Issue March 17, 2009

The Cards: A retrospective

A look back at U of L teams of yesteryear — and a hopeful look ahead

There are these characters: The Governor and The General, as they are known around the Belknap Campus. They rule the U of L student section in the 1960s. I’m talking the days of first-come, first-served seating, and of Unseld, Beard and Jerry King, a shooter who hits every important free throw he takes.

This duo is there when the gates open. They stake out the same seats for their gang every game.

The General enforces who sits where.

The Governor, his stentorian voice like a Sermon from the Mount, is in charge.

Fast-forward to March 24, 1980. The Governor is in Indianapolis, at Market Square Arena, may it rest in peace, where long-suffering Cardinal fans followed a local named Darrell Griffith. That night, No. 35 leads the faithful to the Promised Land.

The Governor sees The Kid, who has suffered as many close-but-no-cigar moments as any Red & Black believer. The Kid is a guy about whom it was often lamented before that moment in Indy — either over burgers at the Cardinal Inn or a Pabst at the Z Bar — that he’d go to his grave and his headstone would read, “He Only Wanted One.”

The Kid has stories. Like listening with his dad to the Cards beat the Cats and Michigan State in the regionals in ’59. Then showing up at Freedom Hall the following weekend to see the Cards battered in the national semifinals by Jerry West and his Mountaineers.

The Kid, like a lot of old-time U of L fans, is so locked in, all you gotta do is mention a word or a name or a phrase and he’s got the facts. And until Indy, it’s just a flood of bad dreams.

Terry Howard. “Oh yeah. 1975. San Diego. We got the mighty Bruins bent over the couch. The W is just a free throw away. Howard misses. He hadn’t missed one all season. I’m walking around the parking lot after the loss. I’m in a daze. Can’t find the right bus back to the hotel. Two days later, I’m forced to watch UK lose to UCLA. It’s the Wizard of Westwood’s last national crown. It should have been our first.”

Dave Corzine. “Geez, we make that guy a star? 1978. Lawrence, Kan. He’s a plug. A run-of-the-mill pivot at best. Feet like canoes. He burns the Cards for something like 40. DePaul wins in double OT.”

SMU. “That may be worse than San Diego. It’s 1967. Louisville is ranked second in the country. Win the regional and we play the national semis on our home court. Then Freddie Holden forgets to cover the defensive end on a jump ball. The Mustangs run out for a bunny. Cards lose.”

Ohio State. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. 1961. The regional semifinals right here in Freedom Hall. The Buckeyes got Havlicek, Lucas and that punk reserve Bobby Knight. They’re ranked first. There’s a few seconds to go. The Cards, playing our butts off, are down only one. Seconds to play. John Turner — our best player, right? — is at the line for two. He misses both. Then he gets the rebound. Then he misses an 18-footer. We lose.”

You catching my drift? Need I go on? Didn’t think so.

So, anyway, The Governor puts his arm around The Kid’s shoulder there in Indy and says, “Tonight you can rest in peace.”

And The Kid, so happy and relieved he’s sobbing, nods, “Yeah.” Of course, we’re talking back in the day here. The Kid’s loaded with schnozzle. He hadn’t cleaned up his act yet. That comes in ’82. So sleep ain’t all that easy. But, you know, at least he’s smiling as he’s tossing and turning.

The next morning, The Kid and his pals are checking out of their hotel. They run into Big Ten Commish Wayne Duke, who’s gotta gig the guys in red. “When you get home, Kentucky fans are still going to treat you like No. 2.”

They laugh in his face. They’re on the way to Shapero’s for some corned beef and latkes. The Kid is forever attached to that deli. It’s where he celebrates the Cards’ first title.

Life changes for The Kid — for all Louisville fans — that night in 1980. With one in hand, the title in Dallas in ’86 is like dessert.

Of course, there’s not enough Tums for the heartburn between the two.

“U.S. Reed in ’81. The Cards start off 2-7. Reel off 15 wins in a row. Make a big comeback against Arkansas. Take the lead for the first time. Then Reid lucks one in from mid-court at the buzzer. In ’82, Georgetown shuts us down in New Orleans. And it’s a monsoon when we walk out of the Superdome.

“Knoxville. We win the Dream Game 80-68 in OT. Then spit it out the next week in Albuquerque to Phi Slamma Jamma. I’m telling ya, there’s a lot more yin than yang.”

Now, The Kid — remember, he only wanted one, but has a couple — urges on Earl, wonders why he isn’t focused every time they tip it off? Brays at T-Will, hates it when he turns evil. Wonders which Sosa is going to suit up?

But The Kid, he still daydreams: “Ya know, there’s a real symmetry to three.”

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