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Cardinal Hoops Tradition Resurfaces

Chris Mack brings hope to the faithful

There’s something in the air.

And the aroma -- despite one last springtime cold front -- is as sweet as honeysuckle.

But it came from out of the blue. Xavier blue.

When the in the realm of all matters insignificant memory passed through my mind before Chris Mack’s boffo intro, it should have been obvious then and there how anxious I was, we all were for a reinstitution of hope.

We were, frankly, predisposed to be pumped.

While Butch Beard leaned against a Yum! Center support column, finishing a phone conversation, I chatted up Mike Grosso, who has been a long time pal since the moment I met him at the Cardinal Inn.

He was the heralded transfer from Frank McGuire’s South Carolina squad, Grosso the fellow known universally as the “second best player in his high school class.” Which was more than faint praise since #1 was someone then named Lewis Alcindor.

Grosso had an infectious giggle that remains to this day, and asked awkwardly that afternoon decades ago after a coed he fancied with whom I’d just been talking.

That goofiness remains and was present last week when we talked our aches and pains and the possibility of new parts, one of which, a new knee to be exact, might have prevented the pivotman from limping through a coulda been betta stint for Peck Hickman and John Dromo.

Then I realized the quiet fellow on the other side of Beard was Milt, no last name necessary. (Wagner, should you be a newbie to this whole Cardinal adoration thing.)

Upon spying him, any number of images could have manifested at this gathering of the tribe where a sense of tradition permeated the proceedings. Those free throws against Memphis State in ‘86, that flick of long range jumper, the unflappable calm with which he played the game, especially disarming since he was a Jersey kid.

Yet what came to mind was a flicker of an inconsequential instant at the SuperDome in New Orleans in ‘82, minutes before tipoff with Georgetown.

John Thompson, white towel already draped over his shoulder, towered over Milt, Denny Crum and one of the zebras. Wagner had on a pair of black gloves, due to some skin condition on his hands, and the Cardinal brass needed Hoya permission for him to wear that unusual accoutrement during the action.

Anxious for sure before that battle -- the most intense defensive game I’ve ever seen -- fantasies ensued when I saw Milt would play with leathered hands, that he’d hit the winning shot, send Patrick Ewing and his evil mates back to D.C., and there would evolve Cardinal Final Four lore to be retold along with the Wiley Brown finger in the dumpster tale.

Sigh. 50-46 G-town.

My point is that 36 years after the fact, the image, one of minor if any importance whatsoever in the history of U of L hoops, remains indelible.

I trust I wasn’t the only one reminiscing. What parallel evocations might the other acolytes assembled have experienced upon a sighting there of an old Card favorite?

Francisco Garcia straightening his ever bespoke mentor’s silk foulard, while being coached at the bench during a game?

The time the Doctors of Dunk wore actual physician’s jackets in warm ups, but made them a one and done because they were too constricting.

Beyond the game moments, the victories and defeats, each Cardinal fan has his own cherished memories, each of which a is a confirmation of his or her fealty.

Of course, there are those actually played out on the hardwood. Visions of . . .

. . . of Jerry Eaves, his deft maneuver to disconcert Kiki Vandeweghe from netting a wide open bunny late in Market Square. Of Roger Burkman, his improbable running jumper from the left side that felled Florida State in the Metro tourney final. Of Denny Crum, maybe adorned in one of those leisure suits he fancied early in his career, outfoxing Lefty or Dana in Freedom Hall.

So, yeah, it should have been obvious, as the introduction of the new Cardinal mentor began, that this crowd, this congregation of believers, was hoping for any sign the clouds over the program would part, the shroud of possible future sanctions could be lifted and set aside, if only for a time.

So it has come to pass.

It was an introduction that craved importance, that might be remembered as much as that scintillating last minute against Tennessee, Luke’s four treys, Pervis’s putback, Grif’s jumper late to overtake the Bruins, the one he was destined to make since he and Bobby were phenoms in middle school.

The early returns are in. The fan base is ready, hopeful. This hoops-addled burg is rejuvenated, alive again.

For the first time since we initially heard the name Christian Dawkins, steps are lighter and the breeze fresher in this city where sixth graders have long learned to dribble around the snow they shoveled just to play, to shoot over clotheslines in their pals’ backyards, to slam like Silent L on eight foot hoops; in this town where Loyola beat Cincy for the crown, where basketball is more than sacrament but the faith itself.

If Chris Mack never does anything else as U of L basketball coach, he has already achieved something monumental.

For this moment anyway, the pall has parted, light shines through. Hope springs.

Yet, reality is often bracing.

Ray’s gone, and we wish him all the best, but . . . but, damn, the Cards would be a lot better next season with the Trinity grad in the lineup.

And that graduate transfer from Dartmouth, the one’s whose mom is one of the 50 most important CEOs in the land, the one who we hoped would follow Mack down the river, instead will matriculate to Purdue.

A couple of legit websites have the Cards in their Way Too Early Top 25s. #12 in The Athletic. #14 at cbsports. But, sigh, they both assumed Spalding would return.

Which is a reminder that it shall be the proverbial tough row to hoe for U of L hoops for another season or two.

But if Mack’s original foray is a sign of successes to come -- and it says here it shall be done -- Louisville will be back in the upper echelon in the not too distant future.

All other plusses and minuses of Rick Pitino aside, I never understood why he felt compelled to lock the past, Cardinal tradition, in a storage closet. He did it in Boston, pushing Red Auerbach out the door. And did it again here.

I’m advised that those guys mentioned above, the Cardinal ballers who are U of L basketball -- Thank you, Chris Mack -- were never made welcome during the Pitino years. Didn’t make sense.

I’ve seen more of them around, at games, in the media room, since David Padgett took over than the whole time his predecessor was in charge.

So, if nothing else, as I wrote the other day, U of L basketball is back to where it once belonged, embracing its long, storied, successful tradition.

With Chris Mack, there is legitimate hope.

Now all we need is the Unknown Musician and to conjure John Tong one more once.

-- Seedy K