There's something about being from Louisville that I've noticed, and I wonder if it is true for the rest of you.
First, some background: I was born here, raised here, left for college and spent 3 years after college working in other states, then moved back home. I grew up assuming I'd always move back, and turned down a couple of out-of-town jobs to stay home, go to UofL law school and live here the rest of my life.
Through my job, the last couple years I've been traveling a lot and working with lawyers from across the country. I went to school in DC with a ton of people from the Northeast, California, Florida, Texas, etc., with only a handful from Kentucky and/or the South. I love Louisville so much, I start sounding like Ron Burgandy when I describe this place to people, and I'm sure that's true for many of you who have moved away or deal with people from other places a lot.
But there's one thing I've noticed: people have no idea about Louisville, what Louisville is. How big is it? Is it a small town? Are there big buildings? Are there cows? Do you ride horses? What word are you even saying, I thought there was an 's' in there somewhere? Heck, even when people from Lexington or other parts of Kentucky come to my office (which is close to 4th Street Live) they ask if it's safe to walk to their cars after dark. Seriously?
When people visit, other than Derby, it never matches up to how I described it, and to this day when people come to town there's no one thing associated with the city, no iconic building or must-eat food (good luck getting people to try a hot brown). Louisville is not a place that you can get people to visit, but I've heard recruiters describe it as a place where the hardest part about getting people to take jobs here is to get them to come see it once. Once people give Louisville a chance, they stay.
I'm not an MMJ fan (I don't dislike them, I just don't listen to them, get off my back), but I love this quote from Jim James:
"Louisville is a place with no labels. It’s not the South, it’s not Chicago, and you don’t think of it as you think of New York or LA. It has some Southern romanticism to it, but also a Northern progressivism, this weird urban island in the middle of the state of Kentucky that has always provided a fertile, often dark, bed. For us, Louisville and the surrounding areas are the center of massive creativity and massive weirdness. The place has its flaws: You move away, but you’re always going to come back."
If people assume anything about you when you tell them you are not only from Louisville, but that you still live and work there, they assume that you must not have been able to get out. A lot of people, even from bigger cities, really want to get out of their home town, and moving back and getting a job there somehow is equated with failure, or not being good enough to make it someplace else. When that hometown is a place like Louisville, someplace they really don't know anything about, well, you have to overcome a lot of assumptions.
It took a little bit of time to adjust back to this phenomenon once I started doing more work out of town, and it's easy to develop a little chip on your shoulder. I'm still adjusting, but I finally had a realization about one thing: all it really took was getting a chance, and I could overcome those assumptions and not have being from Louisville as something that, I don't want to say held me back, but....made things a little harder? I'm not sure, I can't quite put it into words. But it made a difference, and it happens often enough that I don't think it's in my head. But maybe it's just me, so I'm curious about whether people have experienced anything similar.
I bring this up because, in part because of all the traveling I've been doing since April, I never really wrote one of my patented (copyrighted?), self-indulgent thinkpieces about What It All Means after we won the nationalchampionship. And what the Year of the Cardinal meant to me, as a life-long Louisvillian and UofL fan.
Being a Louisville basketball fan who is too young to really remember 1986, but old enough to remember that we were the Team of the '80s, is a rough thing. When we were good in the late '80s, early '90s, it always seemed like we didn't get enough attention. Those years had so many near-misses, be it with recruits or tournament games that didn't seem like we really gave it our best shot, there were so many what-ifs. What if Wade Houston and Allan Houston stayed with us? What if the 1994 team had played against Arizona anything like we had in the weeks leading up to that game, and what if whatever happened to Cliff Rozier to make him disappear hadn't happened? What if the 1996 team had not been screwed in the Tim Duncan game? What if Wheat hadn't been hurt in 1997?
Some years you just knew our best wasn't good enough, but those years specifically (and every team with Pervis Ellison on it), it always felt like our best was good enough, we just for whatever reason - injuries, bad luck, bad matchups, whatever - just didn't really give it our best. That continued into the 2000s - what if Butler hadn't shot 115% from 3? That 2003 team was really good. What if Garcia had played his best in the 2005 Final Four? What if the Texas A&M game wasn't the worst game ever officiated and we got a shot against Ohio State (DC used to dominate Oden in high school you know), or the 2008 team didn't have to play UNC in NC? What if whatever happened in 2009 hadn't happened, and the team we had seen for months played MSU? What if Preston! hadn't gotten hurt? What if MKG got called for that push-off on Kuric?
