Sunday, March 25, 2012
FINAL FOUR !
When I was younger my dad decorated my room at our lake house with a University of Louisville theme. The walls were red and white and he hung a poster up with a cardinal bird celebrating the 1986 championship where Louisville beat Duke. As he hung it up I asked him if I was watching the game. I would have been about two and half years old and being the biggest fan of the team growing up it was important to me to know that I was watching it even if I couldn't remember it. Perhaps that would be the only final four we would get to in my lifetime and I wanted to believe I was somehow a part of it. I never got a direct answer to this question though, all my dad said in response was "Were you even born then?"
I like to think that I was watching that game though, but if not the closest I had come to witnessing a trip to the Final Four at that point was a trip to the Elite Eight led by my beloved and all-time favorite player DeJuan Wheat when I was 13 years old. I was crushed he didn't make it as I sat with the team media guide in my lap as if it had some answer that I needed to communicate through the TV for them to beat a Vince Carter and Antwan Jamison led North Carolina team. I knew that media guide backwards and forwards, but I was just a fan and there was nothing I could do to will my team to victory. Next year, maybe next year I thought.
But after Wheat graduated, the team seemed to take a turn for the worst. I still loved them, I still believed, but the numbers weren't there and at times the NCAA tournament didn't even look like a possibility, let alone the Final Four. Then Coach Crum retired and Rick Pitino was hired. There were some difficult feelings about his hiring. He had coached for that other team in the state down I-64. He had been a wildcat. How could he ever be a cardinal? But it didn't take for me long to embrace him. He seemed like a different coach at Louisville, perhaps his stint with the ego-filled NBA players had given him a fresh perspective on what it truly means to be a college coach. Suddenly his days of leading the blue and white were gone - he is the leader of the Cardinals and is a great leader at that. Given his track record for greatness it seemed like a run at the National Championship was on the horizon. However, it didn't happen right away. I made it through college without ever seeing a Louisville uniform on the court of the Final Four.
Then at a time when school should come first and being a fan second it happened. I was in my first year of law school at Tulane when I sat in my apartment in the graduate housing engrossed in a battle between Louisville and West Virginia. And when the game ended we stood as the victor and I was on the phone with my parents planning our trip to St. Louis. Somethings don't happen too often, Constitutional Law happened twice a week - it could wait.
I searched online for tickets and the most affordable I could find was $430. The ticket included the Final Four and the championship game. We purchased them through a ticket broker site - greatseats.com. And I headed back to Kentucky to drive with my family to St. Louis. We had to get a hotel in Illinois - everything around St. Louis was booked. Once there we had to arrange a meeting with the ticket broker for hand delivery of the tickets. It felt slightly awkward and uneasy, but turned out to go smoothly. Once the tickets were in hand everyone grew excited. And once in the arena we realized that our seats were not going to be great. The Final Four was in a football dome and we were so far up the court and players looked so small. I sat with my two younger cousins and my aunt, while my parents sat in another area. It didn't phase me though as to how far we were - I just felt fortunate to be there. And then Illinois stopped the excitement by sending us home. North Carolina was led by Sean May and Raymond Felton to become National Champions that year. I went back to school a couple days later, after I started feeling better from the cold I had picked up somewhere along the way. I shouldn't have probably missed school, but honestly I don't regret it. The only C I got in my life was in Constitutional Law (to be fair I got a C briefly as a quarter grade in social studies once in like the 3rd or 4th grade but quarter grades really didn't count and I'm sure I finished with an A) and I'm okay with that (most of the time). And the C was probably more of a result of me skipping class to work on my appellate brief rather than missing a day or two for the Final Four. I had been a great student my whole life - I deserved a break for once. And to be fair to myself I did graduate law school cum laude But I digress...
