Not even two minutes after the final horn sounded and the Louisville Cardinals officially became the 2013 NCAA tournament champions, I felt my phone buzz and noticed a text from my dad.
“Do you understand now?” it read.
For such a nondescript message, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
Like many others, I didn’t become a Louisville basketball fan. I grew up with him telling me stories of Dr. Dunkenstein winning a title for his city in 1980. There was the tattered red “1986 NCAA Champions” shirt I wore to bed for at least four years. Almost like osmosis, all of these different things seeped into me to the point where I had no choice. But I never felt like I needed one — this was my team.
This isn’t suggesting it was easy.
I was born three years after Pervis Ellison cemented himself as the original freshman phenom. I was there for Denny Crum’s latter years that were littered with sub-.500 records and first-round losses to the likes of Creighton and Gonzaga before they were, well, Creighton and Gonzaga.
I can remember watching a lackluster U of L team walking off the court after a Conference USA tournament loss to UAB at Freedom Hall. At that point, everyone knew Crum had coached his last game and I looked over to see my dad tearing up.
“Why?” I asked in a sour tone. “What’s this guy done?”
I’ll never forget the look on his face as he turned to me and just said, “You’ll never understand.”
Before Monday night, I never felt like I really did. I can wax poetic all I want on the program’s past glory, but I wasn’t there to experience it and truly grasp what it meant.
When news broke that Rick Pitino would succeed Crum, I thought those moments would instantly unfold and it looked that way at the beginning.
Not even two years after he took over, Pitino had U of L sitting at No. 2 in the polls before Darnell Archey ruthlessly ended Reece Gaines’ career. Two years later, the Cards were in the Final Four with a team that many, like myself, thought could never be supplanted as an all-time favorite squad.
After a rough transition into the Big East, the program’s upward ascendance continued. There was a surprise second-round appearance in 2007 followed by a 2008 team that would have been Final Four-bound save for having to play North Carolina in Charlotte with referees that treated Tyler Hansbrough like he was some hulking, bug-eyed, pasty white deity.
Surely, I thought, my time was coming soon.
Big East regular season and tournament titles, followed by a No. 1 overall seed, only helped confirm that feeling the next season.
Then Goran Suton and Michigan State happened. Then Karen Sypher. Then John Calipari came in to instantly embrace being the ringleader of the three-ring circus that engulfs so much of our state. And whether we like to admit it or not, he’s damn good at it.
The lows may have been lower before, but I’m not sure I can ever remember a worse time as a U of L fan than in the spring of 2010. A fundamentally-flawed Cards team had just finished an underwhelming season, UK and Calipari were the talk of college basketball and Marquis Teague, who I had assumed for years would be playing at point guard when Louisville returned to greatness, signed with the Wildcats while my team was landing the two-star likes of Russ Smith and Gorgui Dieng.
Thankfully, that lull didn’t last long. Like it did for so many others, the 2010-11 team changed everything I ever thought about college basketball, with the 2011-12 Cards following things up with an improbable and memorable run to the Final Four.
Though that season ended with a loss to UK, I was strangely content. Their team had arrived while mine was quickly approaching that same destination. Indeed, it seemed like the only variable was time.
Still, a part of me held off on that unmistakable sense of optimism. It doesn’t matter how much a team has the look of a champion – if you’ve never seen something happen before, it’s so hard to comprehend how it can actually occur.
Even with the late season run, the Big East tournament championship and the top-overall seed, the skepticism stewed and the ’09 flashbacks seemed all too real.
Aside from the first-round game against North Carolina A&T, I was pessimistic about any and every challenge. Colorado State was a well-rounded, fundamentally-sound team. Oregon was a five-seed masquerading as a 12. Duke was Duke, led by a coach who was 11-1 in Elite Eight games. Wichita State was a bad matchup and a team that wouldn’t be easily intimidated. Michigan was an uber-talented team on a 2011-UConn-like run through the NCAAs.
When Trey Burke’s last-gasp three-point attempt fell short of the rim and went out of bounds, the moment that victory was assured, it hadn’t hit me. When the final buzzer sounded and the confetti streamed down, it still hadn’t. Hell, I’m still not entirely sure it has.
For most of my life, I had imagined what I would do if U of L were to win the game’s ultimate prize, but when it actually happened, I just sat there. It wasn’t like I was paralyzed or dumbfounded; instead it was just a state of pure internal joy, one that filled me up so much that I didn’t feel the urge that I necessarily had to do something.
I saw the text come from my dad and quietly chuckled to myself while nodding my head. Did I understand? “You have no idea,” I replied.
For as long as I can remember, and for a slew of reasons I won’t bother touching upon, one of my biggest pet peeves has been when people talk about their favorite teams using the word “we.”
But throughout my life, my city was there to always prove me wrong.
Technically speaking, Louisville fans are no different than some other fan bases. There is the same level of passion, intensity and crazy devotion that makes those from the outside think these people are crazy because, frankly, those others don’t understand.
But as has been mentioned by many others, this is the city’s team. We share the same experiences, the same memories and the same emotions that can be pinpointed to a singular moment in time. Generally, we all grew up or lived in the same city that so few outside of it seem to understand or embrace in the same way.
It makes us a collective group and with a common point of affection, causing a group of 12 college-aged athletes to become a “we” with a devout but dissimilar group of people that live around them.
Much in the same way I have trouble explaining what makes the city of Louisville so great to those who aren’t from or have never been there, I have no real way of explaining what this championship means. I’m not sure I ever will.
It’s more than a little cliche to say that the basketball team means more in a place like Louisville, but it doesn’t make it any less true. Cardinals teams over the years are a focal point of passion. They are a civic institution.
For 27 years, that object of so many people’s affections went without being at the pinnacle of its sport. The wait was long and seemed much longer. Library book are overdue — this was something else entirely.
But now that it’s happened, everything that I heard for so many years is now realized.
In a strange way, I know how my dad felt when he heard his knucklehead son snicker when his beloved program’s patriarch left the court for the last time. He had witnessed everything I had hoped to and knew how it felt to be a champion, even if it was just a small group of people who actually accomplished the feat and not him.
For me, and so many others in my generation, we now understand. At last, our moment has arrived.