The opening line of Charles Dicken’s classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, begins with, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times…..”. The book itself would go on to describe for the reader that Dickens’ opener was referring to London and Paris during the turmoil of the infamous French Revolution. But, in my mind, Dickens was a visionary and he specifically had the events that would take place on Saturday, January 23rd in the KFC Yum Center top of mind when putting his thoughts onto paper.
It truly was for all intents and purposes the best of times on Saturday as the legendary Russ Smith had his number two retired. In contrast, it was also the worst of times because the Louisville Men’s Basketball team came back out of the locker to play the second half against Notre Dame.
Let’s start this piece focusing on THE BEST OF TIMES first.
What else can be said about Russ Russdiculous Smith that hasn’t already been discussed? Mike Rutherford wrote a terrific and eloquent piece on Russ a few days before his anticipated celebration that really hit home with me. Mike explained how he was originally wrong about Russ in thinking that he would perhaps never make it at Louisville. Obviously, as Mike admitted, he was wrong about what would become of Russ. But, in reading Mike’s honest testimony, I started to recall that I, too, had my own serious doubts about Russ.
I can vividly remember sharing a separate phone conversation with both my father (a lifelong die hard UofL fan) & one my best friends from high school, Tim, who had been just one of a few buddies like myself who grew up loving Louisville despite being raised in an area heavily saturated with Kentucky fans.
Those two conversations essentially revolved around me explaining to both parties that Russ was too small and way too careless with the ball to ever be a consistent contributor at UofL. In fact, if I remember correctly, I told my father that “Russ makes me want to pull my f#*$ing hair out”. I also hilariously mocked Pitino for taking a 2-star kid that no other Power 5 school wanted and wasting a scholarship on him.
What a complete moron, right?
In hindsight, I clearly could not have been more off base about Russ Smith. The guy literally defied the odds in every way and ended up being one of the best, most beloved and unique Louisville Basketball players I have been lucky enough to watch through my years as a Card fan.
Saturday afternoon was the culmination of Russ Smith’s illustrious UofL playing career. Smith, accompanied by his family, took center stage as the legendary Dr. Dunkenstein handed Russ one of his own framed #2 jerseys. Video testimonials with congratulatory remarks from former teammates, coaches and friends as we now know would follow.
And then in the midst of it all….the Rick video happened.
There were noticeably a few loud cheers and ovations in the Yum Center on Saturday. One followed an improbable three-point shot made by Mason Faulkner. Another came when the curtain dropped and Russ’ new banner was unveiled, nestled comfortably between Pervis Ellison and Denny Crum in the rafters.
But having personally been in attendance on Saturday, the loudest applause to my ears was when Pitino hit the jumbotron. For a few minutes I felt like I had been taken back in time to when he still roamed the sidelines. I won’t lie, I didn’t hate it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give mention to Russ’ father, Russ Sr. who gave Pitino a run for his money in terms of crowd response when he grabbed the mic and stated what numerous UofL fans have beseeched for more than a few years – UofL should put the damn 2013 banner back up.
Hard agree from this Card fan, Russ Sr.
The conclusion of Smith’s overly successful ceremony saw a UofL crowd that was, shall I say, pretty damn pumped up. It was ready to help try and push Chris Mack and his squad over the top as the Cards would come back out in the second half holding a semi-impressive seven-point lead over the Irish.
And then it became THE WORST OF TIMES.
The worst, well it’s old news now. Notre Dame came out in the second half of Saturday’s game and essentially kicked Louisville’s ass. I don’t know any other way to phrase it. Like nearly every game before it this underwhelming season, Louisville came out flat in the second half – something that has been a head scratcher for so many of us but almost accepted as reality here lately.
Admittedly, I spent a big part of Saturday’s game honed in on Chris Mack. In my opinion, body language tells you a lot about someone. Chris Mack’s body language, at least on Saturday, told me that he’s a coach who doesn’t have answers and doesn’t want to be in Louisville. The number of times I saw Mack lower his head, slap the score table or just abruptly plop down on the bench in utter dejection was too high to chart.
His players looked disconnected and lost - almost as if they were looking for ways not to lose as opposed to actually trying to produce winning plays. It was hard to watch. But, in hindsight I should not have been surprised. You know the saying, fool me once shame on me…..
But, I kept thinking to myself….”Surely these guys know that their season is essentially on the line if they have any plans of making the Tournament. There’s no way they’re gonna lay an egg in these next twenty minutes with all the energy in this arena.”
My last name may be Wright, but I was dead wrong.
The Louisville Basketball program is in dire need of a systematic overhaul. It’s painfully obvious, at least in my eyes. It’s not something I’m proud to admit, either. I sincerely WANTED Chris Mack to be successful as Louisville’s Head Coach. And if there was an avenue for him to somehow pull a basket of Rooster’s wings from his Nolin Lake hat and magically turn things around, I would feel good about it. But I don’t in any way foresee that happening and it sucks.
The circumstances suck for Mack’s family, for him, his players and staff and most of all the fans who have stood by this program through all the tumultuous ups and downs.
And speaking of the UofL fan base, it showed out on Saturday. It was far from a sellout as several upper-level sections were bare but the lower bowl was full and involved – at least until it was a forgone conclusion that Louisville was going to lose yet another home game with about five minutes remaining in the second half.
But the UofL fans were practically BEGGING for something good to happen all the while seemingly holding its collective breaths just waiting for disaster to occur. And occur it did.
Chris Mack may have inherited a program in disarray – a program identified as having a raunchy cloud called the NCAA looming over its head. But these excuses are played out with me. I personally can no longer hear how he would be getting better players if NCAA sanctions weren’t on the horizon because even if that assertion were true (arguable) he currently has good enough players to NOT miss the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year. He knows it, the fans know it. There is no elephant in the room here. The question now is how do you remove the elephant from the room with an interim AD and an interim University President?
The days and weeks to come are sure be entertaining. As many of us have distressingly learned over the past handful of seasons, there are no dull moments with the UofL Men’s Basketball program. But, make no mistake about it, the time we are in right now is, well, the worst of times.
The best of times? Well, I wish upon a star and still believe they exist somewhere out there. When they will return to Louisville, however, is anyone’s guess. But before that were to ever take place, things have to change and they sooner the better.