Let the Bluegrass Shake

When I see him, I’m going to walk up to Russ Smith and squeeze him.

On Saturday, the University of Louisville Men’s Fighting Cardinal Basketball Team came back from an 11-point deficit to beat a Florida Gators squad that only appeared to have outplayed them in every meaningful regard. But the tote board clearly read 68 to 72 in favor of Louisville when the buzzer sounded.

At times it was a bleak and difficult game to watch. By the second half, the entire basketball team was going to foul out. Pitino was signing recruiting agreements with towel boys when head referee Herr Karl Hess gave them all technicals and, invoking an arcane NCAA officiating tactic, actually gave every person in the North American viewing audience a technical as well. In spite of Hess’ efforts, the Cards prevailed by shifting to a hastily configured but effective man-to-man defense that operated like a loose confederation of feral dogs united by hunger alone. They guarded the perimeter, got some rebounds and some lucky breaks, and set off on an 18-3 run.

It didn’t even seem like they were coming back to win a game, though. It just sort of happened — the way a daydream will turn an hour into a hazy moment. We were doomed, and then all of the sudden the Cards were cutting down the net. And now, for only the ninth time in school history, the Cards are going to represent U of L, our city, and some disparate but vocal regions of the commonwealth of Kentucky in the Final Four.

I always believed in them. Except when I didn’t.

Like so many of you, I was a bad fan this season. Our team sucked, which makes watching basketball less fun. And then, just like that, they didn’t suck anymore. On the contrary, they were really good. Earlier this month, I started to care again, stopped calling for Pitino’s head on a Fiestaware platter, and dared to hope. When will I learn that just as soon as you start to doubt, the Cardiac Cards turn it around, shrug, and say, “C’mon, man — remember that Journey song? Don’t Stop Believing in us, bro. What does the announcer say over the P.A. before every home game: ‘Your Louisville Cards,’ right? We’re your basketball team.” I’m sorry, guys. I swear, it won’t happen again for at least five years.

I saw Gorgui Dieng on the street this morning and yelled at him from half a block away while pumping my fist in the air. It probably seemed like I was having some kind of fit. I lapse into inarticulate buffoonery in these situations, and what came out of my mouth was, “Gorgui! Hey man! Yesssss Dude!” I feel certain he understood the meta-commentary of my outburst, which was something like, “Mr. Dieng, I really appreciate the quality of play you’ve demonstrated lately. Your rebounding and blocking have been crucial both to the box score and to team morale, your unexpected jump shots — including a couple of sick little oblique three-point field goals — have been a real treat to watch, and your presence in the lane seems to be tempered by greater patience lately. Thanks for your effort.” He waved politely. He is an enormous human who seems very nice.

Now the commonwealth sits on its collective hands for the next week in anticipation of the most awe-inspiring event in Kentucky sports history, and, Bubba, it ain’t Kentucky Derby Day. There’s one of them every single year. Ladies wear hats, we all sing a song and make a day of it. It’s great fun.

But the Cards and Cats, this state’s rival blockbuster programs, head to head in the Final Four? It’s nothing short of epochal. People who never thought about having children are starting families right now just so they can bore their grandkids with stories of this season and this game, and whatever is getting ready to happen, it’s going to need a name.

When they met in the Elite Eight in ’83, the meeting that relit the flames of rivalry came to be known as the Dream Game. What are we going to call this one?

The Bluegrass Catastrophe? (Sorry, LEO music blog. It’s just too good.) Commonwealth Collapse? Nightmare on Bourbon Street?

Whatever we call it, I’d just like to say, from the bottom of my heart, may the best team win, and may that team be U of L.


Go Cards.