I have yet to walk the halls of the KFC Yum Center. I hope this college basketball season I will get a chance to go to a game there even though the name and logo on the outside of the building is horrible. I still think "The Bucket" would have been a better choice. However, being immersed around fans of the other team when I watch the Cardinals play on the rode isn't as fun as being among my fellow Cardinal fans. I miss the C-A-R-D-S cheers and the introductions of the players as everyone stands, claps, and cheers - the best player always getting the loudest ovation.
Although I haven't been to a home game in a few years, I have so many great memories of the days the Cardinals took the court at Freedom Hall. Trying to decide my favorite memory ever at Freedom Hall is difficult. I watched some great games there and also battled through some tough losing seasons. I wasn't at the game when Reece Gaines scored like 10 points in less than 30 seconds against Tennessee. I was there to see Reece Gaines and the rest of the team win the Conference USA championship though. I was also there for Gaines' senior night. I was there for a few of the games during Taquan and Francisco's years of dominance. I wasn't there for DeJuan Wheat's last home game which was disappointing, but I was there when he got injured in an exhibition game and I was angry that I only got to see him play for about five minutes. I was there for at least one victory over rival Kentucky.
All these moments were certainly great, but my most vivid memories are less about the outcome of the game and more about some specific event during or after the game. I remember when we beat Carolina and the coach - I don't remember his name - was a former assistant who had taken over for the legendary Dean Smith after he retired. North Carolina played a horrible game and afterwards as the press conference played on the large screen hanging over the middle of the court the coach looked defeated. He took the blame for everything. I remember after we beat Kentucky I was so excited I saw Hajj Turner walking through the tunnel and ran over and said hi and he remembered who I was (and thats a story for another day). After another Kentucky game I remember walking right past Saul Smith - one of my least favorite Kentucky players. Then there was the time my sister walked under the rope around the court to go ask Nate Johnson for his autograph as he sat on the bench during warm-ups. When I tried to follow her I of course got stopped by security. But I have to say my most intense memory and probably my all time favorite visual from Freedom Hall was during the first game I ever went to Samaki Walker stood at mid court on the Cardinal logo waving him long arms up and down encouraging the fans to make some noise. I can close my eyes and still see him there, white uniform, #52 in red on it, as the other players stood around the free throw line.
That game would be the only game I ever got to see Samaki Walker play in person at the University of Louisville. He left to chase an NBA dream and probably avoid any more NCAA problems. I tried to follow his NBA career and last I heard I believe he got into some legal trouble. But I can ignore all those things and remember him in that one moment. In that moment he was my favorite player - even over DeJuan Wheat for that season. How good would the team had been the next year if he had stayed - the year we made it to the Elite Eight and lost to North Carolina? Alex Sanders was the center. He was decent, but he was no Samaki Walker. Had be stayed our team would have been amazing - Walker, Wheat, Alvin Sims, Damien Dantzler, and Nate Johnson if my memory serves me correctly. But he didn't come back and sports, as well as life in general, is always full of what ifs. But thank you Samaki for that one moment, that great first memory of Freedom Hall.