It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years to the day that Louisville said goodbye to Freedom Hall for good.
On its surface, the 2009-10 season will always appear to be one of the more forgettable campaigns during Rick Pitino’s tenure at Louisville.
The Cardinals were coming off back-to-back regional final appearances, and the season before had won both the Big East’s regular season and tournament championships, earning the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 overall seed as a result. Nothing came as easily for the 2009-10 group, which successfully balanced impressive victories with head-scratching defeats for four months before squeaking into the Big Dance as a No. 9 seed. When the draw was unveiled, U of L was immediately labeled as a trendy pick to upset top-seeded Duke in the second round. In keeping with the theme of the season, the Cardinals promptly laid an egg in their opening game, where they were eliminated by California via a 77-62 defeat.
The reality is that when any Louisville fan thinks about the 2009-10 season, they’re not going to immediately remember the NCAA Tournament loss or U of L’s equally lackluster one and out performance in the Big East Tournament. That Cardinal team had already had its defining moment by the time both of those games were played.
On March 6, 2010, the Louisville basketball team played its 823rd and final game inside Freedom Hall. The building had opened to relatively little fanfare in 1956, and then watched a national powerhouse grow inside of it over the course of the next 54 years. While Cardinal fans were excited to see their team move into a new arena that people were already declaring more luxurious than most which hosted NBA teams, they were also understandably sad about being forced to say goodbye.
The event would have brought an inordinate amount of pomp and splendor regardless of the opponent or any other extenuating circumstances. The fact that this was, for more traditionally straightforward reasons, easily the biggest game of Louisville’s season only added to the spectacle.
Louisville entered the game with a 19-11 overall record and a 10-7 mark in Big East play. The Cardinals were in desperate need of one more quality victory to put themselves in the right side of the bubble for good before Selection Sunday arrived. Thankfully, their opponent on the final day of the regular season provided such an opportunity.
Winners of 28 of their first 30 games, the Syracuse Orange came to Louisville in early March as the No. 1 team in the country. They had been beaten just once since Jan. 2, a stunning 66-60 home loss to this same enigmatic Cardinal team. Despite having won a national title in 2003, this was the first time Syracuse had been ranked No. 1 in an Associated Press Top 25 poll since the 1989-90 season (the AP does not release a postseason poll), and many believed Jim Boeheim had all the tools necessary to repeat the feat his team had accomplished seven years prior.
”Never before in my coaching career had I felt pressure like that,” Pitino recalled. “I couldn’t sleep the night before. I woke up in the middle of the night and just thought, ‘what if we lose?’ All those fans would have been disappointed, all those legends that had traveled to come to the game would have been disappointed, and we might have been on the verge of not getting a bid to the NCAA Tournament. That was a new level of pressure for me.”
Like a set of overbearing parents terrified of missing their golden child’s performance at a recital, Louisville fans started showing up around Freedom Hall about three hours before the 2 p.m. tip. Among the group of early arrivals were former All-Americans and players from the 1980 and 1986 championship teams who signed autographs, posed for pictures, and even took time to capture some images for their own scrapbooks. When tip-off finally arrives, 20,135 fans had filed in to watch the Cards play in Freedom Hall one last time, the largest crowd to ever see a game in the 54-year history of the building.
All 20,135 got their money’s worth.
The inescapable gravity of the moment had an adverse effect on both team’s early on. Playing noticeably tight, the two teams combined to go 0-for-11 from the field over the course of the game’s first three minutes. Senior guard Jerry Smith, a key contributor in each of his four seasons at Louisville, broke the tension by knocking down consecutive three-pointers to give the Cardinals an early advantage. Moments later, Smith nearly made the building collapse on its big day when he stole an errant Syracuse pass and then drove the length of the court for an emphatic one-handed slam. Always known for his boundless enthusiasm, Smith followed the dunk with a solid, celebratory shove of fellow senior guard Edgar Sosa.
So caught up in the moment was Smith, that after the game he couldn’t recall whether he’d sprained his right thumb on the dunk or during the celebration. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. What did matter was that Louisville was going to have to pull off the biggest win of its season without the services of its best three-point shooter and its third leading scorer.
A back-and-forth opening 20 minutes resulted in Syracuse carrying a 35-30 lead into the locker room, and Louisville fans terrified of walking out of their cathedral for the final time without a victory.
”We wanted to win that game so bad,” Sosa said. “Not just for ourselves, but definitely for the fans. Even when you’re losing, they always show up and they always show you love. We knew we had to give them a going-away present.”
With Smith sidelined and Louisville’s offense in desperate need of a spark, Pitino turned to an unlikely source. Seldom-used sophomore guard Kyle Kuric came into the final game of the 2009-10 regular season boasting drab averages of 13.4 minutes and 3.5 points per game. The last time he had stepped foot on the Freedom Hall court in a game, he had played seven minutes and failed to record a single statistic in U of L’s 70-60 loss to Georgetown. Still, this was the man Pitino decided need to ignite his team in the most important half of its season.
What followed was one of the most remarkable, memorable and improbable individual performances in the history of Louisville basketball.
Over a span of 13 minutes and 41 seconds, Kuric ripped the net for four three-pointers against Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone, and rocked the rim with four violent dunks, each one sending the home crowd into a louder uproar than the one before. In 13 minutes and 41 seconds, Kuric had scored 22 points, a career-high for the unheralded native of Evansville, Ind. Over that same time span, Syracuse had only been able to amass 22 points as a team. The result of all this was a 78-68 Louisville victory, and a mild court-storming from some of the Freedom Hall faithful — the only Cardinal court storm in the building’s history according to some of its long-time patrons.
”It couldn’t have been any better,” said hometown legend Darrell Griffith, the star of Louisville’s first national championship team in 1980. “That was the perfect sendoff.”
After Louisville held its traditional postgame senior day ceremonies, the microphone was passed around from Denny Crum to Griffith and then to a number of former players who had all shown up to share their memories and pay their respects. The fans sat down in their seats for the first time all afternoon, and stayed there long after the former players had finished talking. For many who had started attending games at Freedom Hall when they were young and had continued the tradition as their lives unfolded, it was as if they were scared to find out what would happen after they walked out of the building for the last time.
Finally, public address announcer Sean Moth had to take to the microphone and politely ask everyone to go home. And then he had to it again. And again. The throng got the message by the fourth announcement, and the familiar procession of smiling fans dressed in red commenced for the final time. The traditional postgame playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” by the U of L Pep Band accompanied the parade. Some sang along, some shed tears, and others just smiled the same goofy smile they’d been displaying all day.
As I walked out of Freedom Hall for the last time, I remember saying to Mrs. CC (then Ms. CC) that the feeling at that moment was as close as I had ever been to experiencing what I assumed winning a national championship would feel like. After having that experience three years later, I can say the statement holds up.
It was, indeed, the perfect sendoff.