When Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, he was the first heavyweight champion of the world to regain the title since Floyd Patterson in 1960.
Keep those fourteen years in mind.
Sit down, fans. It’s rivalry day. This is a rivalry post. If you like a certain team, you'll not be happy. Vegas tells us that the Cards are favorites in this one by around 4.5 points.
High rollers, let me tell you something: that’s not worth anything in this game.
Louisville and her team? We’re always the underdogs.
When Ali went to fight Foreman, the word was that he was too old. Too slow. He was out of fighting shape. In 1964, when Ali won the heavyweight title against Liston, he was a 7-1 underdog. Against Foreman? 4-1. Foreman was unbeaten in his 40 previous bouts.
Foreman was a boxing machine. His nickname? "Big." He had the recent, flashy wins. Ali was traditional. Foreman? Modern. He was seen as swifter, stronger, taller—younger.
Starting to sound familiar? So, tell me, why is the betting line where it is?
Maybe Vegas learned from this. After the fight, Ali said, "Foreman was humiliated." Ali roped the dope. He predicted that Foreman would fall on his face in the tenth round from exhaustion.
There it is.
Every great symphony has four movements. Four. Fourteen. Fourteen years ago. What happened fourteen years ago? Michigan State won the title. Mateen Cleaves was the Most Outstanding Player. The University of Kentucky? Lost in the Elite Eight to Syracuse.
Louisville? Round of 64, loss, by 11.
It was the end of the Crum era and it was the opening movement of the Pitino era.
Fourteen years later—what do we have? A National Championship. An All-American. Three Final Fours.
Fourteen years later—what do they have? A National Championship. Eight All-Americans. Two Final Fours.
And a 5-2 edge in the recent rivalry right now.
See? Fourteen years always has a story to tell. Always.
I’ve told you about the city of Louisville before. I’ve told you about our team. I’ve told you how our team and our city are synonymous. That’s not to say that Kentucky and Lexington aren’t. That’s not to say that some try to be diplomatic (cough, Churchill Downs) and some don’t (props to you, Mr. Mayor).
But to be on the City’s Team? Nothing given. Nothing asked. We earn, and we lose, on the floor.
But make no mistake about this, we are not Kentucky and we never want to be them. Ever.
Muhammad Ali once said that he became a boxer after his bike was stolen as a kid. Louisville? We began our work with the first refusal to play. The first denial of our titles. The first refusal of our players for being the wrong color, from the wrong city, and at the wrong school. We became the City’s Team somewhere between 1980 and 1983. If 1980 was the opening movement, then 1983 was the crescendo. That’s when it all came into focus. That symphony closed out in ’86—right about the time your humble author was two.
So these last few seasons, these have been my symphony. The score has been epic. It has been painful. It has been glorious. And now, I can’t help but think that tonight we’re going to hear the fourth movement. The final closing refrain. There are too many seniors graduating. Too many freshmen going pro. At some point tonight, around midnight, sit back, sip your drink, and then pour a bit out for these last few years—because they have been something we fans of the City’s Team experience once in a generation.
How do I know that?
How many people who you know personally have become Kentucky fans? Sure, there’s always a few who grow up and go to school there. But, really, how many?
I know five people who have become Louisville fans the last several years. Five.
Sure, that’s not a lot. But in baseball 5-0 is a rout. In boxing? That’s unanimity. Five. All of them were attracted to the city, to the team, to the idea that student-athletes come, stay, and give us their all for the love of the city and the love of the game. They understood that this community has blue within it, but not blue among it. To live in the city? Sure, wear your blue. You're welcome here. Thanks for adding to the community. You're our friends and co-workers. But, to walk along with the city, you wear red. It’s that simple.
"Oh, that's harsh," you say, "I've lived in Louisville my whole life--Big Blue, through-and-through."
Yet, again and again, you always stand--just a bit--in the city but outside her community. It's not an insult, it's an observation. Out in the Commonwealth, I'm sure there are more than a few of us who've felt just a bit out of place as sports of red in the sea of blue. But for those in the city, ask yourself this: Do you remember last year? Do you remember when the red and black took to the streets? Remember when you sat in your living room and heard that Louisville fan across the street yelling at her television in sheer joy? Do you remember the Facebook posts? Remember when you said, "Louisville doesn't exist?"
And then, "Well, eight is still greater than three."
And then, "Well, the twins are coming."
And then, "At Kentucky, we play for perfection, 40-0."
Forty and uh-oh.
Oh you beat Wichita State? That's so last year.
We don't play for perfection. We're not pretty. We play for a city. Some recruits get that. Some recruits prefer the McDonald's cheese and the accolades before ever coming to school.
In the city, school is always in session. There's always a lesson to be learned. And the first lesson?
We wear red.
Pee Wee Reese—Louisvillian. Brooklyn Dodger. Sure, there's some blue there--some red on the numbers, too. Do you think it was easy playing in Flatbush? Seeing the Yankees? Hearing them yell about their titles? Their tradition? Their history? What did Reese do? Oh, yeah, Louisvillian—welcomed Jackie Robinson into the league and won the World Series in 1955 and 1959. Sounds about right.
Oh, Brooklyn? Louisville? Still a connection: Russ Smith. Why do I think that's not a coincidence?
We’ve watched a two-star become an All-American, a walk-on a Final Four Hero, and a no-star become the NCAA Tournament’s MOP. That’s what this City is about. Start with nothing. Absorb the hate—no tradition, wrong color, wrong class, wrong coach, wrong location, wrong, wrong, wrong—and go out and prove otherwise.
But really, what is there to compare? We’re going up against a self-proclaimed nation that takes joy in making a compound fracture and personal struggles with substance abuse into punchlines.
Fourteen years. Three Final Fours. One National Championship. A senior class.
Fourteen years. Two Final Fours. One National Championship. And a loss to Robert Morris.
Who’s laughing now?
We love this team not because of its perfection, but because of its flaws. We don’t love them for the numbers. We love them because we see ourselves in them. We love them because we spend most of our winter hanging out with them in our living rooms. We love them not because the recruiting polls say so. Or because they hang out with Jay-Z, LeBron James, and whoever else we brought in to make ourselves look cool and hip.
We love them because they understand that Louisville is something beyond all of us, and yet something that we all have a hand in creating—for better or worse.
And now? We just want to see them have fun. We want to see them play hard. We want to see our city out there, on the floor.
We don’t want this game to be our last memory of this team. We want it to be, if anything, our first.
If 1983 was the Dream game, then 2014 should be Kentucky’s nightmare.
Because fourteen years will be a long time to wait for this to happen again.
Go Louisville, beat Kentucky.