Phil Rollins has been immersed in the University of Louisville hoops tradition for half a century. His playing days predate Freedom Hall.
As a senior in 1956, he starred on Louisville’s team that ruled Madison Square Garden and has been a fixture at Freedom Hall since 1963 after his pro career ended.
He’s red and black to the core. His business card includes a photo of him in his Cardinal uniform and reads “1956 NIT Champs.”
“What I remember is that a lot of people thought Freedom Hall was going to be a white elephant. It’ll never be what they want.
“I was in the service, but made it back for the first game in Freedom Hall. The place was packed. Charlie (Tyra) broke his record. Tommy Hawkins played a great game for Notre Dame.”
U of L contested its first tilt in Freedom Hall on Dec. 21, 1956. By that time, two other games had already been held there: Ed Diddle’s Western Kentucky State College Hilltoppers (later to become WKU) bested San Francisco, 61-57, several days earlier in the official inaugural. Bellarmine played an “exhibition” versus a squad from Fort Knox.
The Cardinals whipped Notre Dame, 85-75, before 13,756 fans in their first bout at the Hall. It was in that game that Tyra, cover boy on the first-ever Street & Smith College Basketball Yearbook, tallied 40, including a perfect 18 for 18 underhanded free throws. Sophomore guard Harold Andrews scored a dozen in his first start. Bill Darragh scored 17.
Darragh, a season ticket holder to this day, remembers that game as well as the Cards’ other two wins at the fairgrounds that season. U of L moved permanently from the Jefferson County Armory (Louisville Gardens) the following season.
“Freedom Hall was big, new and shiny. We liked the Armory, but the locker room was like a furnace room. It was dirty and dingy. Playing at Freedom Hall was exciting…
“In the Christmas tournament we beat St. Louis. It was payback. They’d beaten us earlier in the season. Against Dayton, I missed a shot that would have won in regulation. But it made a good friend happy. He’d bet on us. We won and we were able to cover the spot in overtime.”
It was an auspicious start to what’s been an amazing run in the Hall, given the school’s 680-plus wins against fewer than 150 losses there. This Saturday, that long, successful run will come to a close when the Cards play their final game in Freedom Hall. Next season, the team will move into a new downtown arena, leaving behind a place they’ve called home for more than five decades.
Upon its completion in 1956, Freedom Hall was heralded as the “biggest hall south of the Mason Dixon Line,” surpassing Reynolds Memorial Coliseum, home of North Carolina State. It had supplanted UK’s Memorial Coliseum for that honor.
It was a time that predated the concept of “naming rights.” Charlotte Owens, a senior at DuPont Manual High School, beat out 6,500 others, winning an American Legion naming contest, submitting the name Freedom Hall. She won $1000, and her teacher raked in $250.
It was a different era: “Alan Freed’s Rock, Rock, Rock!” was playing the Loew’s on Fourth Street. “Teenage Rebel” was at the Uptown at Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway, as well as the Dixie and Twilite Drive-Ins. But then again, some things don’t change: The headlines in The Courier-Journal addressed who would pay for a new Louisville/New Albany bridge, and college basketball dominated the sports page (although at the time, the Cards were struggling to build a reputation, meaning the Kentucky Wildcats reigned supreme in the local media).
Some of Louisville’s most memorable bouts in Freedom Hall came against Memphis State, a fierce rival, particularly in the early years.
Phil Rollins recalls one Memphis State game in Louisville that resulted in a Memphis player being hauled out in handcuffs.
“I sit in the L Club section by the court,” says Rollins. “The guy reached over and grabbed a folding chair from the table right in front of me.”
That Memphis Tiger’s name is Fred Horton. Louisville won the contest over its heated rival, 102-73, on March 6, 1971. The chair-swinging Horton, who fouled out of 9 games that season, didn’t make it to the final buzzer, having been marched out of the gym by police after he was corralled by an assistant coach.
Former Cardinal Mike Grosso has the rest of the story.
“It started the year before, my senior season. Our game in Memphis was really rough,” says Grosso, adding that Horton was the worst.
The Cards won that March 4, 1970 game, 83-82.
“As we’re running off the court, (Cardinal) Al Vilcheck sucker-punches Horton. The guy turns around and thinks I’m the one that hit him. He comes after me. So I have to punch him.
“We needed a police escort to our hotel. We had to be guarded there and couldn’t go out for a meal…
“The next year I was in the pros in Milwaukee. I pick up the paper and there’s this little story about how Horton had been walked out of Freedom Hall. I just started laughing. I know Vilchek did something to provoke him.”
And while there are countless fond memories of Cardinal victories in their soon-to-be former home, some of the most heartbreaking defeats seem more indelible.
