Paradise found: Warm weather, good hoops can heal a Gator wound

JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — Well, football season is over, and we’re probably better for it. The Gator Bowl was a bust, though its officials were dead wrong about the allegiance of Cardinals fans looking to get off on a temperate climate and the hope that Hunter Cantwell could pull off a miracle. The Cards faithful overwhelmed and embarrassed timid Virginia Techies, all rowdy and — with a few sad exceptions — loyal to the final gun, filling the Red half of the stadium with big-time stamina and class (four relatively large sections of the upper deck on the Tech side were covered by tarps adorned with the Jacksonville Jaguars logo; there were none on the Red side).

A heavy and important rumor was confirmed: Marcus Vick is a goon who’d deserve any 15-yard personal foul, particularly one on the knees — not for his felonious past as much as stomping Elvis Dumervil and not having his skull inverted for it. The Cards fans let him have it all game after that. If only a few could’ve suited up.

Though football was the reason to drop by the city of the Jaguar as another year turned, the U of L basketball team inspired the real fun down south. Pitino’s boys whipped Miami at home, spending most of the second half toying with the inferior Hurricanes like a cat would with some large insect, batting it around and giving false hope of escape before plunging its incisors straight through the torso. It was an unnatural way to play, and I personally witnessed the weird and feral effect it had on fans. That’s because about 3,000 of us were gathered in the high-stakes Touchdown Club at Alltel Stadium, where seats for Jaguars games go for around $200 a pop. It was an ocean of red and black and white that crushed every expectation of size the locals had.

“You guys are louder than our own,” Michelle Flugum, a bartender there for nine of the 10 years it’s been open, told me as she poured a Maker’s Mark over ice. “They really didn’t know how many (people) to expect. Everybody’s been really friendly, I have to say that.”

I told her that’s what we’re known for, at least in certain parts of the country.

At halftime of the basketball game, the Cards cheerleaders showed up, though their presence wasn’t particularly necessary — the team’s performance had long before achieved the desired crowd effect.

A few minutes later and I slumped back into my seat, pulling hard on the cold Maker’s while the Cards dangled the proverbial carrot before the Hurricanes, waiting something like 14 minutes before putting more than four points on the board in the second half.

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, came arguably the most well known Cards cheerleader in recent history. Anyone who’s seen a game at Freedom Hall in the past decade would recognize Jeff Blume, the goateed guy with clean-shaven head who leads the C-A-R-D-S cheer, usually about two-thirds of the way into the game. I heard him before I saw him, and then he was right in front of me, running the length of the floor under the flat screens, screaming and flapping his arms before shaping them into the classic cheer. The ground rattled and the walls roared in reverberation. It felt like Freedom Hall.

“I think it’s awesome,” Blume later said of the event, which it seems the rest of the Louisville media — they were all here in J-ville — pretty much ignored. “I think we’re kicking some major butt here with our attendance. We came here and we’re rockin’ this place. We’ve got a capacity crowd and this is just the basketball game.”

His enthusiasm was fantastic and contagious, and some mutant form of it floated in the blood of the collective Cards faithful the entire long weekend. All that despite the fourth-quarter flop that handed the Gator Bowl to Tech, whose fans, for the record, didn’t seem to care too much.