I remember being maybe four or five years old and laying in my room still awake at night as my dad yelled from the living room things like "HE WALKED!" or "GOTTA REBOUND, WHY AREN'T YOU REBOUNDING!!?" I didn't know why the players couldn't walk on the court or what a rebound was, but I knew the Cards were playing basketball.
From about that same age I could instantly recognize the voice of Paul Rogers through the crackling AM radio in my dad's Ford Ranger, and I knew every word of the Fischer's jingle. I remember the caramel corn aroma drifting through the corridors of Freedom Hall. I remember dropping just about every box of nacho's purchased for me at those games. And even more vividly, I remember the excitement. I think as long as I've been around Cardinal sports I've had a pit in my stomach when they take the court (or the field, for that matter)
I remember Samaki Walker, DeJuan Wheat, Marques Maybin, then Reece Gaines and many more from my childhood years. The first team I remember being very invested in was the '95-'96 team that lost by a point in the Sweet Sixteen to Wake Forest. I got in trouble at school for telling my teacher she should take off her UK sweater (Oldham County has made strides in UofL fandom, but it was almost all Blue when I was growing up) because I liked Louisville, and that I didn't care that they had lost and Kentucky was winning (and of course that was Pitino's monster UK squad of '96).
The Reece Gaines miracle against Tennessee was the most exciting moment of my life as a fan when it happened. It was replaced by the CUSA Championship game when Larry, Francisco, Taquan, Ellis and Otis became my biggest heroes. Then when the Fighting Pittsnoggle's went down to us in overtime, that became my biggest moment as I ran outside in the yard screaming "Final Four!!!" A week later my heart was broken by Dee Brown. I went to the home NIT games at Freedom Hall the following season and cheered like it was the Final Four. And I quickly got to know our new foes in the Big East. My senior year of high school I cracked the screen of the cell phone my parents had just recently (and reluctantly) purchased for me when Jerry Smith stunned Marquette. I know I'm missing some awesome moments from those mid-2000's years.
I enrolled at UofL in the fall of 2007, watching my world unravel as Kragthorpe drove into the ground the football team I had watched play with swagger and power all throughout high school. I was at the Kentucky game feeling sick as Stevie Johnson streaked down the sideline and Harry Douglas (who, I thought was at least part God) fell short. The next week when Syracuse walked in to PJCS and wrecked our hope, our pride, and our nation-leading home win streak, I was beyond despair. But then basketball season started.
That year we beat Kentucky (badly, at Rupp), I witnessed the College GameDay, the whiteout, the halftime suit switcharoo, a host of top 25 teams, and David Padgett being David Padgett. I even missed my girlfriend's concert for the Georgetown game and I lied to her about it. She broke up with me, for much more than that, but I remember it being on my list of offenses. The Elite 8 run that year was especially awesome, as I was finally part of the school as well as a fan. The next year I was there for Sosa's shot and collective gasp-to-shouts-of-joy amongst all the attendees in Freedom Hall. I caught a ball that T-Will swatted during that game, and I threw it back to him. Pretty sure we became good friends at that point. By then the Big East Tournament was an annual event looked forward to on a level similar to Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the last day of classes. I don't know how many of those games I agonized and celebrated through at Captain's Quarters with my roommate, Aaron.
The loss to Michigan State that year and the hectic season that ensued, with Pitino's transgression coming to light, the second coming of Jesus with Calipari moving to Lexington, and the first-round drubbing we took from California were all tough to stomach. I know I began to worry. Because, through all those memories and great moments, wins and losses, laughs and (occasionally) cries, I had never seen a UofL championship like the one my dad described to me when he was in Law School in '86. I had never known the joy and euphoria that I had seen so many other people like UK fans, Florida fans, and Duke fans get to enjoy. I had never really thought about the championship drought and that it was a statistic that altered the rest of the world's view of a program I considered elite. There was a bad ratio of Final Four banners to Championship banners, and the numbers next to them were far too outdated to justify the Yum! Center and the attendance and support, it seemed. I just felt it incredibly perplexing that Louisville was what it was, despite the lack of titles.
The Miracle on Main happened. Preston Knowles happened. A different aura began to develop with that year's team. Pitino displayed personal change in his interviews. He smiled, he joked, he spoke openly about players and their girlfriends (he finally allowed them to date), and he seemed rejuvenated. I loved that team and the grit they showed getting to the Big East Tournament Championship game. Then, Kenneth Faried happened. But almost immediately, I began to realize what we would have coming back and coming in, and realized the team and the program was heading in the right direction. The media agreed. We began the next season at #4.