There was the lost weekend late in January 1982, when the Cardinals fell to Virginia Tech, 76-78, on a Saturday; then to Virginia, 56-74, the next afternoon.
There’s the Chet “The Jet” Walker game. The seventh-ranked Bradley University Braves came in Feb. 10, 1962, against a U of L squad that finished the year 15-10 without a date for the post-season.
Before a school-record crowd of 17,347, Louisville led 79-72 with 1:24 to play. Bradley scored eight straight. All-American Walker jammed a follow at the buzzer for an 80-79 win. The C-J commented on “the atrocious officiating.” The game story also had this memorable quote: “They (Louisville) forgot the prairie maxim of ‘Don’t turn your back on a dead Indian.’”
Few Cardinal fans forget the misery of what’s known as the Rex Chapman game. Louisville alum and longtime fan Trooper Handel tells this tale.
“My most memorable Freedom Hall story is from December of 1986. We were the reigning national champs, and I had two student season tickets low in the end zone. My grandmother from Owensboro — Rex’s hometown — was my date for the annual Kentucky game… Midway through one of the most humiliating defeats I have ever experienced, Grandma peeled off her Louisville sweatshirt to reveal a Kentucky version underneath. ‘Go Rex’ she shouted. 85-51 was the final. Rex went off. Grandma had a blast.”
But back to the best of times …
Longtime fan Charlie Bensinger recounts one of his favorite memories in Freedom Hall: “My old fraternity brother Bruce Kramer lives in Memphis. He wanted me to get tickets for him and some friends for the ’86 Metro tournament here … 21 of them.
“So there I am in the middle of all these Memphis State fans, really enjoying it.”
Louisville won that one easily, 88-79.
A week before, Louisville beat Memphis State in the regular season finale that provided arguably the single loudest U of L moment ever in Freedom Hall.
The Cards were down one with just seconds to go. Tiger star Andre Turner had free throws that would have sealed the game. (It was the last season before the introduction of the three-point shot.)
Turner choked at the line. U of L hustled the ball up court, got it to Milt Wagner, who launched one from the corner. Turner doubled his trouble by fouling Wagner, who, as all old-school Card fans know, was money at the line.
Louisville went from certain defeat to certain victory in seconds. Freedom Hall rocked with an ecstatic din. Before even shooting his free throws, Wagner circled the charity stripe area, arms raised in victory. Of course he then made the baskets, resulting in a 70-69 win that catapulted the Cardinals toward their second NCAA title.
Similarly, a 75-65 win over Ohio State on Dec. 19, 1979, proved a harbinger of Louisville’s first national championship. The Buckeyes came to town ranked second in the country. U of L had just lost starting center Scooter McCray to injury, forcing coach Denny Crum to insert Scooter’s pudgy younger brother, freshman Rodney, into the starting lineup. The Cards overcame an early deficit to prevail.
CBS announcer Clark Kellogg was a star on that Ohio State team.
“Oh my, yes, I certainly do remember that game. Hotly contested. There was so much talent on the floor, future pros. A big win for Louisville.”
Another victory that makes real old-timers smile is the 70-69 victory over Eastern Kentucky, then a major rival, on Jan. 4, 1961, before 9,257, the biggest crowd that season.
The Cards were down by five with two minutes remaining, then down by three with 48 seconds on the clock. The Cardinals cut the lead to a single digit with 15 left. Eastern’s inbounds pass went off a Maroon — EKU’s mascot at the time — out of bounds. Players scrambled for the ball. The clock was running and U of L had no timeouts left.
Referee Max Macon stopped the clock, a controversial call that allowed Louisville one last shot. Here’s what Courier-Journal reporter Johnny Carrico wrote: “Ron Rubenstein looped a 25-footer from the northwest corner to nullify a great performance by the underdog Maroons.”
Referee Macon actually gave an interview after the game. Wrote Carrico, “Macon said he stopped the clock because, ‘There was too much confusion going on, with both Eastern and Louisville players grabbing the ball.’”
Eastern coach Paul McBrayer declined comment after the game, but was reported to be most upset.
The most memorable home win in the last decade was the Tennessee game in December 2001, Rick Pitino’s first campaign as Cards coach.
Down six with 35 seconds to play, Cardinal guard Reece Gaines banked in a trey to cut the lead to three. Louisville stole the inbounds pass, and Bryant Northern hit another triple from the top of the key to tie the game. The Vols came down, scoring a layup to reclaim the advantage. Without calling timeout, Louisville hustled up court, where Gaines hit yet another three to take the lead.
U of L held on for the win when Tennessee missed a close-in bank shot at the buzzer.
