So when I pitched Glorious Editor on the idea of this series, three campaigns of significance came to mind.
’59, when the Cards gained a toehold in the nation’s consciousness. ’79, the season before The Season. And ’09, when there was all sorts of stuff undermining the team we only learned about after the fact.
Some of the other campaigns, upon further examination, turned out to be, well, meh. Nothing, as we say, to write home about.
Like ’88-’89, which opened with an unexpected L to Xavier, denying the Cards and fans a Thanksgiving trip to the Big Apple, and ended abruptly with a 14 point loss to #3 Illinois in the Regional Semi.
In between there were some highlights. At one juncture, after 14 straight victories in December and January, including a 22 point beatdown of UK, and triumphs over Top 20 Georgia Tech and UNLV, Louisville was ranked in the Top 5. Yet the Cards faltered in February, going 5-4. (More on that free fall in a bit.)
Most of all, the campaign shall be remembered by most simply as the last go round for Pervis Ellison, a national champion, Final Four MOP as a rookie, an unequivocal Cardinal great, and first pick in the ’89 NBA draft. But a fellow who never really became an endearing fan favorite.
Ellison, relatively unheralded when he joined the Cards, a highly skilled pivotman who never made the same rookie mistake twice, was the fellow instinctive enough to retrieve wobbly-kneed Jeff Hall’s air ball against Duke and lay the biscuit in the basket, sealing the title, which served as a catalyst to Danny Ferry’s less than shining moment as an all-time first team Blue Devil jerk.
So smooth was Pervis stylistically, so devoid of rah rah, that his seemingly effortless production on the court in the three campaigns that followed never engendered the adoration one might have expected.
Until I checked his actual stats several years back, I misremembered that Ellison’s game regressed throughout his career at U of L. Truth is his scoring essentially improved each season. His rebounding stayed steady.
He just never led the Cardinals back to the last weekend, and seemed to many fans aloof.
That slate was also the final season for Kenny Payne, one of my favorite Cardinals, whom I fell in love during a summer league at Bellarmine before his frosh season, when he was draining jumpers from the Douglass Loop.
I’ve alway had a theory why Payne wasn’t a bigger scorer at U of L. (Though he did crack the 1000 point club, winning me a bet with my pal Sportsby.)
Denny Crum was slow to adapt to the three point era. That’s well chronicled. My belief is he never allowed Payne to shoot the ball from as distant as Payne needed to.
Hearkening back to that season, one that had its moments but in the end was just sort of meh, brings to mind a couple of peripheral matters. Which are probably of interest only to me, though I’ve never allowed that to get in the way of telling the tales.
The Cardinals weren’t the only ones denied a visit to NYC at the beginning of the holiday season.
Had U of L not fallen by a deuce to Xavier, I would have spent Turkey Day and that weekend in the Big Apple, staying at the posh condo on the upper West Side right across the street from the Museum of Natural History of my well-to-do college chum Winston. (Last name. He was a frat bro. You know how we do.)
Not only would I have savored Card games in the Garden, but that street where I’d be staying was a staging area for those big balloons in the Macy’s parade. And, a couple of neighbors in the five story building, where each unit was an entire floor, happened to be Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley.
So that L to Xavier was tough. No NYC. No trip to the Garden. No Macy’s parade. No hangin’ with the Piano Man and the most famous model in the world.
While stealing Chris Mack decades later from the Musketeers is a bit of get back, it’s not full recompense. I’m still grieving.
(And, before you ask, I simply don’t recall why I didn’t take the trip anyway.)
The fun part of the end of the season, such as it was before ending a week later, concluded with Ws over Arkansas Little Rock and Arkansas in the Sub Regional in Indy.
March 16, the day of that first victory is especially memorable.
The Professor and I were able to eat at Shapiro’s Deli, my favorite eatery, three times.
Shapiro’s holds a special place in my heart. My first meal there was the Tuesday after the Cards won the title in ’80.
U of L has played in Naptown any number of times through the decades, which always means a trip to Shapro’s, usually both before and after the games. Often with the place jammed with Cardinal fans.
Without tickets for those ’89 games, Prof and I drove up the morning of the first one, stopping at Shapiro’s for breakfast before buying tickets on the street. After which procurement, we returned for lunch. After the 76-71 win over the Trojans, we returned for dinner.
More than a little obsessive? Yes. But, such is my love for the joint, which represents good times and Cardinal hoops, I once dreamt I lived in the private party section there.
But, hey, enough about me. What else is there to remember about the Cards that year?
Yes, as mentioned, it was Pervis Ellison’s final campaign in the Red & Black. But he hurt his knee in a seven point setback to #17 Ohio State.
UPI quoted team doctor Rudy Ellis: “The injury is not career ending for Pervis.
“Tests confirmed he only had a strained medial collateral ligament.”
Trainer Jerry May believed Pervis’ recovery “would be very rapid.”
He was only out a few weeks, though it seemed longer and appeared to start the Cardinals’ tail spin. That L to the Buckeyes ended a 14 game W streak. U of L dropped six of their next 11, and despite winning the Metro tourney and those first two NCAA games, never got its full mo’ back.
The season in microcosm was a two paint setback to UCLA in Pauley, mid February. The Cards were in the middle of that season’s swoon. They trailed at the half, and were down 13 with a smidge over 11:00 to play. A furious comeback including 9 straight in 1:30, pulled the Cards even, but victory was undermined by turnovers late.
With the score knotted at 75, the Cardinals had possession, but were forced to call a timeout at :17 when Everick Sullivan was trapped at midcourt. After the stoppage, U of L gave it back to the Bruins because of a miscommunication on a pass between LaBradford Smith and Kenny Payne.
UCLA prevailed when Pervis was called for a goaltend at the buzzer on a Pooh Richardson follow shot.
After the highly disputed call, Denny Crum remained calm and didn’t throw the ref who blew the whistle under the bus. Jim Harrick was a putz.
Louisville lost three of its next five.
— Seedy K
(Sources: My memory. Louisville Basketball Media Guide. Russ Brown, “Courier-Journal.” United Press International.)