How a game against Tennessee made me a Louisville basketball fan forever

Rhet Wierzba #32 of Austin Peay and Reece Gaines #22 of Louisville (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Rhet Wierzba #32 of Austin Peay and Reece Gaines #22 of Louisville (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Louisville basketball faces a formidable Tennessee squad on Wednesday. But, just because they appear outmatched, doesn’t mean that there’s not a little magic left in this match-up.

Trending. Keys for Louisville to take down the Vols. light

Louisville basketball has always been in my blood. But, for me, the moment that I knew I was a fan for life, and the moment that I knew that it was more than just a game, perfectly intertwines with some of my deepest-seeded memories of my grandmother.

I was only eight years old when Louisville came from behind in the waning moments to beat Tennessee in 2001. I always knew I was a Cards fan, and seized every opportunity to tag along with my best friend- my grandma- to home games in Freedom Hall.

As most familiar with Freedom Hall know, it was, and is, a special place. Fog Allen, Hinkle, Cameron Indoor- those places are great. But they don’t quite stack up to the immensity nor the history that was made in that building. Even at eight years old I knew that. To this day, no amount of coats of paint, farm and machinery shows, and livestock exhibitions can completely wipe out the smell of caramel corn that permeated through every inch of Freedom Hall. That smell of caramel corn is one of great nostalgia for me, and I feel more and more at home each year at the Yum! Center as the Cards’s new confines begin to smell and feel like their old stomping grounds.

Nevertheless, I was pumped to be at Freedom Hall right next to Grandma for the battle against the Vols on Christmas week of 2001. The building was amped for this match-up, in which Tennessee challenged the Cards throughout.

We sat side-by-side, Grandma in her usual isle seat, for the entirety of the first half, where the Cards headed to the locker room up by two. That’s when we got the opportunity to trade seats with family who would rather sit, and Grandma took me down to the student section. This was a sacred place for me. Back in the day, the student section was filled with- get this- students. And they stood the whole time.

This wasn’t off brand for my then mid-60’s grandmother to want to move from her comfortable seats to the student section to stand with an 8-year-old. A few years later, she would find herself in St. Louis, navigating the bar scene amidst mostly 20-somethings right outside the final four just so that she could soak in the game atmosphere. Just as I am now, she was a Cards fan through and through, and old age wasn’t going to stop her from doing everything she could to bring home a win for her team.

We stood for the entirety of the second half. Grandma, peering over the shoulders of a dozens of sweaty undergrads, and me, standing next to her on a chair on my toes, craning my neck to catch every second of the action. As we reached the waning moments of the game, the outcome looked bleak- and, as with any loss, I was dejected and tears began to well up in my eyes. With Tennessee up six with 36 seconds left, most began to gather their jackets and purses, ready to make a dash for the exits to avoid ring road traffic.

“I wish people would stop doing that. Pres, you always stay until the end. It’s not over until it’s over.” Grandma let out one of her usual chuckles that always eased the tension in my heart. It was over to me, though. I saw everyone ready to leave, and though I was eight years old, I was no dummy. We were going to lose.

But, something happened- We didn’t. We didn’t lose. If you’re a Cards fan of any age, you know the story. It’s a top 5 “where were you when” moment of Louisville fandom. It signified the first signature moment of the Rick Pitino Era. And it was an improbable comeback that lit a fire under a fan base and a school that was desperate for a success story.

BRL’s Andy Harrell recalled his reaction to the miracle comeback in ’01:

"“I watched to the end of the game because, well, I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to basketball. This game is probably the lone reason I stay glued to every UofL game to this day even if it’s a blowout or just unlikely we’ll pull it out. It really was a turning point for my personal love of college basketball. Reece Gaines’ shooting and Eric Brown’s defense that day, very much made basketball a magical world for me, where anything could happen.  It became a ritual to watch games at my friend’s house after that. Even if we could watch it at my house. We couldn’t jinx that kind of magic.”"

It wasn’t a big-time win, or even a win against a superior foe. But the magic of that moment, so early in the Pitino era with an average team, made it such a surreal experience.

Nearly everyone remembers where they were for this moment, and I’m willing to bet most- especially those who were there in the stands- have their own perspective on the story.

My fandom was defined that day. The bar was set for what a great game is like. As those threes fell, one after another, we held our breath and then rejoiced. Be it 8 years, 18 years, or 68 years old, it didn’t matter. All parties in our section high-fived, hugged each other, and celebrated in jubilation. I stood on my chair, arms outstretched in revelry at the accomplishments of MY team.

I have never backed down since then. Since that day, I have been committed, all-in on The University of Louisville. Grandma passed in 2005, but her legacy lives on in me, in the countless other lives that she touched, and fellow Cards fans that she made smile. This is one of countless memories that come to mind when I think of my grandmother. But, when I think of Freedom Hall, I think of that game, that moment with my favorite person, and that memory that fueled my passion for Louisville and sports in general.

Next. How Louisville can beat UT. dark

Seventeen years later, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Louisville faces a Tennessee squad in a game in which the cupboard is much less full than usual. The coach, Chris Mack, is even less tenured than Pitino was in that game. And the stakes are even higher. The odds of pulling off another comeback are slim-to-none. However, if the Cards find themselves in a tough spot to get out of on Wednesday evening, don’t sweat it. They will always have a little magic left in them. It’s not over until it’s over.