The following column appears in this week's edition of The Voice-Tribune
For the bulk of my adolescence, nearly every adult conversation about Louisville basketball that I listened in on was centered around what was wrong with the program and what could be done to get it back to where it had been in the 1980s. While the number of discussions were abundant, their focal points were limited to a select few areas.
First, there was the commonly held thought that Louisville's struggles were the direct product of an inability to recruit at an elite level anymore. Second, there was the notion that the game was passing Denny Crum by, a discussion which was typically an offshoot of the first one. Third, there were concerns over UofL's conference affiliation, worries which weren't quashed until the Cards became members of the Big East in 2005.
The final centerpiece of negative attention, and one which was near and dear to this group of local college hoops masterminds, was that the city of Louisville wasn't producing the type of talent it had in decades past, and that when it was, that talent was choosing not to play for the hometown team (the most glaring example of this being Wade and Alan Houston heading to Tennessee, an event which is still widely viewed as the beginning of the end for the Crum era at UofL).
Louisville's initial rise to prominence on college basketball's national scene was fueled by local talent like Wes Unseld, Wesley Cox and, of course, Darrell Griffith. The products of this era, or those who experienced some taste of it, romanticize it in the same way that the college kids of today remember the Disney Channel of their youth or the way early '90s kids speak about skip-its and one strap overalls.
For whatever reason, the quality of high school basketball in the city of Louisville nosedived in the early 1990s. Coincidentally or not, the UofL basketball program began to trend in a downward direction as well. After losing Houston to Tennessee, Crum had some success with the likes of Dwayne Morton, Jason Osborne and DeJuan Wheat, but not enough to get back to the Final Four for a seventh time.
Rick Pitino's early relationship with the local hoops scene wasn't any better. First, he was burned by former Ballard standout/noted troublemaker Brandon Bender, who quit the team three months into Pitino's debut season with the Cards. Next, his focus on New York City point guard Sebastian Telfair cost him Eastern High (and Oak Hill Academy) product Rajon Rondo, who wound up at Kentucky despite spending his youth cheering for Louisville. Even Larry O'Bannon, easily the most successful homegrown talent of the Pitino era thus far, spent three and-a-half seasons struggling before coming out of virtually nowhere to be one of the stars of UofL's run to the 2005 Final Four.
Now, with Cardinal basketball in the midst of its best years since those glory days of the early-to-mid 1980s, the Louisville high school scene is finally getting back to serving up some of the top players in the country to aid in the city's team's success.
Anyone who knows anyone who follows local hoops has heard Quentin Snider's name for what seems like a couple of decades. He committed to Louisville in the summer after his freshman season at Ballard, and then signed with the Cards after a tremendous prep career and a brief allegiance to Illinois.
"Since sixth grade, we felt Quentin would be a Louisville Cardinal someday," Pitino said when announcing the signing of Snider. "We're very happy that he will become the point guard of the future for the University of Louisville. He's well-rounded, shoots it well, gets in the lane and has good size. He makes people better and knows how to run a team."
Louisville fans who are overly into symbolism have to enjoy the fact that Snider -- who became the first local Mr. Basketball to sign with the Cards after being offered a scholarship since Jason Osborne in 1993 -- capped off his senior season by breaking Allan Houston's career scoring record at Ballard. The hope is that while Houston's spurning of the Cards ended the golden age of UofL's relationship with its high school scene, Snider's arrival is opening the gates for a new one.
Trinity's Raymond Spalding is also here to help with that.
A 6'10 power forward with the outside stroke of a two guard and enough skill and athleticism to play the three, it's no wonder that Spalding became a top target for the likes of Duke and Indiana this summer. But despite being offered scholarships by both, Spalding won't be trading his Shamrock green for Hoosier crimson or Blue Devil, uh, blue after this year.
"It's a blessing and a dream come true," Spalding told The Courier-Journal after he committed to UofL on Sunday. "For a humble kid like me coming from Louisville, to be able to say I could play at the university some day, it's an honor."
Suddenly, after going more than two decades without landing the state's most-prized player, Louisville could be on the verge of getting their second Kentucky Mr. Basketball in as many years. That would be a feat impressive enough to make the old-timers fire up those stories about teenage Darrell Griffith dunking on Artis Gilmore at the Dirt Bowl again.
Louisville basketball has been "back" for some time now, but this recent period of extreme success has come without a heavy dose of local flair. It would appear as though that tide is turning, and everyone in this area who loves basketball should be excited.