My first steps inside Freedom Hall may have come during the State Fair. Or Carl Casper's Custom Auto Show. I don't know. It doesn't matter.
The real beginning was in 1992. Louisville was playing Oral Roberts, some team I had never heard of. I was nine. A friend's dad gave us tickets, me and my dad. They were on the lower level, just a few rows back. That day, or maybe it was a night, Boo Brewer set a record. Most three-pointers in a game.
It was amazing. He kept making shots, and everyone kept yelling BOOO and sometimes I could barely see because the people in front of me were standing up. It was the same a few months later, in a Tulane game. We lucked into the same tickets. There was more standing that time. A huge run. Lots of noise, more noise than I had ever heard. I could barely see it when Greg Minor dunked, and I didn't care. The noise told me everything I needed to know.
It felt like magic.
That has never changed.
Mine was a family without Kentucky roots. My parents arrived in Louisville in 1979. It was a good time for a basketball fan to find a team, and my dad signed up. I was three when Louisville won in '86. I'm told I thought Milt Wagner's name was Milk Wagner. So I don't remember that much.
My fandom was framed by Morton, Minor and Rozier, then Wheat, Rogers, Sims and Flynn. Metro Conference. Games on WDRB. I watched everything and read everything.
It was all because of Freedom Hall, really. The beginning. That magic. Through elementary school and high school, a few games a year, it was the same as it was that first day; I could just see better.
It felt so big and important when you walked in, but it felt like home, too. The caramel smell, still the same year after year. I went to Yankee Stadium, smelled something similar and felt like I was home. The way the fans cheer when the Cards are looking shaky, urging them on. Most places, that doesn't happen.
I went to college in Dayton. Someone said they'd been to Freedom Hall and didn't see anything special. I scoffed. I live in Rhode Island now. I went to a URI game with 5,000 people or so. They were into it. A friend asked if I had ever been to a game with such a crazy atmosphere. I laughed.
When your beginning was Freedom Hall, you're a little spoiled.
As I look back now, I'm grateful: it was the beginning of more than I realized. A love affair with a team, yes, but also a passion for college basketball, for sports in general. These days, a connection to home that I sometimes need. An appreciation for the magic. It was all born there.
It was the beginning of everything, for so many of us.
It's the end now, but that beginning won't ever change.