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 some of its most successful 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.
First, there's starting point guard Quentin Snider, the Ballard star who became the first local Mr. Basketball to sign with the Cards since Jason Osborne in 1993. Snider, who surpassed Allan Houston's all-time scoring record at Ballard, is coming off a stellar sophomore season in which he shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc, dished out an average of 3.5 assists per game, and nearly averaged double figures in scoring.
After a freshman season where he showed why Rick Pitino lauded his NBA potential, former Trinity star Raymond Spalding should also push for a starting spot in 2016-17. Despite playing a standard center role for the Shamrocks in high school, Spalding gave glimpses of his potential to be a star at the power forward position, often changing games with his length and athleticism.
With North Oldham's David Levitch, Bullitt East's Tyler Sharpe, and UofL's newest player, former Manual star Dwayne Sutton (a UNC Asheville transfer who was the Big South Tournament MVP as a freshman), the Cardinals suddenly have a roster with more local flair than ever before in the Pitino era.
Louisville basketball has been "back" for some time now, but this recent period of extreme success has come without a heavy dose of homegrown talent. It would appear as though that tide has turned, a fact that should make everyone in this area who loves basketball very excited.
A version of this column appears in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune