A fond farewell to UL's Freedom Hall

On Saturday afternoon against No. 1 Syracuse, the Louisville men's basketball team will play its final game at Freedom Hall, the home of the Cardinals since 1956. Pat Forde and Jay Bilas take a trip down memory lane in remembrance of this historic arena:

Pat Forde

If you come into the basketball shrine that is Freedom Hall by the media entrance, you're in for a disappointment.

You park by a decaying baseball stadium. You walk next to a trail covered with wood chips where they bring in horses when the annual horse show is going on. (The arena was originally built with equines in mind. Only in Kentucky.) You get to a red steel door, which opens onto a dimly lit concrete area.

To the left, cinderblocks. To the right, cinderblocks. Straight ahead, a dark downhill ramp.

But there is light at the end of that tunnel. For me, walking down that tunnel has always been the highlight of coming to Freedom Hall.

As you half-tumble down the ramp, you see the brightness up ahead, you hear the band, you hear 20,000 fans starting to roar … and then, suddenly, you've arrived at one of the special places in the history of college basketball.

You've arrived at the place that, for a span of nearly 30 years, was arguably the most relevant address in the game.

From 1958 to 1969, Freedom Hall hosted six Final Fours. Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek, Elvin Hayes and many other greats played there during that time; John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith and other giants coached there. UCLA added to its dynasty there. Loyola (Chicago) struck the first major blow for full-scale integration there.

And then, right about the time the Final Four moved on, along came former Wooden assistant Denny Crum to build his own dynasty with the home school. Crum took over as the coach of the Louisville Cardinals in 1971 and had them in the Final Four his first season -- then they went back five more times in the next 14 years.

They became the original collegiate experts on the art of stylistic dunking -- the Doctors of Dunk, they were called. Well before Phi Slama Jama came along, Crum's Cards were rocking Freedom Hall rims with alley-oops to skywalkers with amazing Afros. By the time the Cards were winning national titles in 1980 and '86, Freedom Hall was the place to be in college hoops.

But for Louisville fans, it's been the place to be ever since 1956. That's when the Cardinals first started playing there, forming a bond between program and arena that is shared by few others -- Kansas and Allen Fieldhouse and Duke and Cameron Indoor Stadium are the only others that come to mind among elite programs.

Rupp Arena, Assembly Hall, the Dean Dome -- they're all late-comers in relation to Freedom Hall.

I moved here from Colorado in 1987 -- after the gold rush for the Cards, but still in time to form a lot of lasting memories. Many of them had nothing to do with the primary tenant:

There was an incredible high school state championship duel between diminutive hillbilly hero Richie Farmer of Clay County and Allan Houston of Louisville Ballard. Farmer scored 51 points, on his way to becoming a folk hero at the University of Kentucky; Houston helped his team win the title, on his way to becoming an NBA All-Star.

There was a 20-minute, one-on-one interview with Michael Jordan in a training room, before a Bulls exhibition game.

There was the 2007 McDonald's All-American Game, one of the greatest collections of teenage talent ever: Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Eric Gordon, Jerryd Bayless, Kyle Singler, Patrick Patterson, etc.

But mostly there were Louisville games: pitched battles with rival Kentucky, always played in an atmosphere so charged you could feel the tension; nights when all 20,000 fans focused their energy on spiking Bob Huggins' blood pressure; all manner of stunning finishes against Marquette, spiced with crazy shots and the occasional taunting coach (former Golden Eagles boss Mike Deane remains a wanted man in Louisville after he gave Freedom Hall fans the business running off the floor with a one-point win in the '90s).

The fans have always been what brought Freedom Hall to life. Their fervor for the home team and understanding of the game take a backseat to none, making the Hall the shrine it has been for 54 years.

There will be sadness inside its walls Saturday, when Louisville hosts No. 1 Syracuse. But there also will be noise, propelled by a 54-year love affair with an aging gym. The old horse-show arena will shake one last time for the home team.

Jay Bilas

My formative years in the game were in the 1980s, and during that time, the Louisville Cardinals were known as the Doctors of Dunk. Under Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum and before the RPI took over our lives, Louisville would go out and play a brutal schedule and lose a couple of barn-burners here and there.

But it would always get the Cards ready for the NCAA tournament and they would always dunk on your head anyway. Guys like Darrell Griffith, Derek Smith, Rodney McCray, Scooter McCray and Jerry Eaves would fly all over the court and finish it with a rim-rattler at the other end.

We can talk X's and O's from that time, but those Louisville teams left you with a feeling about them, and the feeling was "explosive" and "exciting." You watched Louisville and saw something that left your jaw on the floor every game. And back in the 1970s and early 80s, when the Saturday Game of the Week was your only exposure to national games, Louisville was the team you wanted to see. When Dick Enberg would start the broadcast, "From Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky …" you knew you were in for a thrill.

I played against Louisville twice in my four years at Duke. The first time was in 1983 against Crum's Final Four squad that included the McCray brothers, Lancaster Gordon, Billy Thompson, Milt Wagner and Charles Jones. I remember playing well against the Cardinals, until late in the game when the Doctors of Dunk showed up and ran away with it. I also played against the U of L (with Thompson, Wagner, Pervis Ellison and Herb Crook) in the 1986 NCAA championship game in Dallas, when Louisville won Crum's second national title by beating us 72-69.

Every time I walk into Freedom Hall, I think not of specific games, but of excellence and the players that pursued it in that building. Louisville basketball will be great in the new building, but it will never be the same for those that saw the Cardinals soar in Freedom Hall. It was remarkable.