"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Monday, June 20, 2011

Warrior Travels: Chapter 3: Louisville

"Oh, we can populate the dark with horrors, even we who think ourselves informed and sure, believing nothing we cannot measure or weigh."

At the Falls of the Ohio River sits the city of Louisville, the northern entryway into the South. The river has given life to this city and taken it away. Slaves were traded here and the Underground Railroad offered freedom across the water. A border state city that was the base for the Yankees, yet had sentiments for the Rebels. In these same conflicted ways, the Falls City represented the best and the worst, the highs and the lows, of my Marquette sojourn.

Driving down the I-65 for the second time in a tad over two weeks, I pretty much had the feel for the road. Absent were the holiday RV’s and campers. The truckers were still out in force, however, and the Cracker Barrels at every exit were still open and busy. I left work before noon on Friday with the intent of putting the miles behind me for the early 11AM EST game start on Saturday, January 15th. This road trip commute was about speed to destination. Marquette was off to a great 3-1 Big East start, and I was feeling pretty optimistic for a Road W over the Redbirds, which would pretty much ensure a high conference finish in my mind.

The hype about the long-time and heated Marquette-Louisville hoops rivalry seemed to be dying down lately, with blow-out games more the norm. Rather than last second game winners, the one recent highlight had been Buzz Williams sideline two-stepping, as made famous by the YouTube magic of MU grad Brad Forster. I was very excited to check out the sparkling, new KFC Yum! Center, yet I had consternation about the rabid, red-pleathered University of Louisville fans who did not have a great reputation for warmly welcoming sports visitors.

I arrived at the Louisville Downtown Marriott around dinner time. The modern hotel had a beautiful, open-space lobby, perfect for mingling and meeting up. This was also the Marquette team hotel, and at first glance, it was obvious that a fair amount of influential alumni had made the trip down for the game. Although this was a home game, there were plenty of University of Louisville fans and notables hanging around as well. The ESPN crew was on the hotel registry. Champion’s, a sports bar and grill, which hosts the weekly Rick Pitino luncheon, is attached to the lobby. There was a rock band groupie feel to the hotel that was very different. This was a place where sports sycophants rubbed elbows.

After checking in, I headed down to Champion’s to decompress, re-nourish, and connect with some friends. As I walked in, I waved to a few of the dedicated Marquette Athletics Department roadies who were meeting up to head out to dinner. I bellied up to the bar to get a good view of the screen and wait for my arrivals. A familiar-faced man in a running suit who was working his mobile phone hard sat down on the barstool next to mine, and gave me a nod. I was sipping on a yard of the local craft, Falls City, that had a nice golden taste to it, while watching the game du jour. (I learned later that this brewery was once owned by Falstaff, which made me wonder about the taste profile.)

As our now assembled group ordered off the bar menu, I tried to place the face of the jogging suit guy. I overheard him say (not that I was trying to listen, mind you, but a hotel bar was the Facebook of the 80’s): “Yes, he is ready to move. He has been there three years and his bags are packed.” Then it hit me. I was sure it was Jimmy Sexton, sports agent meat peddler who basically mops up in the South. We all like a conspiracy theory and some good gossip, but the facts matched-up with Buzz, and soon after Buzz’s name started circulating for the Arkansas job, a job that Sexton client Mike Anderson eventually took after some patented maneuvering. Was he shopping Buzz, trying to create a market for a current client, or was this some other candidate he was pushing? (Or, more likely, was it Mike, a headhunter, talking to a human resources manager about a potential offer to a vitamin sales rep.) Whatever the reality, my now well-oiled imagination was having fun rubbing elbows.

On game day morning, I lined up at the hotel restaurant breakfast buffet, and sat with some long-time MU fans. They were excited for the game, but voiced concern about another mid-season transfer, to go with some other perceived foibles. While they liked Buzz, they were questioning his inexperience in running a major program, and whether it would eventually hurt Marquette’s reputation. These were Jesuit stewardship comments, wanting to win the right way--not wanting to recruit on rented talent or to be a coach stepping stone program.

Arriving early at the KFC Yum! Center, I did a walk-about of the interior. The design is very fan-friendly, with varied restaurants, bars, menu choices contained inside—with walk-throughs to your seats. This new riverfront arena is the big sister to the U of L practice facility of the same name located on campus. The Louisville Basketball Hall of Honor is contained in the arena. Nice touches like projected game statistics on overhangs and handing out sponsored official statistics at half time and after the game make this a great fan experience, something the Bradley Center could learn from. The Louisville fans are very knowledgeable and loyal, and treated us with warmth, blowing away the stereotype.

And, the first 85% of the game was a great Marquette fan experience. The Golden Eagles built an 18 point lead, and the Red Loyals were streaming out, mumbling Pitinounsweet nothings” under their breaths. The remaining Redbird fans sat there in stunned silence. Our Marquette fan pod sat respectfully tame, cheering at appropriate road levels. Then, a slow-motion disaster unfolded right before our wounded eyes, resulting in yet another last second loss. The breakfast buffet concerns about inexperience came home to roost. The Vanquishers became the Vanquished in the blink of an eye.

We now sat there in stunned silence. The Louisville fans were incredibly empathetic, even apologizing, certain not to rub it in. It was perhaps the oddest fan experience one could imagine. The season was now in an emotional shambles for the MU fanbase. I circled back to Champions for a medicinal ale quickie—and ESPN’s Bill Rafferty was holding court at the back tables, in true Irish fashion.

After I dug the Oedipus brand pencil out of my eye at the back bar, I somehow found my way to the Louisville Slugger Museum. Besides college hoops, baseball is a favorite sport. I have always wanted to visit the Hillerch & Bradsby facility. If I had a “Bucket List”, this tour would have been on it, and it did not disappoint. Let’s start with the entrance, the world’s largest bat sits right outside this truly American heiau. The world’s largest glove, a live batting cage, a simulated fast ball exhibit, a plant tour, hall of fame, and a mini bat on exit were the highlights. This is “Man Law Hallowed Ground”, where the wives were lined up post-tour to order custom bats for their husbands, not really fully understanding the emotional attachment to their childhood that they were satisfying for—just a women’s sixth sense knowing that it was somehow important to their caveman’s psyche—no questions asked. Very Oedipus, indeed.

Meanwhile, it was time to eat and drink. I headed to the Fourth Street Live District to check out this civic reinvestment to bring social life back into the city. I was greeted by a reveler who had his shirt off in 40 degree weather with a “my nipples are popping” proclamation to the world. Somehow, his rather good looking girlfriend thought this was “cute”, which was a final signal that I needed to find a shot ‘n a beer place away from this commercial zone. I was just now plain pissy, entering the next stage of death and dying.

The next day, on the drive home, I felt like Marquette Nation was in complete disarray. My passive-aggressive acceleration over the Ohio was intended to put the Falls City in my rearview SUV ozone fog. I just needed a warm bed and a wet-nosed dog named Charley to kick. My irrational mind was looking for a psychological escape. Flat, straight and long, I-65 provided that.

"Louisville" is the latest in a series chronicling the 2010-2011 Marquette hoops season from a fan's unique perspective. If you missed the first entries click on the tags below for earlier installments.

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