Ah Senior Day, a date bursting with such an eclectic mix of emotions that you're never sure exactly how you should feel 20 minutes before the tip or 20 minutes after the final buzzer.
There's a game to be won, and of course that's top priority, but properly honoring a group of players that have done absolutely all they can for four years to add to the rich history of the basketball program that you love runs a pretty close second. We spend a lot of time questioning the decisions these 18-23-year-olds make over the course of a 40-minute basketball game, but something that should never be questioned is the level of effort and determination it takes to bust your ass day after day, month after month, year after year for four collegiate seasons, partly so that we as fans can have something to look forward to twice a week during the winter. That type of commitment demands respect, and to me that's what Senior Day is all about, regardless of who it is playing their last home game.
Of course there are groups that are both easier to honor - and harder to say goodbye to - than others.
Senior Day ascends to a different level when the players taking the floor inside Freedom Hall for the final time are guys who always put the team ahead of themselves, who were never accused of having any sort of "attitude problems," and who played so hard every second they spent in a Louisville uniform that even the most cynical Cardinal fan wouldn't dream of calling any of their hearts into question.
All three of those things apply to each member of the trio of seniors who will be honored before this afternoon's game against Villanova. Each has been special in a very different way, and each will be sorely missed the moment this season comes to a close.
So let's take a brief look at each of the three Cardinals who will be stepping on Denny Crum Court for the final time today.
Don't be afraid to go grab the Kleenex....seriously, go get it.....SERIOUSLY, if you don't cry I will kick your ass.
Juan Diego "Tello" Palacios
Pic courtesy of Cardinal Empire
The lone contributor remaining from the 2005 Final Four team, perhaps no Cardinal in recent memory has had a more bizarre four-year career than Juan Palacios.
The five-star recruit out of Long Island managed to crack Rick Pitino's starting lineup as a freshman, and averaged 9.7 points and 6.5 rebounds on the Louisville team that fell to Illinois in the national semifinals. He briefly toyed with the idea of jumping to the NBA, but ultimately chose to return to school and become a star as U of L headed for the brighter lights of the Big East.
And then he hurt his ankle. And then his knee. And then his back. And then his knee again.
He fought through the injuries to put up respectable numbers as a sophomore and a junior, but as a senior he's found himself coming off of the bench for the first time in his life, and is averaging 5.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 18.2 minutes, all career lows.
But you'd never know it from his demeanor.
The smile is still there, the enthusiasm is still there, and most impressively, the effort is still there. It's the type of response to adversity that every father teaches his son to have, and one that has made quite an impression on the team's underclassmen. So much so that Earl Clark - the sophomore who now starts at the four - came to Pitino last week and offered up both his starting spot and all of his playing time for Palacios to have on his Senior Day.
And then there are the goggles.
Scratched in the eye by a freakishly long Rajon Rondo finger, JDP was first forced into throwing on the eyewear in December of his freshman season. The legend of the goggles was born as Palacios and the Cards advanced to their first Final Four in 19 years. Then, for a reason most of us still haven't been able to wrap our heads around, the goggles disappeared from November of 2005 to March of 2007. Louisville was relegated to the NIT in Palacios' sophomore season, and failed to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament a season later.
But then: a miracle. Palacios was again scratched in the eye during a pickup game (presumably by an angel) in the summer of 2007, and by order of a divinely inspired optometrist, was forced to bring the goggles out of retirement. All told, Louisville is a sparkling 44-6 with the goggles, as opposed to a mere 46-24 without them. And word is that there will be some extra sets of goggles in the crowd this afternoon.
But it's something else in the crowd that will undoubtedly be on Palacios' mind when he takes the floor Sunday. Maria Cevera Tello Palacios is making her maiden voyage to the United States, and will be watching her son play basketball for the first time since he left Columbia at age 15.