And now about 6 years later the Cardinals did what at times this year and even in yesterday's game seemed unlikely - they punched their ticket to another Final Four. I scheduled my day yesterday around being home to watch the game. I'm fairly superstitious at times while watching, so if I was doing something and they went on a run I tried to keep doing that until the run stopped. There were even points of the game that I couldn't watch. I walked to the bathroom to get ready for dinner later that night and heard what sounded like positive things for Louisville going on in the background. Until I heard Peyton Siva had picked up his fifth and final foul. I didn't know how much time was left. I was concerned to hear that Siva was out, which meant that Russ Smith (or as I found myself calling him Russy yesterday while screaming at my TV at him) was the point guard the rest of the way. Russ is great at times and out of control at others. He usually makes me nervous when he is in the game as the point guard, but he stepped it up when needed and lead the team with points in yesterday's victory over Florida. And Chane Behanan was just great down the stretch. He was poised and avoid getting his fifth foul. He gave us the lead. In a team where Chris Smith, Kyle Kuric, and Peyton Siva our often seen as the leaders on and off the floor, the final minutes of this game were controlled by a sophomore and freshman. And at the end everyone was smiling and Peyton knew that his season wasn't going to end while on the bench watching.
I'm still a little in shock that Louisville won yesterday. I think the team is in shock too a little. Florida shot lights out from the three point line in the first half yesterday. The looked unstoppable at times. But Louisville has always been a second half team. They have always been a team of runs. And they had there big run right when it's the most important - at the end.
Chane Behanan was named West Regional MVP and rightly so. He put up 15 and 17 points in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight. He is a power inside when it comes to rebounding. He is just a freshman. Russ Smith is instant offense. I love when the commentators say that he hasn't met a shot he didn't like. He is learning to play more controlled and is allowing Peyton some time to rest at points in the game. Pitino says he is the teams best one-on-one player. Not to mention I love the kid because he is a New York City kid from Brooklyn. He is just a sophomore. Chris Smith can't play a game without some commentator mentioning his brother JR Smith. He doesn't seem to be too vocal, he has a humble personality. He can get hot and make some offense happen. He is a leader. Yesterday after they cut down the nets he wore one around his neck. In an interview a reporter stated that he was sure Chris had some really expensive necklaces and then asked how the one he wore now compared to those. He seemed to indicate he preferred the net more (he did confirm though that he had expensive necklaces). He is a senior, this is his last shot at winning a championship. Kyle Kuric leads the team in scoring. He is the best three point and foul shooter on the team. He is poised. He too is leader. Pitino said he gathered the guys together at some point in instilled in them that they were still in the game yesterday. He too is a senior, this is his last shot at a championship. Gorgui Dieng is a a force inside. He is an amazing shot blocker - maybe the best I've seen to put on a Louisville jersey since Samaki Walker. He has an amazing basketball IQ. Also apparently he can knock down the three pointer - he hit his first one in the Sweet Sixteen. He is a sophomore. And then there are the guys who step in when needed, especially yesterday when the fouls seemed to be a little one sided. Or the guys that have become sideline coaches and cheerleaders due to season ending injuries. Angel Nunez, Rakeem Buckles, Zach Price, Jared Swopshire, Elisha Justice, Kevin Ware, Mike Marra, Wayne Blackshear, and Stephan Van Treese (I apologize if I left anyone off). And then last but not least there is Peyton Siva. Every team has a heart and soul and Peyton is ours. You can see every ounce of emotion in his eyes. Peyton may not be the best point guard in the country, but he wills himself to completely give of every ability he has when on the court. When he fouled out yesterday instead of whining or complaining, Russ said Peyton calmed him down and encouraged him that he could lead the team on the floor. There is no rivalry - no one is fighting for the spotlight. It's Peyton's team to lead on the floor, and when he goes down it's Russ next in line. This team is not one of superstars, although it definitely has talent. I'm not sure if these guys have NBA futures, but they have college basketball's holy grail before them and they are going as a team. They do not have a roster of one and done college athletes. They do not have a roster of names that are mentioned every day in the press. They have a cohesive unit that respects one another, that plays well together, and that are always learning even through the course of the game. Pitino said on SportsCenter that he told Chane they couldn't win with the way he was playing defense. Chane looked him in the eyes and said it won't happen again - and then Chane became the MVP. A great team, a great coach, another Final Four trip and perhaps more this time.
I sadly won't be going to the Final Four in New Orleans. No longer a student, I have actual adult responsibilities that say spending that much money on a ticket isn't in my budget. Not to mention I have issues with ever stepping foot in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. It's funny that the last time Louisville went to the Final Four I was actually living in New Orleans, and now they are going there for it. I have a lot of respect for the city and wish it the best in its ever still recovering state, but after I left due to Hurricane Katrina I've only been back once to get my belongings. People love it down there, but I'm not sure I can bring myself to go back. But I will be routing from New York for my cardinals and hoping for the best.