The beauty and horror of the NCAA men's basketball tournament is that technically everyone has a chance - but whether you win it all not only requires you to play you absolute best possible basketball, but requires a lot of luck and things outside of your control. Still, year after year, the taunts from UK fans - if you can't win it this year, you will never win it. Eventually that thought creeps in.
Growing up, I remember watching other teams and players and just wondering what it would be like to be a fan of a team that hits the biggest shot when they are needed, that gets the bounces, that wins games that they had no business winning with amazing plays, luck, some combination thereof. This season, the talent was there, but I didn't really start to believe that This Was The Year until late in the year.
Starting with the win at Syracuse, beating Cincinnati badly at the Yum!, then beating ND badly on Senior Day, then running through Nova and ND in the Big East tournament. It just felt....different. I remember texting with Mike (brag) about how past years, those are games that the Louisville teams I watched growing up didn't win, or didn't win like that. Then the Syracuse game: still have no idea.
I've written a bit about the Duke game. We all looked at that regular season game in the Bahamas as our chance to take on Duke, and then of course we played them without Gorgui. And then we actually got to play them at full strength! Then, the injury and everything after. Next time you see a random Louisville fan who was there who you otherwise aren't close with, talk to them about that game. Then try to talk about it with someone who isn't a Louisville fan, even if they watched the game. It's weird, the difference.
After that, it felt like we were destined. We go down 12 in the Final Four. Then, Hendo. The kid from Louisville, given a chance.
I still don't understand how we won that game, and after watching it and live-tweeting the second time this summer, I vowed never to watch it again.
Down 12 to Michigan, them hitting everything, things seem bleak. Then, Luke. Then, the alley oopl. My obsession with that play has been well documented, and I think the reason is that it is the basketball equivalent of Mario's stiff-arm against Miami. It just sums everything up, a moment where the entire season is summed up in a single play.
After the Ware injury, after the way we played against WSU and the way Michigan played - we had no business winning the championship. Chane's last shot - that shouldn't have gone in. I've been watching Louisville basketball all my life. Based on everything I had ever seen, there was no way we were winning either of those games.
But we did.
And maybe more than anything else, what meant so much to me about it was that this was our best chance, and we did it. The team, those players, they freaking did it. Louisville was given the best chance they've had since 1986 to win it all, and they did it. We won the national championship. It still doesn't seem real.
Why am I writing about this now? Well, with the new football season finally kicking off, I think it comes down to this: being from Louisville, all you want is a chance. The 2006 team had the best chance of any Louisville football team ever to win the national championship, but even that team couldn't give it everything. It lost its star running back in the very first game, lost its quarterback for a couple games, and maybe would still have had to win a political battle against a 1-loss Florida or Michigan team to even play for the title.
Maybe we are falling prey to the Pyrrhic bowl bump that has proven again and again to be a bad predictor for success the following season. But it really seems different this year. Considering the experience and talent, the coaches, Teddy is Magic, and yes the schedule, this feels like the best shot we've ever had to get a chance to play for the national championship. These seasons come along so rarely, and it feels so important for the team to take advantage of it by winning, but even winning might not be enough for them to get a shot at the sport's top prize. Because we are Louisville, we may have to overcome the assumptions and biases (and the coaches have to understand this and kick the ever loving ish out of some teams) to even be given the chance in the first place.
I just can't help but think, you know, Alabama is really good, Texas A&M is more than just Johnny Football, Oregon is scary. We might lose 9 out of 10 to those teams. But isn't the whole point of Louisville football making the most of every chance we've ever been given? From the Fiesta Bowl against Alabama in 1991 to winning games in the UK series in the late 1990s to the Florida State game in 2002, the Miami game in 2004 (even though we lost, we got the most possible benefit out of that chance short of winning), the Miami and WVU games in 2006. Sure we lost some games (like VT in the Gator Bowl, Belk Bowl in 2011) but every time we had a game that was seen as a proxy for our progress, a game that if we had won would have Meant Something, we took advantage. The Sugar Bowl was just the latest example.
I'll leave the football analysis to GoCardsGuy and Mike and Mengus and everyone else. If we lose a game, all of this is meaningless anyway. Last season taught us to let the games play out: every game lasts 60 minutes, and the season lasts until December. It's not over until the clock strikes 00:00. So I'll try not to worry about where we are going to end up, bowl projections, computer ratings, etc. And I'll try to ignore everything that is written about our schedule, and the nitpicking that will come, or the backlash. I will not get worked up over the lack of respect we get from the rest of the country, because really, I'm used to it. Being from Louisville sometimes means having to do something more to prove yourself.
Being from Louisville means sometimes all you really want, all you really need, is a chance.