Issue March 9, 2011

Rebuilding year my tail-feather

When people discover you’re a fan of one sport, they commonly assume you are a fan of, or at least conversant about, all sports. This is not the case.

I have exactly enough surplus psychic energy for one investment of emotional capital on sports per annum, which is and always will be given to University of Louisville Men’s Cardinal Basketball. While I enjoy a leisurely afternoon at the ballpark as much as the next patriot, the walk of shame to the Dumpster behind the outfield to smoke cigarettes with the other curs and blackguards has become increasingly wearisome. And the NFL became useless to me after the tectonic sexuality and unchecked musical genius of Prince rendered the Super Bowl halftime show obsolete.

All that being said, committing to even five short months of fandom per year is a taxing proposition. I took a moment at the beginning of this Cardinal basketball season to assess my constitutional integrity as a fan, and, I’m a little ashamed to admit, I found it was lacking.

I, like many others, take Cardinal losses badly, and the emotional disappointments of the past few seasons have taken their toll. More than a few white hairs in this beard are a result of poor foul shooting, nonexistent rebounding, and players leaving for the bigs before they’re ready.

I never would have guessed that the groin injuries of other men could hurt me so badly.

Early in the season, Coach Pitino candidly stated that due to the loss of three seniors and a fourth starter from the previous year, in addition to the relatively young makeup of his squad, U of L fans should expect the 2010-2011 season to be “a bridge year” focused on rebuilding the program, running the youngins through the Big East grinder, and recruiting for 2012.

Those all too familiar words whispered anemically, without resolve, which have drifted through the alleys and haunted red and black doorways in this city since 1986 burned in my ears. “Next year. Next yeeeeeear.”

But what can you do but take the coach at his word? I decided that if the Cards were going to have a rebuilding year, I wanted one, too. To this end, I was determined to take it easy this season, approach the games with an attitude of laissez-faire Cardinal Pride, and just watch the dudes play ball without getting bent out of shape and losing sleep over misplaced expectations of greatness.

Who could have guessed that my willfully lowered expectations would light up like a pinball machine and pay back in silver dollars, as Jack Nicholson once said?

Warts and all, this “bridge year” team is unquestionably the most charming and enjoyable squad in the last decade. They’re playing basketball together with a collectively marshaled lack of ego. These guys are humble about the raw power they’re capable of gathering, they’re generous, and, most importantly, they like playing together and it shows. It’s as if the spirit of Larry O’Bannon hovered over this team and guided their attitudes about the game.

I don’t remember a team that’s been more fun to watch, maybe since I was a kid, and the Cardiac Cards are alive and well in 2011.

In the age of multi-million dollar athletic programs with corporate sponsorships concerned with market share and demographics, I understand that fan participation makes me complicit in a for-profit industry built on the backs of the players, tuition-paying students (like myself), and the faculty of NCAA colleges and universities. So be it. I’m not here to make collegiate athletics appear wholesome. As for the integrity of actual players playing a game I love, though, this year’s team is what Cardinal basketball specifically, and college basketball in general, should look like. These guys are playing for one another, for their coach, for this city, for the jerseys on their backs, and it’s a blast.

The Cards wrapped up the regular season in third place in the toughest conference in the country and were ranked 11th overall. Not bad for a team who suffered more injuries than they’ve got fingers and toes, and who still seem uncertain what the words “defensive rebounding” mean.

As the bridge-year-team-that-could steams off into March Madness, I’d just like to say, as a lifelong fan of this ball club, thank you, good luck, and I never doubted you for a second, I swear. Go Cards.