Cuttin’ the Nets at Crawford

joaniecardIt didn’t take but a step or two into Crawford Gym for it to become a Marty McFly journey back to the genesis of Cardinal basketball glory.

But it wasn’t immediately the sight of ever gracious Denny Crum or LaBradford Smith or Beau Zach Smith or Fred Holden or any of the many of the other Cardinals from yesteryear; nor that peculiar pungency that lingers in such gymnasiums, the decades-old aroma, a combination of competition-induced sweat and leather and rubber streaks on well worn hardwood. Though all of them and all that and more were present.

It was the heat, that sweltering humidity that induced beads of sweat instantly at Thursday morning’s ceremony honoring the long time U of L practice facility soon to be torn down in the name of progress.  As a similarly heightened Fahrenheit so induced perspiration in extremis back in the day to hoopsters and hoopaholics alike.

“This would be a cool day,” Jerry Eaves prevaricated to a TV talking head, while mopping his brow with a towel.

“We’d hope our team was skins, so we didn’t have to wear a shirt,” Darrell Griffith reminisced during his time at the mic, during the blissfully short program. “We’d leave and our Chuck Taylors would be drenched.”

From the broiling cauldron of AC-bereft Crawford, especially on those magical sweat-soaked summer days and nights, were Louisville Cardinal championships rendered.

In the pick up games, the great ones, Grif and Derek and Rodney and Caster, gave no quarter, according to long time Crawford observer, Ken Schikler. Who also mentioned how the extreme competition “improved the games of lesser talents like (Mark) McSwain and (Herbert) Crook.

“The losers of a summer game might have to sit for hours. Nobody wanted to sit out. The games were rough.”

There were a number of B&W photos, blown-up,  set on stands throughout the gym. One is of a shirtless Pervis Ellison, his body glistening, rising above Scooter McCray for a one-handed jumper.

I turned to McCray. “Scooter, I gotta ask. That photo, You didn’t get up when checking Pervis, your head doesn’t even come up to his armpit. What’s the deal?”

“It’s the angle of the picture,” he answered, smiling. “You know how those angles are.”

Bill Olsen, former frosh coach, former assistant to Denny, former AD, showed me where he put the key outside, so the players could get in even though the building was officially closed. “We’d put garbage cans in the front doors to keep them open and try and get some breeze flowing through.”

Which is how adoring fans, like me, got in, choosing to spend many of those nights watching the Boys of Summer play ball.

I asked Denny Crum if he saw Crawford Gym before taking the job. “No, after I’d been contacted by Carl Abner of the business school — he was also the NCAA faculty rep — and came to visit, they only took me to Freedom Hall.”

Wade Houston was treated the same. “They just took me to Freedom Hall, and I committed.”

When Houston was recruited in the early 60s, Crawford hadn’t been built. The Cardinals practiced at old Belknap Gym. “I remember the Crawford Gym groundbreaking. There was a big pile of dirt. (Former U of L football player) Charlie Johnson and other guys and I would play King of the Hill.”

The Thursday morning affair was a Love In.

One fan of the several hundred faithful in attendance was overheard telling another how her husband and she arrange their schedules so they never miss a game.

Another exclaimed, “Oh, there’s Darrell. Darrell’s here.”

Another: “Oh my God, there’s Felton.”

A youngster, 10 years old or so, walked around in a #35 home throwback.

Getting autographs on a scrapbook full of trading cards: Carol Liedke, wife of former Card Joe Liedke. She’s also the former Gymnastics coach, whose team used half the gym for practice separated by a court length curtain, while the nationally renowned Cardinal hoopsters were on the other side.

The brief ceremony started with a C*A*R*D*S cheer. Emcee Paul Rogers referenced the hot topic of the affair, “There’s no AC. The way it’s supposed to be. After all, this is Crawford Gym.”

(Though former pivotman Felton Spencer, who first shared how he took ballet lessons in the joint at Coach Crum’s direction to improve his footwork, provided perspective on the infamous Crawford climate. “It was also too cold here in the winter. The heating didn’t work very well.”)

The edifice so important in the evolution and elevation of U of L Cardinal basketball is soon to be no more. But its importance in the history of Cardinal hoops is indelible.

Despite the heat, the crowd for the most part lingered. It was as if the faithful didn’t want to let go.

Though Louisville Cardinal basketball is still top shelf, for many the 70s and 80s of Denny Crum’s prime were the halcyon days. When transcendent hardwood success was fresh and new and invigorating. When Freedom Hall was the epicenter of college basketball.

When it seemed more personal. When the players were more accessible.

When you could slip into Crawford Gym on a summer night and savor basketball as good as anywhere on the globe.

And for the perfect farewell on a suitably hot and humid Thursday morn, there was Darrell Griffith, who first balled at Crawford along with pal Bobby Turner when they were 8th graders, the local kid who got the key to the gym when he was still at Male High, the Louisvillian who promised Cardinal fans their first national championship and delivered, there was Dr. Dunkenstein cutting down the net at Crawford Gym where it all began.

— Seedy K


4 thoughts on “Cuttin’ the Nets at Crawford

  1. I was a student at UofL ’77 to ’81; took Judo and Badminton PE credits in Crawford, played racquetball there in the afternoons, watch hours & hours of basketball…… it wasn’t unusual to run into Coach Crum or even John Dromo. I think Dromo was teaching and coaching golf then…. It was a fabulous place for a young sports obsessed college student. Sad to see it torn down.

  2. A great article that captures the essence of those summer nights. At the time my wife Phyllis and I were huge fans of the Kentucky Colonels and the Cardinals. Many a night some of the pros came to play as well, and we distinctly remember Artis Gilmore playing on a few occasional Needless to say, none of the Cardinals were intimidated. Derek, Rodney, Scooter, et. al. were never ones to back away from from a mere 7-2 All American who looked way taller with his Afro do.

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