Why Does Louisville Love Basketball So Much, Anyway?

The bracket for the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament will be announced this evening and, if recent history holds, Louisville will be watching.

Last year, the Louisville media market led the U.S. in viewing the NCAA Tournament, Nielsen said. The ratings organization attributed this to both Kentucky and Louisville playing in the 2012 Final Four, but that doesn’t explain the other times when Louisville led March Madness viewing.

This all begs a question: Why does Louisville love basketball so?

It’s an anomaly, if you consider the rest of the U.S. A recent Harris Poll ranked college basketball the seventh most popular sport in the nation—far behind No. 1 pro football and No. 2 baseball. Meanwhile, the Louisville Cardinals typically ranks among the top three schools in fan attendance for home games—along with the Kentucky Wildcats.

The 2013 college basketball season is beginning to reach its apex, which seemed like the perfect time to ask some longtime sports observers for thoughts on why hoops—not baseball, not football, not hockey—is Louisville’s sport of choice.

(Update: The brackets for the NCAA Tournament, and NIT, are out.)

Eric Crawford is a sports reporter for WDRB.com and a former columnist for The Courier-Journal:

“I think there are a couple of factors with the city’s love for college basketball. One of those is that basketball is so big in the state as a whole. I think of football as this game of numbers, with basically brute strength, numbers and resources dominating the sport.

“Kentucky has never been that kind of state. In basketball, it’s about five guys (or women) working together, and the little guy can often play on a level playing field (our court) with the big guys. I think that appeals to this state from a socio-economic standpoint.

“But for Louisville, I think college basketball really took off in the late 1970s and early ‘80s with Denny Crum’s Louisville teams. There were great teams here before that. U of L had Wes Unseld and Charlie Tyra and very good teams for a long time.

“But basketball took on an added significance with U of L’s 1980 national championship team. I can remember an ad campaign about that time, or a little after, titled, “Look what we can do, Louisville.” For Louisville to have a national championship basketball team changed the way the city felt about itself, and gave the city another national identity beyond the Kentucky Derby. The growth of the university certainly can be linked to that accomplishment. And I think the flair and success of those Denny Crum teams in the early ‘80s really went a long way to forming a new identity for this city, and gave college basketball this place of added significance here.

“You can look at all the numbers. Louisville is the No. 1 TV market for college basketball and the Final Four every year, no matter who is in the championship game. And U of L has ranked in the top 5 nationally in attendance for 25 straight years. You probably have all the evidence of it.

“But I’d go back to the early ‘80s as the real reason for it.”

Scott Davenport is the head coach of the Bellarmine University Knights, which won the 2011 Division II national championship. He’s a former assistant coach for the Louisville Cardinals and, before that, a former coach for Ballard High School:

“The best answer is tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation. Regardless of the team you pull for most of those loyalties were established at a young age and like most feelings they grow over time.

“The tremendous passion grows with us as we grow from elementary school to middle and high school. Look at our recent state (high school basketball tournament with over 20,000 for the semifinal session. It is part of our culture, just check and objectively see that the upcoming NCAA tournament will be watched percentage wise by more homes in our market than anywhere in the country.

“I feel very fortunate to coach in a community where the game of basketball is embraced with tremendous passion.”

Tom Thurman was the producer and director for the KET documentary Great Balls of Fire: Basketball in Kentucky:

“The city of Louisville is so important to the game of basketball as an institution in the state for many reasons, but I’d like to focus on just one: Freedom Hall. People forget that Freedom Hall hosted six Final Fours, which ranks very high on the all-time list and which is a bygone era now that the NCAA has sadly limited the tournament to a handful of mega-stadiums around the country. So for a couple of decades, crowning the NCAA champ was very closely associated in many people’s minds with Freedom Hall and by extension Louisville.

“The tremendous success of the University of Louisville program is an obvious contributor to the mystique of the building, and of course the Kentucky Colonels of the old ABA had an entertaining run inside those walls, culminating in a championship their last season. But many school children and athletes in the state remember the building most fondly for its hosting of the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen for many years.

“It was truly a magnificent occasion if your high school team made the tournament: spring was in the air, there was a chance your team could cut down the nets come Saturday night, and—most importantly—school would be cancelled. It was an exciting time, whether you were on the court or off. And for many small-town Kentucky kids, there was always the immensity of the place itself. You could easily get lost inside it, and if you were under the watchful eye of your parents you often wanted to get lost there.

“The place has hosted many different kinds of events over the years, but somehow the track and field meets or the Bob Dylan concert failed to resonate for me with as much power as those high school names from hardwood times past: Butch Beard, Mike Casey, Turner and Griffith, et al. That’s what made the place a slice of basketball heaven.”

Feel free to share your thoughts and memories on why Louisville has such an affinity for basketball in the comments section or on WFPL’s Facebook page. 

Joseph Lord

Joseph Lord is the online managing editor for WFPL.

@joseph_Lord

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