When I was a kid, there was a hand drawn print of Darrell Griffith’s jersey, shorts, and sneakers on my bedroom wall. As I got older, I learned more about his 1980s Louisville team and, thanks to the wonder of at-home video recorders and VHS, I was able to watch those dunks in all of their glory. While I never had a print of Never Nervous Pervis, his stories were always just as present and as important.
It’s a tradition I look forward to passing on to my son someday.
Writing an essay like this, after what might have been what I would consider the worst defeat in our rivalry game with the Kentucky Wildcats in my almost thirty years of life, might be a mistake. Less than 48 hours ago, a group of Louisville players that mean to me what Griff, Pervis, Wiley Brown, and the McCray brothers meant to my parents, were taken off the team for good. They didn’t do anything wrong. Time caught up to them.
But, neither time nor Kentucky needs to be the end of them.
I believe, no matter the outcome of the final professional polls, that the number two should be retired for the Louisville Cardinals. Permanently.
You probably read that and flinched. It was the same flinch—the very same shudder—you felt each time another Russ Smith free throw hit the rim and flew off at an awkward and painful angle.
"No. He didn’t win a title of his own," you say. "An All-American doesn’t mail in the performance he had those last few games and certainly doesn’t fail so badly on that stage against that opponent."
I didn’t say retire Russ Smith’s number. I said retire the number two.
Don’t get me wrong—if we retire the number two, we retire it because of what Russ Smith did while wearing it. He’s the fifth all-time career scorer and the leader in career steals. He finished three painful and agonizing free throws short of LaBradford Smith for that all-time mark. Finished third in career free-throw attempts. He tied Francisco Garcia for made three-point field goals. Seventh for assists in a single season. Won a National Championship. Gave Rick Pitino a hug.
He came to Louisville a lightly recruited two-star (or fewer) recruit, almost left Louisville to play for Manhattan, and over the last two season blossomed into a Naismith Player of the Year Candidate and one of the most beloved Louisville players to ever wear the uniform.
Just like we all predicted.
And he did most of it while wearing the number two.
It’s the same number that Preston Knowles wore (!) and every time I see Smith’s stats, I am reminded that his drive, his recklessness, and his, "I don’t give a ----" attitude had to have been in shaped, in part, by his predecessor who wore two. Knowles was one of the most fearless basketball players I’ve ever seen play. Russ was one of the most reckless.
And they both wore the number two.
A lot of you will say that the numbers for Russ won’t add up. He may, quite literally, not have the numbers—the votes—to win player of the year honors or even attain consensus All-American. It’s that latter category that matters most to the university: we retire the numbers of consensus All-Americans.
There’s a lot in a number, it would seem.
Our number this year, at least when it came to Kentucky in basketball, was two. We finished 0-2. Second place. That is brutal. And, for the next few months until football season, all we will hear about are numbers. We’ll hear about the numbers of the Kentucky’s players, we’ll hear about the number of Kentucky titles, Kentucky final fours, Kentucky elite eights, Kentucky seeds. Kentucky recruit classes. Calipari’s records. Numbers, numbers, and more numbers.
There’s only one number you need to know an embrace: the number two.
Louisville, as I’ve written—and so many of you have agreed—is always seen as an underdog. We’re seen as second best. Charles Barkley? Louisville won’t beat Kentucky. Digger Phelps has picked us to finish second so many times that he’s elevated himself to a punchline. To that university up the road we will, always and eternally, be the little brother. The red-headed stepchild. To the University of Texas? We’ll be a stepping stone job. For others, they take the number two a little too far, for them, Louisville is literally—well, the word rhymes with "sit."
So, the numbers, it would seem, are always stacked against us. And that right there is the reason that number two should be retired.
Look at the seniors we’re graduating: all of them, number twos. Not highly ranked. Not highly valued. Not sought after. Often laughed at. Always, always underestimated (for the haterzz).
The lesson that Louisville taught Rick Pitino was the value of the number two. We saw that embodied by Russ when, wearing number two, he gave Rick Pitino bunny ears, bunny ears, on national television. Since his arrival in 2001, Pitino always spoke about how the death of his brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, taught him that sometimes being number one, being the best, wasn’t all that was necessary in life. Sometimes you needed to take a step back, learn a measure of humility, learn that the love, the care, and the concern for your community trumps the numbers.
Number two should be retired by the University of Louisville because of the story. The story of number two is the story of the University of Louisville. Louisville may be first, and the Cards will always be forever—but the number two is the engine that elevates both to greatness.
Russ Smith is from Brooklyn. I don’t know how much of a baseball fan he is, but I like to think that if he was he, like me, would feel the absence of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now, full confession, I grew up a Yankees fan. And, for those of you who remember, the 80s Yankees were terrible. Absolutely atrocious. I didn’t care. I loved the stories of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio. When the Yankees won the series in ’96—when they defeated the Atlanta Braves who, at that time, owned TBS I think—they did it with stories. Paul O’Neill crying. The younger Jeter and Rivera celebrating. Those Yankees were a story.
When the Yankees won their most recent series, I barely paid attention. Why? Because the story stopped being a story. The team, throughout the 2000s, had become about numbers: payrolls, home runs, steroids in syringes. Beyond the Yankees, baseball itself is undergoing a revolution of statistics. Basketball will soon follow suit. What will be lost in all of this—as we’re already seeing at Kentucky—is a loss of the story.
Kentucky fans get excited about numbers. Recruiting classes. They label their incoming darlings, dance, get haircuts, and talk about perfection and records and statistics like that’s all basketball is. They had the audacity to tell us that our title didn't matter that much, again, because of numbers.
What changed for me in 2013 when we won, what haunted me all season, is that we, just like them, started talking about numbers. Repeats. Who had the best stats? What was our recruiting class ranked? We made basketball—and certainly, football—about the numbers. That’s not us.
Louisville has been, and will always be, about the story.
Number two is a story.
In 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, the Brooklyn Dodgers finished number two to the New York Yankees. That’d be like Louisville and Kentucky making the national championship game seven times in fifteen years, with the Cardinals losing all but one. You think you hurt now? Imagine the pain in Brooklyn.
But, Brooklyn fans didn’t give up. The Dodgers may have been their second-place bums—but they were Brooklyn’s bums. No one else’s. They were the Borough’s team in the same way that the Cards have been, and will always be the City’s team.
And the number of the City’s team is two.
We already commemorate it. In the last few years, it has become popular for people to make a "U" and "L" with the first three fingers of the right hand upraised. Make that hand now. Look at the fingers. What makes the "U"?
That’s right, the number two.
When we won our national title last year, a lot of us spent hundreds of dollars on swag. Quite recently, I realized that in the excitement of the months following, and with all the other gear I had, I hadn’t bought a national championship shirt. Now? I’m not sure I want one.
To remember this team, to remember the run that began all the way back with Preston until today, I want a red shirt with one number in white.
When my son grows up, I want him to have a print hanging on the wall of his room next to the print of Griff. I want it to be a jersey with sleeves and zebra stripes. I want to tell him the story of Russdiculous, Dieng, Siva, Hancock, Hendo, and Van Treese—and all the rest of the team that made this number so great.
I want to take him to a Louisville game, and, when we score our first basket, I want us both to look up in the rafters, see that number hanging with those other greats, and I want us both to yell: