Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Outside of the elemental bond inherited simply by being a Louisville fan, my lone personal attachment to U of L's 1986 national championship is a detail-deficient story about my father screaming and waking me up. I was 1 year old.
Since it went up in 2006, I've probably driven past the "Griff's Louisville" mural just off the Watterson Expressway close to 1,000 times. It's a proper dedication to a man I never saw play with in person, but of whom I know all about.
For all intents and purposes, Darrell Griffith is Louisville basketball...not just University of Louisville basketball, but Louisville basketball. If the legends are to be believed, Griff first made a name for himself locally by dunking over 7-foot future legend Artis Gilmore in the famed Dirt Bowl when he was just in 8th grade. He then starred at Male High School, chose to stay home and play for the Cardinals, and ultimately delivered on his promise to bring the city its first national championship. Thirty-three years after his defining moment, Griff is still one of the city of Louisville's biggest stars.
Having said all that, recently I've noticed that I no longer get goosebumps or swell with pride when I glance at the mural near Newburg Rd. Instead I notice the foreign stitching on the jersey and think about how out-of-date the Cardinal bird on the shorts looks. I feel like the man in mid-air is a stranger, and the program he represents isn't mine.
It's not that I want Griff supplanted - an impossible task to begin with - or anything like that, I just want my own mural-worthy memory. I want another one for my father's generation and I want the first one for my generation. I finally want to have a place in time and a story that all of us can share.
I've cared far too much about Louisville basketball for as long I can remember.
I didn't really know why then, and I still don't really know why now.
Before I could walk, I was tossing a mini Cardinal ball into a mini Cardinal hoop. Before I'd performed (forcibly) in a school program or play, I was making my parents and their friends watch my re-enactment of U of L's starting lineup.
The beautiful madness has never gone away, or even faded really, it's just adapted to keep up with the passing of time. Me writing this post at 3:30 a.m. with the busiest work day of the year set to start in four and-a-half hours is the current version.
My conscious history is laced with more memories of U of L basketball than it should be. I am fully aware of this.
I remember being nine and fighting off sleep with every ounce of my being in order to watch the Cards put forth a lackluster Sweet 16 effort against a superior Arizona team. I remember calling my best friend three years later after U of L had defeated Texas so that we could share in the joy of our first Elite 8 experience. I remember attempting to use laughter to get through the final Crum years, and feeling robbed when I listened to frustrated older fans talk about the way things used to be. I remember a classmate scribbling "Louisville + Pitino = 1980s dominance" on his dry erase board during chemistry class on the day the news broke that Tom Jurich had reeled the former UK coach in. I remember my mom, whom I'd never seen get overly into a sporting event I wasn't playing in, standing on the couch and clapping as the 2005 Cards ran out the clock against West Virginia. I remember the confusion after the Michigan State loss in '09, the pain of the Morehead State loss two years later, and the unbridled joy of the incredible run 12 months ago. I remember countless games on the couch on with my father, hours of postgame phone conversations with my closest friends, and terrific game-watch parties with equally terrific company. I remember how much I've loved every single second.
The one thing I don't remember is Louisville winning a national championship.
I think it's time.
Kindergarten through college would have been a much more difficult road to traverse had I not consistently permitted myself the privilege to daydream about Louisville winning a national title. Who would I hug first? If I was there would I run out on the court? How much money would I allow myself to spend on championship gear? The questions have built up over 20 plus years, but so far not one has been answered.
I understand and embrace "the joy being in the journey" and all that, but I'd also like to experience the ultimate feeling of fandom for the first time. Because that's why we're all in this, right? Debating in-game coaching moves, discussing the development of players, keeping up with recruiting; these are all things we do with the stored hope that eventually it all winds up with our team being the last one standing. We want that unwavering loyalty to be rewarded, we dream of that unbridled love being reciprocated.
The dated championship memorabilia from the '80s that hangs or sits in stores, bars and shops across the city always remind me of what I've never tasted. They always make me thing about the updated items I wish I could see in their place, the posters, the autographs, the framed pictures that would instantly conjure up reminders of this great period in my life and this special time in my city's existence.
Selfishly, I want to experience a title before I get too much older. I want to be able to celebrate with my friends before life ties us all down any more than it already has. I want to have at least one championship story to be able to tell my children, and then hope that we get to experience one or two (or 25) more together.
I want this team to be the one that makes it all happen.
A few years ago I read Jim Terhune's Tales from the 1980 Louisville Cardinals. It's loaded with great stories about how people at the time questioned Denny Crum's ability to win the big one, about how Rodney McCray had come to U of L with a terrible attitude, and, of course, about Wiley Brown's prosthetic thumb. As I read, I couldn't help but think about how few of these stories would have persisted past that calendar year had the Cards been knocked off by UCLA or upset earlier in the tournament.
