I called it last July. We were planning a cruise when I realized the dates coincided with March Madness.
“Louisville’s going to win the national championship,” I said. “I can’t miss that.”
I’ve been a Cardinals fan since birth. Louisville is where I lived for the first 22 years of my life. I once sat on Pervis Ellison’s lap during an event for kids, soon after he led Louisville to the 1986 national championship.
When the Cards made a surprising run to the Final Four last year – with nearly everybody slated to come back – I felt perfectly comfortable predicting the ultimate glory.
I was right, of course. Joyously right. The Cards beat Michigan on Monday to capture the title, their first since that 1986 season.
What I didn’t know when I made my bold prediction was what the journey would be like.
You can’t know. That’s what makes it great.
I was all in from the beginning, using some clearly illegal web site from Europe to watch early-season games that weren’t televised nationally. When the Cards rose to a No. 1 national ranking, I drove by myself to Connecticut and watched them beat the Huskies.
They hit a brief skid soon after and later lost a gut-wrenching five overtime game to Notre Dame that had me reconsidering my prediction. If they couldn’t win a close game, how could they win it all?
And then the journey really began.
Head coach Rick Pitino challenged the Cards to win their final seven regular season games. They did.
When that was crossed off the list, one of the players wrote a number nine on the wipe board in the locker room – three wins to the Big East title, six to the national championship.
They did it all, with the journey turning more and more incredible with every step.
They rallied from 16 down to beat Syracuse for the Big East championship, easily the wildest comeback I’d seen. They earned the No. 1 overall seed for the Big Dance and rolled to victories in their first two games. That’s when I was on the cruise. Thankfully, it was on TV.
After holding off a talented Oregon team, they squared off with Duke, one of the teams I really didn’t want them to play. The Blue Devils can shoot the lights out at any moment, and they always seem to get more than their share of calls.
Those concerns were primary – until they faded completely.
By now, everyone in the world knows the story. Kevin Ware, a player who had been getting better and better, jumped to challenge a shot. When he came down, his leg snapped and America watched one of the most gruesome sports injuries ever.
It was heart-breaking, moreso when I saw the reaction of his teammates. It hit me then, more than any other time, how special this team was.
And Ware was pretty special too. With a bone sticking out of his leg, he called his teammates over and told them not to worry about him. Just win.
They did, clinching a spot in the Final Four with the most emotional performance I’ve ever seen. This team has been defined by its ability to keep playing, keep pushing in spite of anything and everything that’s going wrong. They had done it again, in remarkable fashion.
And they would need to do it twice more.
They fell behind a Cinderella Wichita State in the national semifinals. Just when I was preparing myself for the end, they came back and won. I’m still not sure how it happened.
Against Michigan, it was a similar story. A bench-warmer named Spike Albrecht turned into Michael Jordan and powered the Wolverines to a 12-point first-half lead.
Again, I thought the journey might end there.
Instead, it reached a fitting end, with the stories that make sports great taking center stage.
Luke Hancock, whose father has been battling a serious illness, made four threes in two minutes to get Louisville back into the game. Peyton Siva, a player who typifies this team, a kid who once rescued his troubled father from dire straits when he was just 13, took over the game in the second half. Gorgui Dieng, a native of Senegal who says he plays basketball to make friends, cemented his NBA draft prospects. Chane Behanan, who started the year banned from talking to the media because he hadn’t worked hard enough in the off-season, shook off a sophomore slump and delivered a double-double.
The Cards won. And Kevin Ware cut down the net.
They celebrated. My parents were in town and we celebrated. My girlfriend Meg, with no ties to Louisville but me, was right beside us, having fallen in love with the team’s stories along the way.
Those stories will be remembered for a long time.
I expected the win. I had no idea what the journey would be.
Both were incredible.
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.