CRAWFORD | Embattled Louisville program embraces reunion with fans in first scrimmage
Acting Louisville coach David Padgett will take support from wherever he can get it. On Friday night in the KFC Yum! Center, he wasn't disappointed.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For the past several weeks, the University of Louisville basketball players have been lifting each other up, supporting each other, veterans taking it upon themselves to keep spirits high and reach out to younger players to reassure them about the coming season.
David Padgett, as acting coach, has thought of little but the players. He has been trying to keep them upbeat. He hired a veteran assistant coach, Trent Johnson, who he thinks they’ll enjoy playing for.
“Our players were excited to play this game tonight, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone as excited as (Johnson) has been the last couple of days,” Padgett said. “The first thing he said the other day was, ‘You just woke the living dead, I hope you know that.’ I love the enthusiasm. He literally is a basketball junkie, and sitting out a year, he was just itching to get back in it, and he really likes our guys and they’ve taken a great liking to him.”
But there’s nothing like playing in front of people. And if ever a group of guys needed the roar of a crowd – even a crowd of just 5,000 or so – it was this group of Cardinals.
IMAGES | A photo gallery from Friday's scrimmage
“It was great to feel that support, from someone other than ourselves,” said sophomore V.J. King, who scored 30 points in the scrimmage. “We are a family in this locker room. We take care of each other. But it’s nice to be with people who support you.”
Deng Adel, who finished with 32 points and 13 rebounds, said the players couldn’t wait for this scrimmage.
“We need our fans,” Adel said. “We need them picking us up. We really need our fans to come together with us, and it’s Louisville, we know they will.”
Ray Spalding, who finished with 22 points, 16 rebounds and six steals, is a Louisville native. He knows what the program means to the city, and he knows it’s been a rough time for the city.
To watch him is to watch a guy who got serious about his game before the latest adversity hit. He got into the weight room. He improved his jump shot. He’s a legitimate ball-handler.
“With all that’s going on in this city, and not just what’s going on in basketball but all that’s going on in Louisville, people are really shy on basketball,” Spalding said. “Everywhere I go in this city, they’re talking about what’s going on with the basketball team, the football team, so with all that’s going on, for all these guys in this locker room to pull together and play well, it’s good for the city.”
And then there’s Padgett, who entered the arena to a standing ovation.
“Thank you,” he said, taking the microphone. “That’s very unnecessary.”
After the game, he said, “The ovation the fans gave me at the beginning was very humbling. It was tremendous.”
It wasn’t just fans who offered players their support. Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum was in the press room before the game, with former Cardinal Roger Burkman. I saw Beau Zach Smith in the tunnel. Tick Rogers in the locker room. Jerry Eaves. Wiley Brown.
Padgett watched the scrimmage from the scorer’s table, between the two benches, but at one point relocated to a baseline press seat, to talk to Crum about what they were watching.
“He was telling me about his last fishing trip,” Padgett said, smiling. “He’s been extremely supportive, and it’s fun to pick his brain. He seemed like he was pretty impressed with our team. . . . I’m going to try to get him to come by here in the next week or so. I want him to see our team. Obviously, he’s a Hall of Fame coach and a legend in this town, so he has an open invitation.”
Padgett has invited all former Louisville coaches and players to a practice in the next couple of weeks. Former Louisville assistant Jerry Jones sat in a baseline press seat.
“My biggest thing right now is support for these players,” Padgett said. “I want the city to support them, I want the fans to support them, I want the former players to support them. I want everybody to support them. There’s always talk about, it’s coach Crum’s players, or coach Pitino’s players. Well, you put on the Cardinal Bird on the front of your chest, we’re all the same. I think these guys need to know who has come before them, just like 20 years from now, if they come back, the guys playing need to know the guys before them. It’s all about just rallying support for this team. You could see tonight the way the fans accepted them, and I can’t wait to see when the arena is full. It’s all about Louisville right now. I know we’ve had the ‘Louisville First’ thing for a couple of years here, but right now, that’s as important as it’s ever been, and I’m just trying to do everything I can to get people to buy into that.”
Padgett is settling in himself. He moved into the basketball coach’s office, Rick Pitino’s old office, on Thursday, and admitted that it felt strange.
His players, on the court, looked comfortable. They were smiling in the pregame. They smiled on the court during the game. A fan made a funny noise during a free throw and Anas Mahmoud looked over and mimicked it.
As for the level of play, this is a team that is, as advertised, long and athletic. Beyond the returning players, freshman Jordan Nwora finished with 18 points and made 4 of 6 three-pointers. Malik Williams has been shooting lights out in practice, but went 1-10 in the scrimmage. Still, he grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds, which pleased Padgett, who praised him for finding ways to contribute even if his shot wasn’t falling.
Freshman Darius Perry had 9 assists with just two turnovers. Quentin Snider had 12 points and 5 assists.
The Red team, led by Adel and Spalding, beat the White team, led by King, Snider and Nwora, 94-80.
“We’ve got some offensive firepower,” Padgett said. “Obviously, our defense has got to get better, but that will come. We’ve got six new freshmen, just guys who haven’t played together. I thought we had some guys do some good things. Darius Perry didn’t shoot it well but had nine assists. . . . Deng let the game come to him, which is what you expect of him. The most impressive thing from him was 13 rebounds. . . . Just two weeks into practice, it’s a pretty good start.”
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