College basketball's greatest asset can also be its cruelest and most unfair trait. Five minutes in March or April can change the way we view entire seasons and entire teams for the rest of our lives.
Once the calm had returned in the hours after Louisville's Elite 8 win over Florida, I thought about Preston Knowles and how unfair he had to have been thinking all of this was. The former unheralded recruit from Winchester, Ky. who willed a "bridge year" team to follow his lead, leave it all on the court and overachieve to the tune of a Big East title game appearance and a four seed in the big dance seemed like the one who deserved that moment more than anyone who had cut down the nets that day in Phoenix. Instead, his story will be largely forgotten in a few short years because of one bad step that took him out of one game, and one big shot minutes later that eliminated his team from one tournament
I fear that fate for this team in large part because there are so many stories worth telling.
The two-star recruit with the quirky personality who almost transferred after his freshman season, but instead worked his way into becoming perhaps the most improbable All-American in U of L history.
The senior captain who went through it all as a Cardinal. The guy who saw the highest of highs and the lowest of lows for his program both and off the court, and who always faced it all with the highest degree of character.
The 7-foot center from Senegal who came to America having only played basketball for a couple of years and who was completely incapable of speaking the language. The same one who wound up leaving Louisville as the most popular man in the city.
And then there's the story of Rick Pitino
Even at the times when it was the most justifiable, I've never understood the over-the-top Pitino bashing. He came to Louisville at a time (whether we knew it or not) when the program was in danger of falling into a DePaul-esque black hole, and because of that he was always going to leave this place far better off than he found it. That's always been good enough for me.
When Pitino announced three years ago that he planned to retire after his current contract ran out, it sparked the expectedly unnecessary debates over who should take his place when that time comes (or if it came sooner). My stance at the time was that I hoped we'd go in a direction away from the Pitino-clan, away from the likes of Billy Donovan, Kevin Willard, Richard Pitino, etc. My rationale was this: Pitino thought he was bigger than the program and would always think he was bigger than the program. Basically, Rick Pitino wasn't a Louisville guy.
Rick Pitino has become a Louisville guy.
When I say that, I don't mean that we should expect to see Pitino donning a red sweater vest at home games in 20 years, or that he's any less of a New Yorker than he was in 2002 or 2010. I just mean that his actions now fall in line with the motto he created. I don't think "Louisville First" was a saying Pitino truly believed applied to him he made it a brand, I think it was just a pair of words he smashed together to help with recruiting and public perception. That isn't the case anymore.
The best evidence of Rick Pitino's transformation was caught on tape at the beginning of last Saturday's Big East championship game against Syracuse. Just before the tip, Pitino was seen walking down the sidelines giving "knuckles" to each one of his players. As recently as 15 months ago, it was impossible to imagine Pitino sauntering down to the business class section of the bench for anything less than a verbal dress down or a better view of the action on the court.
Things have changed.
Outsiders will name being humbled by the off-the-court events of 2009 and 2010 as the foundation for Pitino's transformation, and I think that's part of it. I think the support he's received from the city and the university in the wake of those events has played a role as well.
Above all else, though, I think it's this group of players that deserve the lion's share of the credit for the birth of "Louisville Rick."
Major college basketball isn't the most wholesome environment America has to offer, so to be winning big with a team filled with guys who are hard-workers, fun to be around and have tremendous character has to be about as rewarding an experience as Pitino has had in his career. And he's said as much himself.
Watch any one of his press conferences this season and the same two things become evident each time: Rick Pitino is busting his ass to get everything he possibly can out of this team, and he's having a hell of a good time doing it. I think that's sort of the stance Louisville tries to take with regards to all walks of life: work hard, love and respect the people around you, and make sure you're enjoying it all.
Programs just don't win like this anymore.
I would venture to say that most Louisville fans know more about Gorgui Dieng than they do at least one of their family members. Had he left six months after arriving on campus then you would have had to have changed "most" to "some" in order to make the previous statement an accurate one.
You don't turn down the top recruits in the country when they're lining up to play for your school, but if Kentucky fans had the choice, I think they'd all admit that they'd prefer to win a national title with players they'd gotten to know over the course of three or four years. The lack of a significant attachment isn't enough to detract from the thrill of winning a championship, but I do think the presence of one is significant enough to add to it.
Detrimental ego problems are the norm even on teams that have been fortunate enough to see their most talented players stick around past their freshman seasons. Kids want their shot at big numbers on the court, and bigger numbers off it.
That Pitino has been able to put together a group this loaded with senior, junior and sophomore talent, and still have no one doubt that each and every player has fully bought into the team concept is nothing short of a minor miracle. Selfless talent is an endangered species, and as a result people have almost forgotten how effective it can be.
More than any group I've ever followed, this team embodies and justifies my love affair with Louisville basketball. At this point, any Cardinal championship would be beyond special. A championship by this team, however, would be perfect.
The first step towards any realization of that dream takes place tonight.