I guess Poachy Marks is as good a place to start as any.
Thanks to him, my dad and I were up close for the upshot of Louisville Cardinal basketball’s most improbable post season run ever.
Poachy owned an eponymously named haberdashery between 4th and 5th on what was then known as Walnut Street. One time when I was in there, so was the brash fellow who was soon to become our burg’s most famous son, then still known as Cassius Clay.
Looking at himself in a new outfit, and without turning away from his image, with that combination of braggadocio and wink, he called out to Marks, “Tell me Poachy, ain’t I the prettiest?”
Anyway, Poachy Marks was connected in the local sports scene. He was known to make a wager or two, and whether he was on the other side of that equation remains a mystery. To me anyway. Because of those connections, Marks scored my dad and me fifth row midcourt seats for the upcoming national semis and final returning for the second year in a row to Freedom Hall, which venue was accelerating toward its status as the epicenter of college hoops.
(Note: The final four didn’t become The Final Four™ until sometime in the mid 70s.)
Little did we realize, ducats in hand, just a couple of weeks beforehand that our beloved U of L Cardinals would implausibly crash that party, joining The Big O, He Who Would Become The Logo, and heralded Pete Newell’s Golden Bears to fight it out for the national crown.
It was a Donerail/ Roscoe Goose long shot. Before that season started, who might have been bold enough to suggest Louisville would make it to the NCAA tourney, let alone the last weekend?
A couple of years removed from the breakthrough ’56 NIT title, and coming off a mediocre 13-12 campaign, U of L entered the ’58-’59 season with more than a few question marks.
More doubts percolated when the Cards were upended in their opener at home by Georgetown. Not DC’s Georgetown Hoyas, but Bob Davis’s Georgetown Tigers, from the sleepy Bluegrass region of the commonwealth, decades before the Japanese landed. A week later, during the Cardinals first trip out of town, they had a not so fun evening in the old barn in Peoria, where they connected on only 17 of 70 field goal attempts. Bradley 78, Louisville 48.
I know what you’re thinking at this juncture, get to the good part. In due course, the stage must be set.
And, well, truth is, as much as I was locked into the Cards as young teen, that season until its second to last weekend, has proven delible. So much so, that to fill in the blanks I had to research the media guide, and revisit Gary Tuell’s venerable “Above the Rim: The History of Basketball at the University of Louisville”.
So as to remember how that regular season played out.
So off the charts, so out of the blue — off the backs of the Big Blue if you must — was U of L’s appearance in the NCAA tourney, let alone the last weekend, that my memory of the rest of the season has faded. Totally.
John Turner, Don Goldstein, Fred Sawyer, Roger Tieman, Harold Andrews, Howard Stacey and mates finished the regular campaign with an unremarkable 16-10 record. Not your glossy resumé. Heck, they were 9-9 at the beginning of February.
U of L dropped three in a row around Christmas. Upended #7 Bradley in a rematch, then lost two of the next three. Four of Louisville’s Ls came to Top 15 teams, and they upended #11 Marquette. Along the way they beat Wake Forest, featuring a PG named Billy Packer. The point: Tough schedule.
Which is why despite that record, one supposes, U of L was tapped to play Eastern Kentucky’s Maroons in the NCAA Mideast Regional opening round, winner to face #2 Kentucky.
The Cards took care of biz, 77-63. On to Evanston and Northwestern’s McGaw Hall for U of L’s third postseason date with the Wildcats. They had been crushed by the Cats in the ’48 Olympic Trials, 91-57; again in the ’51 ME Regional, 79-68.
While the regular season might be a blur for me, memories of sitting and listening to that regional semi-final UK game are clear and focused. My dad. Me. Nervous. Munching on lots of popcorn. Leaning toward that big table model radio in the living room.
The Cards were down eight at the half to the highly favored eventually-to-become arch rival from down the road.
Checking Tuell’s history reminded me of the lore regarding halftime in the Cardinal locker room, which I’d heard from the horse’s mouth, but forgotten. After Peck Hickman’s tongue lashing, team manager Barry Schermer broke the tension, when he called the players “yellow,” and pivotman Sawyer took offense. Apparently to the delight of his amused teammates.
(A few years later, Schermer coached my high school club team at the J.C.C. The halftime story, as you might guess, was embellished through retellings to majestic places hither and yon.)
The second stanza proved it was really Friday the 13th for the Wildcats.
They wilted under the pressure. Hickman told Johnny Carrico of the Courier-Journal, “We felt their guards couldn’t stand up under pressure and the results seem to prove we were right.”
Louisville outscored Kentucky by 23 points after intermission. It was a monumental, program-changing victory, 76-61. Don Goldstein led the charge with 19 points and 13 rebounds.
(Yes, kids, beating UK in Evanston was arguably a bigger deal in the development of Cardinal hoops than beating them in Knoxville.)
Hickman again, as quoted in the C-J: “This might have happened a lot sooner if Kentucky played us during the regular season.”
What Adolph Rupp allegedly told his defeated troops after the loss has been retold again and again through the decades (mostly by Louisville fans). “You know what Louisville’s eating tonight? T-bone steaks. They’re winners. You guys get a dollar to eat hamburgers.”
Not quite as well known a tale, but my favorite, tells of a super Cardinal fan friend of my dad’s, Mulloy Goldberg. Mulloy love love loved the Cardinals. But, as the ’59 season was winding to a close, he was staring in the face of his final illness.
Yet he couldn’t conceive missing the Cards chance to beat the Cats. So he convinced his doc to let him go. He journeyed to the game, accompanied by his pals Lefty Klein and Harry Golde, the latter who happened to be a physician.
Here’s what happened after the victory, according to Goldstein, who confirmed the story to me decades later.
“We’re on the court court celebrating after beating Kentucky. And I see Mulloy Goldberg being carried by a couple of guys across the court toward me. He puts his hand on my shoulder, thanks me and says, ‘You beat Kentucky. Now I can rest in peace.'”
Mulloy Goldberg passed away a few weeks later.
On a roll, the next night, U of L battered #7 Michigan State and star Jumpin’ Johnny Green, 88-81. The Cards would play for the national crown the next weekend on their home court.
Playing among the nation’s elite, and facing two of the greatest ever to play the game on consecutive nights, reality struck for the Cards. Jerry West’s West Virginia Mountaineers were simply too much even for a team with a hum going playing on its own court. 94-79. In the next night’s consolation game, U of L was felled by Oscar Robertson and the Cincy Bearcats, 98-85.
A season that started 5-7 ended 19-12.
But those numbers don’t really tell the tale, do they?
Thanks to a glorious weekend outside Chicago, and its appearance the next weekend at Freedom Hall, University of Louisville basketball was On The Map.
Eating T-bone steaks.
— Seedy K