Senior Day has always been a strange phenomena to me in that it seems like an odd mix between a gleeful celebration and a tearful goodbye. It's almost like a cross between a funeral and a birthday party, and since nothing even remotely like that exists I suppose the analogy serves solely to further my confusion on how to approach this oddity.
I remember the day leading up to the final home game for the '05 class of Myles, O'Bannon, George and Garcia. I half-heartedly joked in the way that young men do about getting emotional and shedding tears, but after hearing the "Lar-ee, Lar-ee" chants as the local hero dropped 33 on Charlotte and seeing tough-guy Ellis Myles cry, I genuinely felt sad. For the last few minutes of the game my best friend and I sat and watched in silence, saddled with knots in our stomach because four people we had never met before were never going to play in our hometown again.
The city of Louisville's obsession with basketball has been well documented, and when a player plays multiple seasons in red and white (and black), a relationship between himself and the fans is inevitable.
The word "love" is one that is tossed around too liberally these days, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that Louisville fans love Cardinal basketball. Therefore, vicariously, Louisville fans love each and every player that selflessly dedicates himself to betterment of the program for four years.
Someone getting up at the crack of dawn to partake in vigorous workouts day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year, so that something you hold dear will fluorish demands your respect. Even if secretly you never wished he'd seen the floor, you stand up, you clap, and you pay homage to someone who has busted his ass partly so that you can be willingly distracted twice a week for four months a year.
That's what I think Senior Day is really about, love and respect.
It's one thing to show love and respect for someone of remarkable talent who you're going to be able to watch on ESPN for the next decade, but it's another to celebrate the achievements of players who have gone through everything the superstars have, knowing full well that in all likelihood they're not going to see the court in the next game.
Such is the case for three of the four seniors who will be playing their last game in Freedom Hall this afternoon.
On paper, this class hasn't had a huge impact on Louisville's remarkable turnaround in their senior campaigns. Jenkins is the only one who consistently gets playing time, and the four players have combined for just 229 points all year, or 11 percent of the team's total.
But they've worked hard, they haven't complained, and they've served as leaders on a team that is poised to be the No. 2 seed in the Big East Tournament. Respect is required.
So what I thought I'd do for today was write some brief thoughts on each of the seniors and then share what to me was their most memorable moment in their four years here.
To me, Perrin Johnson embodies what a Louisville basketball player should be. He's the first to jump up off the bench, the first to run on to the floor during a timeout and the first to hug the nearest person to him after a big play.
On the floor he plays with such desperation and desire that it seems he's three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than his actual 6-5 215 pound frame. It says a lot about his ability that a team on such a hot streak hasn't missed a beat in the two games a former walk-on and a player who wouldn't even be here had a scholarship not opened up in August has been inserted into the starting lineup.
Perhaps he's responded so well because of the big minutes he's played in the best. In his sophomore year, the Cardinal's 2005 Final Four season, Johnson was turned to in critical moments several times. He played a total of 210 minutes and 27 games (including four starts) in a season that saw him grab 35 rebounds and score 52 points.
Johnson said this week that he wasn't sure how emotional the seniors will get considering how stoic Jenkins and Gianiny are when they're on the floor, and that if you're betting on who's going to let the tears flow he's the wise choice. You really can't not love this guy.
"We've been here for the highest moments and the lowest moments," said Johnson, who originally visited Louisville in hopes of joining the track team as a high jumper before stumbling onto the basketball team. "We went to the peak and hit rock bottom at the same time."
During Louisville's '05 tournament run Perrin played in just one game, but he made the most of it, converting a key three-point play in a 93-79 win over top seed Washington in the Sweet 16. The next day a picture of him celebrating after making the shot was on the front page of the USA Today sports section, and he apparently woke up to Otis George holding up the section in front of his face.
Perrin will also forever be remembered (by me) for the "Perrin Call," a term that refers to the way Rick Pitino would scream his name continuously every time he was on the floor during his first two years. Perhaps we'll get one more today.
I've always thought that Brad had enough to skill to really be an impact player in a lesser conference, but as it is he's been an able backup since he arrived on campus in '03. In his four years here he's excelled at effectively running the offense, getting the ball inside, and dribbling really hard and high at the end of games.
In his sophomore and junior years he played in 61 games, serving as a second option at the point to either Brandon Jenkins or Taquan Dean (we didn't really have a point guard). This season he's seen his playing time diminish because of the emergence of freshman Edgar Sosa, and the return of sophomore Andre McGee. He's scored just 12 points, but did hit Louisville's only first-half three-pointer against Kentucky.
Gianiny came to Louisville because Pitino was watching another player at Fork Union Academy (where he played) and thought Brad looked like a guy who could be molded into a coach. Pitino asked him if he would be interested in walking on at U of L and Gianiny jumped at the chance.
