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Youth, David Letterman and the Louisville-Cincinnati basketball rivalry

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Time's reputation for distorting the past is well established and equally deserved. It's so good at what it does that at some point in every person's life they begin to doubt - to some degree at least - the validity of their own memories.

I bring this up because in my surely flawed mind, 90 percent of the games Louisville played against Cincinnati in the 1990s took place on Thursday nights at 9 p.m. on ESPN. Both teams always had legitimate national title aspirations, and every game between the pair rivaled Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals.

Most people experience several drastic life changes in their 20s, 30s or 40s, but there's a sense of familiarity inherent in established adulthood that makes all the rearranging feel like it's still part of the same "era," for lack of a better term. The same can't be said for youth, where the period from ages 6-13 essentially encompasses three or four different lives. It's likely this phenomenon that has made late Thursday night games against Cincinnati feel like more of a staple of Cardinal basketball in the '90s than they may have been for other generations.

Still, the memories feel fresh to your faithful narrator.

This was a period where Cincinnati was consistently one of the best team in college basketball, and almost always the baddest. The rivalry between the Cardinals and Bearcats was Conference USA basketball, and it always demanded a national audience.

In the days leading up to the games against UC, my friends and I would update each other on the status of our persuasive attempts to earn permission to attend the game or at least stay up and watch it. Some would celebrate an unparalleled triumph of youth, while others would shed tears and be relegated to an early morning update from their father or The Courier-Journal.

The one memory I have that stands out above all others from this period was basking in the glow of the 1996 victory in the old living room at my parents' house and realizing that "The Late Show With David Letterman" was on. Letterman viewings at this point in my life were typically reserved for the summer time, when my brother Oliver, more than 10 years my elder, was home from college. Oliver was cool, Dave was cool, and staying up with him until midnight as an 11-year-old was definitely cool.

Watching Letterman give gag orders while going through drive-thru lines was a privilege reserved for July, when life's only responsibility was, at its most demanding, a Little League game the next evening. A Thursday night in the dead of winter? This was special.

The Cards just beat Cincinnati, Letterman's on, I've got school tomorrow and holy mother of God I'm still awake.

It may have been the most celestial moment of my childhood.

The rivalry with Cincinnati was never on par with Kentucky (nothing is), but it certainly had its own place. While disdain for the wild brand of cats is an almost inherent aspect of being a Louisville fan, the Bearcats had to earn their ire. The players were dirty and didn't care (Kenyon Martin is still the most intimidating human being I've ever been in the presence of), Bob Huggins' antics made him perhaps the ultimate U of L villain of the '90s, and more times than not they got the better of our beloved Cardinals. All of these factors made the pair of annual games two of the biggest events during winters in Louisville, and made the victories incredibly special.

And then, the rivalry followed the same pitiless path that youth itself always takes: it changed dramatically overnight, and then it disappeared forever.

Tonight, just like the summer nights of my adolescence and Louisville's basketball rivalry with Cincinnati before him, Letterman will say goodbye. Regardless of your stance on the man, his departure from the public eye has to make you feel or remember something. He was simply an integral part of American popular culture for too long for the reverse to be true.

In a few hours I'll say goodbye along with everyone else, and will do so with thoughts of Danny Fortson, Freedom Hall, Denny Crum, Bob Huggins, childhood in Louisville, endless summer nights and one magical Thursday night all at the forefront of my mind.