"She's the person who picks me up the most when things are going down," Palacios said. "When I feel like everything is not going my way and I get frustrated if I'm not playing well, I call her and she tells me, `Look, you're a kid from Colombia playing at the University of Louisville. You've been to a Final Four. You've been to so (many) things right now, you've got to feel proud of yourself, and I feel proud of you. Just let things fall for themselves and just be happy all the time because the things and the blessings that God has given you are more than enough.'"
And what a great story it would be if we could get one final Random Juan Game on Sunday...and then another in about three weeks.
Photo courtesy of Cardinal Empire
There's always been a soft spot in my heart for players whose careers didn't pan out quite as well as they would have hoped, but who always remained upbeat on the bench, and who never complained about what they were owed once they became seniors (true story: my favorite all-time Card is Hajj Turner). Needless to say, there isn't a player on the team I find it easier to cheer for than Terrance Farley.
The lone native Louisvillian on scholarship, Farley would likely start for more than half of the teams competing in Division I, but playing on the same team as David Padgett and Derrick Caracter has left him relegated to third string, even as a senior. But like Palacios, Farley's demeanor has remained unaltered. He celebrates every three-point shot as if he had just stroked it, every dunk as if it was him just letting go of the rim, every blocked shot as if the hand that had just sent the ball into the stands was his own.
He is the consummate teammate. Physically gifted enough to have a legitimate beef over lack of playing time, but never selfish enough to produce so much as a frown from the bench.
Farley got his first chance to show the Freedom Hall faithful that he could play when David Padgett went down with a knee injury late in the 2005-06 season. He stepped into the starting center slot for the last five games and hit 6-of-13 shots, snatched 18 rebounds, and blocked an impressive 14 shots. And he was ready to step in again when Padgett went down at the beginning of both of their senior seasons. Farley played 21 minutes and scored six points in a big 20-point win at UNLV, and he scored seven points and blocked five shots in a home win over Marshall three weeks later.
But the value of a player like Terrance Farley will never show up on paper, html, or television. He is the type of person that every championship team has at least one of: devoted, enthusiastic, good-natured.
You can never have enough Terrance Farleys, in any aspect of life.
I mean really, where do you start this one?
Over the years there have been a countless number of fans cheering on teams possessing extraordinary individual performers who have wondered aloud: "where would we be without this guy?"
Any U of L supporter who may have asked this question in regards to David Padgett before the season received their answer from Nov. 21-Dec. 29, and it was a pretty easy to read.
An unhappy place.
Without its senior captain for more than five weeks, Louisville dropped three games it was favored to win, including back-to-back losses to the unranked duo of Dayton and Purdue, the former of which came at home. The suddenly young Cardinals looked frustrated and confused, and played disorganized and erratically.
And then the player whose career had been left for dead returned.
Louisville is 14-3 since Padgett returned on New Year's Day, and the senior who was never supposed to suit-up again is playing the best basketball of his life. He leads the Big East in field goal percentage, and has averaged 16.2 points and six rebounds over U of L's last six games, all wins.
But perhaps more than any other player in Louisville history, his value extends beyond individual statistics.
Padgett leads just as much as he scores, directs every bit as forcefully as he rebounds, and cheers just as often as he passes. He is a fearful post presence, an able leader, and a tremendous offensive facilitator. He is, without a doubt in my mind, the most valuable player in college basketball.
I suppose the best compliment you can pay to the man is that he possesses all four qualities that coaches in every sport seek: talent, intelligence, dedication and fearlessness. It's rare these days to see a player who possesses even two or three of these traits, so to not cherish every second you have to cheer for someone who embodies all four is foolish, and borderline irresponsible.
Regardless of what happens over the next month, David Padgett will be remembered as a Louisville great.
I think we need to end this post on a happy note.
While it's certainly going to be sad to see all three of these guys walk off the Freedom Hall floor for the last time, let's be thankful that this isn't where the story ends. The lasting image we have of this senior class will not be clear by this time tomorrow. There are plenty more memories for this group to make in the coming weeks, and the chance to carve an even more special place for themselves in U of L history.