Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to a dream is for it to be realized, and that was my fear.
Recurrently over the course of the past 11 months, I would wonder how I was going to feel when I woke up on this day, which has always gifted me with the feelings most akin to the ones the Christmas mornings of my youth provided. Would I have to feign enthusiasm? Would I even really care? Surely, it wasn't going to be the same.
Healthy or not, I spent a solid chunk of my (conscious) life before April 8, 2013 thinking about what it would be like to see Louisville win a national championship. Before I could walk, I was tossing a mini Cardinal ball into a mini Cardinal hoop. Before I'd performed (forcibly) in a school program or play, I was making my parents and their friends watch my re-enactment of U of L's starting lineup. Basically, I've cared far too much about Louisville basketball for as long I can remember. I didn't really know why then, and I still don't really know why now.
The beautiful madness has never gone away, or even faded really, it's just adapted to keep up with the passing of time. Me writing this post at 3:30 a.m. with the busiest work day of the year set to start in four and-a-half hours is the current version.
My conscious history is laced with more memories of U of L basketball than it should be, and I am fully aware of this.
I remember being nine and fighting off sleep with every ounce of my being in order to watch the Cards put forth a lackluster Sweet 16 effort against a superior Arizona team. I remember calling my best friend three years later after U of L had defeated Texas so that we could share in the joy of our first Elite 8 experience. I remember attempting to use laughter to get through the final Crum years, and feeling robbed when I listened to frustrated older fans talk about the way things used to be. I remember a classmate scribbling "Louisville + Pitino = 1980s dominance" on his dry erase board during chemistry class on the day the news broke that Tom Jurich had reeled the former UK coach in. I remember my mom, whom I'd never seen get overly into a sporting event I wasn't playing in, standing on the couch and clapping as the 2005 Cards ran out the clock against West Virginia. I remember the confusion after the Michigan State loss in '09, the pain of the Morehead State loss two years later, and the unbridled joy of the incredible run 12 months ago. I remember countless games on the couch on with my father, hours of postgame phone conversations with my closest friends, and terrific game-watch parties with equally terrific company.
Now, somewhere around 350 days after it happened, I remember Atlanta.
Sixty years ago, Winston Churchill said that the problems of victory are more agreeable, but no less difficult than those of defeat. I'm almost 100 percent sure he wasn't talking about basketball or being a sports fan, but Churchill kind of had a way of saying things that could be applied to more than one walk of life.
A championship changes everything, there's no way around it. Experiencing your first one is like this strange mixture of losing your virginity, falling in love for the first time and finding out the awful truth about Santa Claus; it's new, it's incredible and it's necessary, but you realize pretty quickly that things are never going to be the way they were before. That's an awareness that takes some time to understand and adjust to.
The demand is gone, but the expectations are raised. Relief is no longer a primary objective. Forever memories have taken up residence in our heads, but those additions have made the desire to gain new ones stronger than it ever was before.
So how do we attack this brave new world?
Hours before the start of the journey I spend the rest of every year looking forward to, I'm struck by how similar it all feels. The nerves, the excitement and, most importantly, the dream are all still there.
If Louisville were to lose to Manhattan Thursday night, it wouldn't elicit the same panicky "is this ever going to happen?" thoughts of years past, and that's comforting. The difference now is that I'm at least partially aware of what a loss would be depriving all of us of. In a strange way, that almost makes me want to win a championship more this year than ever before.
I've experienced the ecstasy that comes with seeing your team win its final game. I've seen the way that euphoria has galvanized the program, the city and this community. I've seen the celebration last through the net-cutting in Atlanta, through the ceremony inside the Yum Center, through the start of a new season and right up to this moment now.
I don't want any of that to go away.
I want Russ Smith to go from someone who came here as a complete unknown to someone who left here as arguably the most accomplished Louisville basketball player of all-time. I want the guys who worked so hard to make sure that no one rested on the laurels of last season to be rewarded. I want the newcomers to get their own piece of forever. I want Rick Pitino to take that next step on the historical ladder and become just the sixth coach with more than two championships. I want the program to do something it has never done before. I want to take all the good vibes of the past year and add to them to create an even more euphoric offseason.
That's the new dream.
Between now and whenever this ride ends, we're all going to lose ourselves a little bit, and I think that's wonderful. Life is mostly about what you love, and while something like Louisville basketball certainly isn't on par with anything comparable to a life-and-death struggle, I also don't think any of you will argue with the belief that there is a degree of love present in all of this. That, at the very least, makes this madness significant.
No one can ever take the realization of the old dream away from us, and that's great, but there's a new dream now. It's not better or worse than the one that was, but it's there, and it's captivating.
The beautiful journey towards the new dream begins tonight.