a barricade to give Oats a hug.
That’s where the solace lies, if there is any for those who knew him: family, friends, followers on social media who never met him but loved him anyway.
He was happy in the past few weeks, but all I could think of on Friday night was that call, how happy he was and how, maybe, at the end of the journey, he will be standing there, in plaid coat and twirling a cigar, and saying, “It was great, but I had to hurry so I’d be here to greet you.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports,com or via Twitter @cecilhurt