Brad's devotion to the team is hard to miss on the bench, and reared its head again earlier this week when he was asked about seeing the floor in his final home game. His response: "We're really just focused on getting the win."
Coming off a disappointing loss to Kentucky which was there first of the '05/'06 campaign, Pitino rewarded Gianiny, who had consistently and effectively run the offense in the second half of the game, by giving him the start in the team's next game against Middle Tennessee.
Gianiny was all over the floor, committing just one turnover and collecting two steals in 35 minutes, as the Cards handled the Blue Raiders 76-68. He received the biggest cheers of the night and got a hige congratulatory slap on the ass from RP when he was substituted out of the game for the first time.
Brad also gets bonus points for missing the free-throw in the '05 C-USA Championship Game that enabled "pulling a Darius" to be forever etched into the Cardinal fan vernacular.
A second team All-State member averaging 24.5 ppg his senior year at Frankfort High School, Current could have played under scholarship at several smaller schools, but chose to come to U of L because he said he wanted to go to a Final Four.
He always seems to enter games when you least expect it, and just as often surprises you with more skill than you had him pegged for. He played in a combined 31 games his sophomore and junior years, and though he's made just nine appearances this season, he scored a career-high ten points against South Florida on Jan. 10.
Current thought about not playing basketball this season, because he had the opportunity to graduate a semester early and start working. Ultimately, he chose to return after conversations with the coaching staff.
"They told me we needed another senior on the team, from a leadership standpoint," Current said. "I knew I wouldnt be playing much. We have a young class with a couple of players at my position, and I knew I'd be able to help. Plus there's Brandon, Brad and Perrin. I started with them, and I wanted to finish out with them."
A business management major, Current plans on moving to New York to work on Wall Street sometime within the next few years. Once he gets there he plans on reuniting with best friend Gianiny who also plans on taking a shot at working in the Big Apple.
"When I go to New York I'll room with him there, too," Current said. "We're best friends. It's like having another brother."
Despite not seeing as much playing time as he might have expected when he arrived on campus, Current says he regrets nothing.
"I haven't been disappointed at all," he said. "I came in with three great players who'll be lifelong friends. I can't picture myself anywhere else."
No one expected Louisville to be in the 2006 NIT before the season started, but since they were there Current decided to make the most of it. He got his first career start in the opener against Delaware State, gave a solid performance against Missouri State, and then had his most memorable stretch as a Cardinal in the NIT semifinals against South Carolina.
During a four minute stretch in the first half of that game, Current had a tip-in, a trey, and a driving lay-up that brought Louisville to within two at 30-28. In all, Current scored seven of the Cardinals' nine points in the stretch.
Coming off of an NIT season that was defined by injuries, Louisville fans didn't take the news well in August when they heard that their team's only scholarship senior had just broken his right leg in a pickup game.
Brandon Jenkins was coming off of a breakout season in which he averaged over 11 points a game, and fans were expecting him to average at least that mark or better if this year's team was going to be any better.
Jenkins fought to get back to the court in time for the start of his senior season, but the pain was there and the bounce was not. The season began, Jenkins struggled, Louisville struggled, and Louisville fans got restless.
"Of course I was down, but I wasn't going to show it to the team," Jenkins said. "I was always going to stay up and stay positive. If freshmen see me down, then they might get down, or if I don't play hard, they might slack off. So I always tried to stay positive, laugh and play hard."
Pitino took Jenkins out of the starting lineup for a brief stretch early in the season with the hope that he might play better off the bench, but ultimately reinserted him into the starting five because he said the young team needed leadership and because Jenks had been so loyal to the program that he deserved it.
No one is complaining now as Jenkins has established himself as the central catalyst for a defense that is the best in the Pitino-era at Louisville, and has guided the Cards to a No. 16 ranking. The offensive production has still been missing, but the decline in defensive intensity when BJ exits the game is noticeable.
It's been fun to watch the evolution of Jenks from glasses and high shorts wearing Urkel look alike as a freshman, to solid contributor on a Final Four team, to confident and constantly smiling senior. He's been a huge reason why we are where we are, and he'll be a huge reason if we do anything in the next few weeks.
He could have not scored a single point in the last two seasons, and we'd all forever be indebted to Brandon Jenkins for the block he made on J.D. Collins in the closing seconds of the 2005 regional final game against West Virginia.
I'll never forget that moment as the ball found the hands of Taquan Dean who dashed down to the other end of the court, and as I watched with joy I simultaneously thought, "I've never had a feeling like this in my chest in my life...am I going to die?"
I think it's important to note, when talking about this class, how many players in the last few weeks have said that the chemistry on this team is better than on any other they've played for. When comraderie is at this level, the seniors deserve much of the credit.
Perhaps this is why Rick Pitino says that, "I've had better players in a class, but I've never had as much fun."
This is a special class and they've earned a special send-off today.
Congratulations on a tremendous four years fellas.