It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
Last year, while some looked forward to Duke, others of us started intently at California while they dismantled a Louisville squad we loved, but never felt safe trusting with our hearts. That squad, tasked with turning the lights out on Freedom Hall one last time, did so with a rain of threes which ended with the coronation of a King.
With the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner hung from the rafters, the tournament was almost a dreaded afterthought.
This year, we entered the season wanting to keep a safe distance. Our hopes, we were told, rested on the far shore at the other end of a long and tall bridge. We packed up and braced for the pain of a long and difficult climb.
Then a Miracle happened on Main. And another. And a third.
Before we realized it, we were struck by something we least expected. We started to love this team. We allowed ourselves to love their struggles and successes. And we loved that we could do so. We caught a Bullet. We watched Terrence trend like a stock (TJ- … TJ+). We laughed and cheered with every goaltended basket by Gorgui Dieng (or, for our announcer friends, Yang, Chang, Shang, Djyang, Zhing, Jing, or He Who Speaks Five Languages). We prayed that New England Mike Marra would discover Main Street Mike Marra. We watched Peyton Siva make dunking adorable. We learned that it really, really is cool to hang out with Homecoming King Kyle Kuric down on his corner (and, well, probably out in the street). We even learned how great it is to smoke one of Hendo’s patented Victory Cigars at the end of a game.
Some here kept their pants on, but many took them off.
Most importantly, we learned the real reason why our arena has that exclamation point in its name. !. When Preston Knowles arrived from Winchester, Ky., he came receiving one other scholarship offer from VCU. It is a nauseating twist of sporting fate that VCU will play more games in the NCAA tournament this year—Preston’s senior year—than he did.
But like I told you, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
What was supposed to happen was something unforgettable. We sought a march through March culminating in a triumph in April. We wanted a banner for this team. We didn’t need a championship banner—although that would have been nice. We would have welcomed the final four. Perhaps even the sweet sixteen. We wanted any reason we could possibly give for hanging a banner for this team from the rafters of (Preston’s) Yum! Center.
A great philosopher once said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need.” It’s corny, I know, but he might be right.
Louisville basketball has meant a lot to me over the years, as it has to a lot of you. Most of us here were either toddlers or not even born when Louisville won its titles in ’80 and ’86. We were raised on the stories of others—many of them comment here on CC—who piled into old Ramblers and Civics and clunked their way to Indianapolis and Dallas to watch the Bruins and Blue Devils lose. We heard stories of Never Nervous Pervis, and Dr. Dunkenstein. We know who won the one and only Dream Game.
What Buckles, Dieng, Hendo, Goode, Jackson, Jennings, Justice, Knowles, Kuric, Marra, Siva, CS5, Smith, Swopshire, and Van Treese and the coaching staff taught us this season was how to love Louisville basketball again.
We took freely of their gifts of teamwork, selfless hustle, and fearless pride in competition. They played, at times, what was a painfully beautiful style of basketball, but beautiful all the same.
They gave us a reason to love Louisville basketball again—and with the years awaiting us, that’s precisely what we needed.
For now, though, we are left just with the contradiction of a numbing pain. No AnVillen video. Just the snap of the pads of spring football, and the ping of baseball bats. I don’t want to watch the tournament now. I can’t. I wish the best for Morehead and our Big East rivals. I wish the worst for the coach of that team in Blue (you know the one). I’ll fold up my basketball sweatshirt. I’ll watch the film of ’86 and the last game in Freedom Hall. I’ll watch the AnVillen videos. I’ll keep the love of this team alive. But I’ll still always remember one thing.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. And I’m not sure these players will ever let it happen again.