There are so many vivid images from the hundreds of U of L games at Freedom Hall.
Wes Unseld nabbing a rebound, turning in the air, then flicking his unique two-handed over-the-head pass to Butch Beard at mid-court to start a fast break.
Jerry King and Milt Wagner hitting every key free throw at crunch time.
Ricky Gallon’s afro.
Marquette coach Mike Deane flipping the bird to the crowd after stealing a win.
Taquan Dean and DeJuan Wheat hitting important treys when games were on the line.
Darrell Griffith elevating for a 360.
GO * CARDS * BEAT * PURDUE
Lancaster Gordon, then a freshman, running around the court, index finger raised, after an improbable come-from-behind win.
Jerome Harmon’s sadly wasted athleticism and talent.
Beau Zach Smith’s one made sky hook.
Those intense games against Memphis State in the ’70s and ’80s.
Kenny Payne’s rainbows launched from Phillips Lane.
Francisco Garcia coming off the court early in his career and straightening Rick Pitino’s tie.
Luke Whitehead landing on his head.
Cameron Murray melting down as his final season ground to a conclusion.
Marques Maybin’s first appearance at Freedom Hall after a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed.
The standing ovation that could have lasted through the night celebrating Wes Unseld’s last game.
Larry Wiliams jive talking opponents as a jinx when they’d head to the charity line.
Clifford Rozier never passing the ball back out of the post.
Bud Olsen’s bounce passes.
The Memphis State loss in the late ’80s when the Tigers ran out to a 24-0 lead.
Denny Crum’s double knit leisure suits.
The Doctors of Dunk warm ups.
The first night fans were urged to wear red.
Marv Selvy’s 70-footer against Wichita.
The evolution of the Cardinal Bird mascot.
The Voice of Freedom Hall, John Tong’s, unique introductions.
The energy of the crowd at a snow game against Charlotte.
Herb Crook slithering in for a sneaky board and follow shot.
Ellis Myles lying on the hardwood after blowing out his kneecap.
Dana Kirk’s deer in the headlights look when he needed a timeout late for his Memphis State Tigers, realizing he’d already bagged his limit.
Samaki Walker’s triple-double against Kentucky.
Dwayne Morton’s missed dunk at the buzzer against Western Kentucky.
The invention of the “high five” by Derek Smith and Wiley Brown.
The befuddled look of opponents when Smith and Brown communicated in Pig Latin.
Nate Johnson dribbling it off his knee early in games.
The genius of Denny Crum in his prime, outwitting whoever happened to be sitting in the coach’s chair on the visitor’s bench.
The celebration in Freedom Hall after the 1980 championship win.
Seeing Freedom Hall for the first time after John Y. Brown’s stunning renovation.
The longtime Cardinal home was built for a horse show, and has been home to ice shows and tractor pulls and concerts and car shows. But, in the minds of most around the country, Freedom Hall always was one of the nation’s premier basketball venues. Charlotte Owens’ moniker is immediately recognizable to every hoops fan as the Home of the Louisville Cardinals.
The place has serious history. There is the allure.
“Freedom Hall was a big reason for coming to Louisville,” says Mike Grosso, who transferred from South Carolina in the mid-1960s. “I considered St. John’s and got a call from Adolph Rupp. But this was the venue.
“The whole Freedom Hall experience separated U of L from other schools when I was playing.”
Freedom Hall is inextricably entwined with Louisville Cardinal basketball.
She’s a solid old broad, sturdy not sexy; a proud gal, full of hoops history.
I was at the Notre Dame game in December 1956, an 11-year old already more in love with Cardinal basketball than anything else in life. It was a magical night that helped propel U of L to the upper echelon of the college game.
I’ve missed only a few handfuls of games since. It has been ballast, a way of life. Get to the gym early, savor the scene, stay to the end, bitter or sweet.
Alum and longtime fan Fred Smart puts it all in perspective.
“I don’t remember what game it was — North Carolina maybe — but it was a big one, on national TV. Just before the introductions, the teams were warming up, the band was playing, and the cheerleaders were out there, and the announcers were finishing up their pre-game. There was the buzz in the place, the energy. And I looked around and said ‘I just love being here.’”
God willing, Fred Smart will be at Louisville’s final game in Freedom Hall against Syracuse this Saturday. So will I. And, like the night I would have stood and clapped forever after Unseld’s final game, I shall linger and allow the memories to reign over me.
In the end, I shall reluctantly walk away, head bowed, full with the moment and certainty that a grand experience that has sustained me for a half century will be a thing of the past.
And I will bid a sad adieu to the thrill and excitement of Louisville Cardinal basketball in World Famous Freedom Hall.