Louisville becomes basketball capital
Loo-ie-ville, Lool-ville, or just "the Ville" -- take your pick. Whatever your preference, the important thing to remember is that Louisville has finally become the capital of college basketball, with no apologies to Westwood, Calif., or even Lexington, Ky.
By handing UCLA its first-ever defeat in an NCAA title game, 59-54, the Cardinals brought home the bacon they had only sniffed in earlier years.
The game was a fitting capstone to a phantasmagoric collegiate season that was anything bul dull. The fact that Louisville was the only ranked team to make it to the Final Four certainly hints at the balanced competition nationwide. (Purdue knocked off Iowa 75-58 in an all-Big 10 consolation game.)
The Cardinals completed their season with a 33-3 record, an amazing feat for a team with only one upper classman in the starting lineup and a 6-ft. 7 in. freshman (Rodney McCray) at center. Of course, the team's senior leader, 6- 4 Darrell Griffith, is something mighty special. Folks from the Bluegrass State call him a living legend, and Coach Denny Crum says he's a real rarity -- a guard who can dominate a game.
Even a determined UCLA effort to stop him Monday night couldn't prevent the All- American jumping-jack from leading all scorers with 23 points and winning tournament WVP honors hands-down.
Afterward, Crum used the occasion to scold the writers for not voting Darrell the College Player of the Year. reminded that the coaches also had failed to do so, Crum said, "Well, they're not too smart either."
Griffith established himself as Louisville's team leader long before the Cardinals ever arrived in Market Square arena.
Perhaps the best indication of his character has simply been his continuing loyalty to the school. While players in other schools have been lured into turning pro before using up their college eligibility, Darrell has steadfastly refused to "jump ship."
"At the press conference announcing my decision to come to Louisville I said I wanted to help the school win a national championship before I left," he said, "so I guess I haven't let too many people down."
Griffith, who grew up in Louisville, came to the Cardinals after leading his high school team to the state title and being named Kentucky's "Mr. Basketball," the state's highest schoolboy honor. He showed so much promise that in 1976 he became the first high school player ever invited to an Olympic tryout.
Crum knew he had a "franchise type of player" in Griffith, and this was one reason he turned down UCLA's overtures to fill its head coach vacancy several years ago. Like his star player, Crum was committed to Louisville even though he had served as an assistant to UCLA coach John Wooden after playing under him in the 1950s.
During his nine years at the school, Crum has achieved the second best winning percentage among active major college coaches, yet the Cardinals had traditionally taken a back seat even in their own state to the University of Kentucky.
"Kentucky's a state school," Griffith observes matter-of-factly, "and people can identify better with it than a city school."
The presence of Griffith at Louisville, though, has helped the Cardinals attract some of the attention once lavished on the Wildcats.
He is, after all, a young man with a catchy nickname (Dr. Dunkenstein) and an unforgettable calling card -- a 48-in. vertical leap. Teammate Roger Burkman jokes that Griffith's talent was first discovered "when Darrel jumped out of his crib." Perhaps the most mind-boggling use Griffith ever made of his skywalking ability occurred during the World University Games two years ago, when he sailed over an opponent to score a basket.
Not surprisingly, Darrell and his gravity- defying teammates gained a degree of notoriety in recent years as the Doctors of Dunk. The nickname has misled some people into believing that the Cardinals were a running gunning, showboating club. Crum doesn't think this image does his team justice, and anyone who witnessed the Cardinals in action here would agree.
The strenghts of this year's squad, Crum said time and again, were its disciplined offense, superb conditioning, the unselfish all- around play of its star performer, and a full- game press that forced opponent errors.
A couple of UCLA turnovers late in the championship game were what sparked Louisville's decisive go-ahead spurt.
Crum's club had been unusually tight in the first half, shooting a miserable 35 percent from the floor while falling behind 28-26.
At intermission the coach resorted to some straight talk designed to get Louisville on track. "He said we were rushing our shots," explained guard Jerry Eaves, "and he told us we were choking in the national championship game. He was mad and he had a right to be. Then he apologized just before we came out."
Burkman added, "He told us he loved us, and he told us go out and have fun, play our hearts out, and go out of here with our heads held high."
The Cardinals came out with more fire in their eyes and the rest is now history.
UCLA was certainly a worthy foe even if the Bruins had barely squeezed into the enlarged 48-team tournament field. Larry Brown was disappointed in defeat despite making an almost unimaginable run toward the title in his first year as a college coach.
All week long he praised the school for supporting him during the period when the team seemed to be falling apart. The Bruins wound up the regular season 17- 9, finishing fourth in the Pac-10 after winning the conference the previous 13 years. The campaign was a learning experience for a talented and brash group of freshman, who developed rapidly into a key part of the team and were totally unawed to find themselves in the finals.
They no doubt will be back, their resilience in defeat evident even as Crum and Griffith answered post-game questions outside the UCLA locker room. Instead of burying their heads, the Bruins were already bouncing back mentally as they chanted the Hawaiian cheer they adopted this season, "Icky la boom ba, icky la bicky wicky. . . ."