I think at this point everybody knows what that season was like. I took a victory lap at UofL, so 2012 was my final year there. The season had ups and downs, but my God was that team fun to follow. Siva, Gorgui, Kuric, Chane, Smith, the other Smith... The madness of that March and the infra-red uniforms will still be accessible in my memory bank until the day I die. It was just so much fun, and so unreal, with the UK Final Four showdown. Of course that season ended with everyone again looking at what was coming back and thinking great things could follow. Great things did.
I moved to Cincinnati this year. I missed Louisville. I still miss Louisville. I miss the Yum, I miss Cherokee Park, Bardstown Road, Churchill, PJCS, the Granville, Cluckers. I miss having my friends and fellow fans everywhere I look. All season I was without anybody to intelligently talk Louisville basketball with on a day to day basis. In some ways this was good because I was a nervous wreck with the expectations and the realization that this was the best shot we could have (and have had) for a long time at winning it all. I wrote this post to reflect, but also to try and sort out this run. It felt odd watching the games by myself (except for the 2nd round and Sweet Sixteen games, which I attended). As the tournament went on, the karma and story lines mounted, the pressure ratcheted up, and the lucky quarter that fell into my shoe sometime before the first BET game became an indispensable talisman.
I went through swings all week where I'd read everything about the tournament, and then get too nervous to read anything. I wanted this so badly, it was really unhealthy. Totally acceptable, but unhealthy. I relished in the Red-Out of Rupp and the hatred of every UK jerk in that city that night. I squirmed with every shot Oregon poured in. I cried when Kevin went down, then rejoiced when we beat the ever-loving-shit of Duke in the second half. I agonized all week over Wichita State. I had to leave to play in the orchestra for an opera when we were down 11. I could barely make a sound come out of my instrument as I tried to bring myself around to the thought of losing. At intermission I saw my phone had 9 texts. We had done it. The thing that stands out to me about tis year was that the celebration of winning was usually drowned out by the concern over the next game. This year to me was defined by the chase for this championship, and I honestly think that anything less would have been too much to take. At the same time, I did everything I could to keep the thought of winning it out of my mind, so that potential disappointment could somehow be lessened. That was madness, but I was vulnerable and scared, so I did what I did.
Two nights ago I watched Spike Albrecht bury four threes and take screens all over the court to drive in for layups that Gorgui was helpless to stop. Then I watched something I almost didn't believe- couldn't afford to believe out of fear that it wouldn't be enough. Luke Hancock (who I said at some point early this season would be indispensable in a key game or two) went off. I've never seen that, none of us have and we might not ever again. The back and forth nature of the second half and the heroics of Burke on one end and Siva on the other had my heart racing so fast I was dizzy every time I stood up. Chane's rebounds, Gorgui's jumpers, Siva's drives. I remember it all- but not like I remember other, lesser games of the past. I think I have finally figured out this whole event.
I love UofL. I love that town, the people, the teams, the school, the bars. Everything. All those memories I rambled through mean more to me than the English language can illustrate. I wanted this championship so badly for so long that the run to it seemed at times unreal, like something that happened to other programs and to other people. No fan base as proud, large, dedicated or rabid as Louisville has gone longer without what we have just witnessed. I didn't believe it was going to happen until Burke's heave was short and Pitino ducked as the fireworks went off. Even though looking back, our run to the Title was as loaded with karma and poetry as anyone could imagine, I never got my head wrapped around it. I immediately drove 90 miles per hour to Louisville, my home, where my friends and fellow fans roamed the streets in a euphoric frenzy that was as unreal as the win. I was in the mob at Cardinal Towne. I breathed in a good bit of that tear gas and nearly got trampled. I partied until 4 AM and took it all in. I realized I hadn't let myself for one moment enjoy any of the previous month. But at that moment, as I saw the people in the streets, the burning mattresses, heard the hundreds of honking cars, participated in cheer after cheer, and kept saying every two minutes "we did it" to my brother and our friends, I finally breathed a deep sigh of relief. And then it was real. We had won. The school, city and team I have loved, supported, cried for, screamed for, lied for, and gone to time out for was finally receiving what it already deserved.
Guys, we won the National Championship.