CRAWFORD | Why Bellarmine basketball matters now more than ever in Louisville
Bellarmine faces Cincinnati in a rare Freedom Hall exhibition on Wednesday night. Eric Crawford on why the game is important.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s not hard to sense some fatigue among college basketball fans in this city. You could feel it in the KFC Yum! Center during the first University of Louisville exhibition game Monday night, if not from the fans in their seats, then from the fans not in them.
Maybe you’re experiencing it. If you are, I share your pain. Since October of 2015, those of us who cover primarily U of L sports have been neck deep in it, the same way fans have. Now, I’m not going to pretend that a certain amount of it isn’t good for business. Let’s face it. Still, there was a point at which, for me, the constant nature of it became a weight. And it has taken a toll, in a lot of ways.
In sports, we don’t cover life-and-death issues like what happened in New York Tuesday, or in Las Vegas recently. But here’s what covering basketball scandals did to me: So that I could bury myself in those events and write about them lately, I’ve had to turn off events elsewhere in the country. If I had watched the coverage of the Las Vegas shooting too much, or what has gone on in New York, I’d have lost focus on stories that dominated coverage here.
That, frankly, is a sad thing. It disconnects you from the world. It’s a purposeful warping of your perspective. And it’s not good. Another bi-product, and I'll admit this -- my own enthusiasm for covering the sport has waned a bit. Where am I going with this? Nowhere, really, except to note the weariness.
Also, to help explain why Bellarmine University basketball matters more to this community than it ever has.
If you’re looking for a group of guys to give you a fresh perspective on the game, to rekindle your enthusiasm for college basketball, this is the group, and Scott Davenport is your coach.
The Knights play an exhibition in Freedom Hall tonight against Mick Cronin’s Cincinnati Bearcats. Davenport had to pull a lot of strings to make the game happen. Normally, D-1 teams aren’t allowed to play road exhibitions.
At $20 for the most expensive seat, $5 for the least expensive, and rare free parking at the Fairgrounds, there’s no reason the game shouldn’t draw at least 10,000 people, if this community values the sport the way it has historically. Whether it does, I can’t say.
“We need this community,” Davenport said. “We’ve got over 11,000 tickets at $5 with free parking. The most expensive tickets are $20 and that gets you courtside with a cash bar and live entertainment pregame. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve sold it that we can get 10,000 or 12,000 of the greatest college basketball fans in the country to come out. I’m hoping for a huge walk-up. We want teams to come and families to come, and let’s bring this community together through the game of college basketball. Let’s use basketball.”
To follow Bellarmine is to follow a group of guys who are in school because they want to get ready for their careers, not for a career in pro basketball. Davenport let one of his key players miss Saturday road games one season because he had a lab back on campus he couldn’t miss.
He is constantly looking for ways to make his program a community asset. And he is constantly finding them. Tonight, the Knights will wear special shooting jerseys during warm-ups. They don’t feature the names of the players on the back. They will have names you don’t recognize. They are the names of children who suffer from cancer.
Afterward, players will present those jerseys to the kids, who will be in attendance at the game.
U of L is hoping to make something special happen in basketball this season. Next year, and the year after, could be bleak.
For a couple of years, Bellarmine could find itself being this city’s team. You could do worse things than walk into Knights Hall on Bellarmine’s campus on a winter night and feel the warmth of a close-packed crowd and an intense game. Sit in the stands, close to the action wherever you go, and feel drawn-in by it, as if you’re a part of it.
These are players who wander out onto the court after games to talk to their families. Who share in the laundry duties of the team, at Davenport’s request, so that they’ll appreciate the managers who do the laundry work full-time.
When they came into Freedom Hall for practice on Tuesday, they already knew the history of the building. Why? Because Davenport made them know.
“They had a homework assignment,” Davenport said. “Two weeks ago, I told them to go Google Freedom Hall and come back to me with four facts about the building. They came back with everything. Muhammad Ali fought here four times. Six Final fours played here. Coach you won a state championship here at Ballard. Allan Houston played here. After practice today, they’re going to walk through every inch of this place.”
And of course, they are coached by a guy who not only knows the arena’s history, he has lived it, and helped to make it.
“A state championship at Ballard in 1988,” Davenport said. “Coaching on the Louisville staff which was a dream come true. I’ll never forget my first game here, and coached in Coach (Denny) Crum’s last win here, over Memphis and Coach (John) Calipari. Coach (Rick) Pitino’s first game ever here, against South Alabama, coached by John Pelphrey, who I coached against in a Sweet 16 when I was at Ballard and he was at Paintsville. A lot of memories. I’ve got a son on my staff who was a ball boy here at 8 years old.”
On Tuesday morning, Davenport revived an old habit. When the weather was bad and he was a Louisville assistant coach, he would come to Freedom Hall and run in the concourses. Five miles around the arena, the bronze plaques of Kentucky Athletic Hall of Famers around every turn.
There was a difference this time. Davenport is on one of those plaques now, having been inducted in 2016.
Tonight, Davenport will return to the sideline in this historic building, which hasn’t played host to a college basketball game since the 2013 NCAA Division II Elite Eight. His old mentor, Denny Crum, also will be in attendance, as will many other people who care about college basketball in this city – and maybe a few who want to care again.
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