Whenever Louisville is crippled by a sudden downpour of snow like the one the city was hit with this week, my mind shifts to 1998 (not '94 like most everyone else), and the greatest snow day I ever experienced.
I was a "shoot first, shoot second, pass third" guard on a 7th grade basketball team that had just begun what would eventually turn into a run to the city championship game. Every practice counted at this most paramount of times, which meant my 13-year-old brothers and I couldn't allow the mere cancellation of school to keep us off the court. There was just one problem. The snow day had also pushed back the planned Science Fair from the night before (I would eventually go on to not place), which meant all the tables littered with tri-fold poster board would have to remain untouched in the school gym.
We were actors without a stage, men without a country, city-runners-up-to-be without a gym.
Thankfully, reprieve came in the form of a team dad who happened to work at UofL and knew of a time when we could use the Cardinal basketball team's practice gym later that day. At this point in my life I had only attended a handful of games inside Freedom Hall, so being on the Louisville campus, walking into the team facility and seeing all the framed pictures and banners was almost certainly more special than I could ever remember accurately.
We were the only ones using the gym, which made us all (regardless of red v. blue rooting interests) feel like a big-time college basketball team for a fleeting hour or so. We bricked lay-ups on goals offset by the Final Four banners behind them. We excitedly threw the ball away when trapped near midcourt on top of the Cardinal logo. We air-balled 3-pointers from the same spot that Marques Maybin had probably made a thousand of them. It was magical.
After we had been at it for about 45 minutes or so, a figure that just about every kid my age in the city of Louisville could recognize walked into the building. It was Troy Jackson, the 400-pound younger brother of NBA player Mark Jackson, who was in his second season with the Cardinals. Despite the fact that he rarely saw the court, Jackson's size, infectious personality, and affinity for theatrics whenever he did get into a game had made him a fan favorite since the day he arrived on campus.
Practice stopped still when the big man walked into the gym, and only a shrill whistle blow and some shouts of encouragement could snap us out of the daze. Jackson began to run laps around the gym while we all pretended like we didn't notice and weren't trying to impress him. A short while later, Jackson opted to cut his workout short in favor of seeing if he could get some run in with us. While there wasn't a 13-year-old on the squad with the inside presence necessary to deal with this type of pick-up, we all decided it was okay.
Jackson scrimmaged with us for a few minutes, and it was wonderful. At one point I attempted to wow him with my trademark move of the period: a completely unnecessary NBA 3-pointer with no defender in my general area. It missed badly and Jackson corralled the rebound himself, which was cool enough.
Our allotted time in the gym came to a brutal end, and Jackson parted ways by imploring all of us to make it out to the game the next day and support the squad. It would wind up being his last season at Louisville, but Jackson would go on to make a name for himself in the basketball world through the AND1 Mixtape Tour, where he performed under the name "Escalade" from 2002 up until his untimely death in 2011. He was only 38.
The next day Louisville would lose at home to South Florida, another brutal defeat in a dismal season where the Cardinals would experience 20 of them. Still, the biggest memory I took away from that season wasn't one of the many negatives, it was the unbridled joy of playing basketball on a snow day against an actual Cardinal basketball player inside the actual Cardinal practice gym. A larger than life experience with a larger than life guy inside a larger than life place.
The memory also serves as a welcome reminder that life is short, and this -- the totality of every season, not the minutiae of individual wins and losses -- is pretty fun. We wouldn't love it so much if it was anything less.
A version of this column appears in this week's issue of The Voice-Tribune