A couple of years ago my parents were cleaning out our basement when they stumbled upon a box of my childhood items. In an effort to decrease the clutter of things that I had deemed “worth saving,” they began sorting through the old trophies and school art projects. They discovered a notebook at the bottom of the box and were surprised when they opened to what appeared to be a narrative. Not an adolescent drawing or the name of my favorite boy band, but an excerpt that read, “Then I heard the sound of the ball hitting metal.” And so they kept reading.
The story they had found was a recount of my dad’s high school baseball team playing in the first round of the Regional Tournament. I was nine years old at the time, and although he’d been coaching since before I was born and would continue to do so long after, this was the season I remembered. That regional game ended in our favor with a walk-off grand slam on a full count. As I looked around in the immediate moments thereafter and saw the players lying limp on the field in disbelief and my dad running quickly to embrace his team, I realized something. It wasn’t as much the victory that made this moment so sweet, as it was the particular team it was happening to. The season had been full of great moments, and it seemed only fitting that such a group would experience this win. The celebrations were limited for me on that school night, but I knew I never wanted to forget the feeling I had at that moment. So the next day, I got out my notebook and I wrote about it.
Seventeen years would pass before I would experience that feeling a second time. And again, I don’t want to forget it.
I’m not the girl who was born and raised a die-hard Cardinals fan. In fact, I wasn’t raised a die-hard fan of any college team. While attending school in Lexington I was able to go to various sporting events without any real concern for the outcome. Winning or losing didn’t mean much to me; I was just there to have a good time. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I identified with the college team of which I would become a lifelong fan.
The 2009-2010 basketball season was the first time I felt the fever. My sister, already a huge Louisville fan, had two tickets behind the bench for a weeknight game and I agreed to go. She gave me a Louisville shirt to wear because that was the right thing to do, and we set off to Freedom Hall. I can’t recall who we played that night or what the final score was, but I remember thinking, “I like this team.”
My transition into becoming the fan I am today didn’t happen fully after that first game, and I don’t think I would appreciate it as much if it had. Gradually that season, I found myself watching more games, learning about the players, and even picking a favorite ( Jerry Smith). Something had definitely sparked within me. Still, I wavered at times; wearing other team’s logos and often declaring, “I cheer for everyone in Kentucky.” Before I knew what hit me the next season, I was in all red, throwing up the “L,” and getting grief from people I barely knew.
The true magnitude of what I’d become was evident during the 2012 Elite Eight game. My sister was watching in Lexington and I called her during the final moments as I knew I was going to need someone with which to celebrate or commiserate. Turns out it was the former, and from two different cities, we cried. I knew there was no turning back. I was now a die-hard fan. Our final four loss the next weekend didn’t hit me as hard as I thought it would, because I knew, somehow, we had bigger things ahead. My intuition couldn’t have been more accurate.
The 2012-2013 football season turned me into a bigger fan of the sport than I ever thought I could be. I stood in twenty degree weather wearing two pairs of gloves, to cheer for a game that had previously meant nothing to me. After plans fell through to attend the Sugar Bowl, I watched at a bar down the street from my house, cheering just as loud as I would in the stadium. I was so happy to be a Cards fan.
Then basketball season started, and I fell hard. I fell hard and fast for a group of guys unlike any I’d encountered. I was inspired by their stories and captivated by their character. Heck, I even named my dog after Russ Smith. Perhaps, above it all, was the player’s relationship with each other that I just couldn’t get enough of-- a relationship that brought even the most unlikely of fans to the forefront, and stole their hearts. Yes, us die-hards would have to share our team for a while, and we were happy to do it.
I was happy to share with my mom who prior to this season had virtually zero interest in sports. After assuring me throughout the whole tournament that “they got this,” she paced in and out of the room Monday night when Michigan “just kept scoring.” I was happy to share with the lady in the bathroom at the Georgia Dome who told us: “My husband and I are from Texas. We have no connection to Louisville. We just saw this story and said ‘Let’s go cheer for the Cardinals.’” And I was happy to share with the Atlanta cab driver who spoke little English but upon noticing our shirts said, “I like the white guy. He’s good.” The outreach of the nation made one thing very clear to me. We didn’t want this championship for ourselves. We didn’t want it so we could hang another banner or brag to fans of other teams. We wanted it for the players. We wanted the team that had given us so much pride as Louisville Cardinal fans, to experience the ultimate pride in themselves.
Despite statistics that this was the most watched, best attended Final Four to date, I can’t make the claim that it was the greatest National Championship in history. I don’t have the experience nor the years to back up that statement. What I do have, though, is a season of memories that came before One Shining Moment. The memory of Coach Pitino after his 300th victory telling fans at the YUM Center, “Besides Heaven, there’s no place I’d rather be than Louisville.” The memory of Russ doing the Harlem Shake in the locker room- a video that I watched too many times. And the memory of a group of college athletes crumbling to the floor at the sight of their best friend in agony. Those are the moments that we remembered Monday night, and the feelings that they conjured are the ones that will stick with us seventeen years from now.
If I’m lucky enough to experience anything close to that again in my lifetime, I will gladly take it. For now, though, I’m happy just to have had such a feeling this year. A feeling worth getting out my notebook and writing about.