Freedom Hall gets fitting farewell

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Two hours after the final horn, fans still milled about Freedom Hall. Some posed for pictures on the court, some sought autographs from former players while others just sat in the lower-level seats, soaking it all in.

Louisville public address man Sean Moth had to make a couple announcements politely asking people to go home. Who could blame them, however, for wanting to stick around just a bit longer?

Freedom Hall isn't going anywhere, but the team that defined the building's legacy is. Louisville pulled out every conceivable stop in recognizing its last game before moving to a downtown arena. Scores of stars from the past gave speeches during timeouts, halftime and after the game. Heck, even some of the best-known fans in the crowd heard their names called out on the video board for their years of support.

Truth is, few moments in the arena's 54-year, tradition-rich history could surpass what transpired on Saturday. Freedom Hall will be remembered more for the games played there than any unique architectural feature, and the Cardinals added to the atmosphere by upsetting No. 1 Syracuse 78-68.

"It couldn't have been any better," said hometown legend Darrell Griffith, who led the program to its first NCAA title in 1980. "That was a great sendoff."

The final crowd was officially listed at 20,135, breaking the arena record. Parking lots were jammed a good three hours before the game, and hundreds of fans stood in line for a pre-game autograph session with ex-players. The queue snaked around one entire side of the building, up two ramps and into a hot, stuffed ballroom.

Seven former All-Americans, most of the 1980 and 1986 championship teams and Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum came back to celebrate the occasion. They returned the love that was showered upon them.

"One of the reasons we had success was the fans were so supportive," said 1986 Final Four MVP Pervis Ellison, who made a rare appearance back at his former school. "You always had the feeling that you had the ability to speak to anybody in the stands.

"We did win, and that helped. But even during the bad seasons, there were sellout crowds. It helps being the only ticket in town, and these fans love their basketball."

Freedom Hall has never had much of a student presence and usually boasts more of a pro-style crowd comprised of long-time season ticket holders. On Saturday, though, fans came early, wore red in unison and stood throughout most of the game.

Rick Pitino broke out a bright red blazer that could have come out of Crum's closet in 1984. The Louisville coach said he "never felt as much pressure to win a game" as he did Saturday before all the luminaries, not even in his two NCAA title game appearances.

Louisville -- which needed to win to secure an at-large NCAA tournament bid -- pulled away late, leading by as much as 14 at one point as the building rocked. And then something foreign to these parts happened.

Point guard Edgar Sosa ran around in the final minute urging fans to storm the court after the victory, and though security guards tried to stop fans from doing so, several dozen made it onto the floor anyway, lifting Sosa on their shoulders. Blue-blood fan bases like Louisville, Kentucky and North Carolina see it as beneath themselves to rush the court. But, hey, it was a special occasion.

Sosa said he was jealous of seeing other schools swarmed by fans all the time on "SportsCenter," and he wanted to experience it himself before his career ended. Yet he also knows that others envy his privilege of playing for four years at Freedom Hall.

"It doesn't matter who you play, whether it's the number one team in the country or a team like Georgetown College in an exhibition game, the fans are always here," Sosa said. "This is definitely the way to go out."

Pitino wanted Crum to have the final words on the court that bears his name. But after Crum said a few words, a microphone kept getting passed to player after player, even winding up in the hands of a former 1990s walk-on at one point.

Fans walked onto the court to get pictures and autographs, while others tried for bolder mementos -- somebody swiped the Section 317 sign from the wall, while security had to stop others from clearing out furniture from a luxury suite. Sosa said the players were told not to take anything from the locker room, but equipment manager Vinny Tatum promised them some sort of souvenir in the future.

The final official act arrived at Freedom Hall with the traditional playing of "My Old Kentucky Home." As far as swan songs go, this one hit all the right notes.