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So long, Freedom Hall

By Marla Ridenour Published: March 6, 2010

I had a tear in my eye, and my team won.

Not because Louisville defeated No. 1 Syracuse Saturday for the second time this season, securing a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Not because Kyle Kuric, an unknown kid from Evansville, Ind., scored 22 points in the second half to propel the Cardinals to a 78-68 victory.

But because my life flashed before my eyes today. My life in Freedom Hall.

Louisville played its final basketball game at the arena, which opened in 1956, a year after I was born. The place defined my childhood and helped launch the sports writing career that is still my passion after 33 years.

Growing up in Louisville, I started going to Cardinals games when Peck Hickman was the coach and Wes Unseld and Butch Beard were the stars. My father’s boss owned a plumbing construction company and had season tickets to U of L games, but had little interest in going during the week, preferring Saturday’s see-and-be seen events.

Whenever Paul Jeanes Jr. asked my dad if he wanted the tickets, we were there. My father was such a rabid fan that he once tried to sneak us into a Cardinals practice on campus just to see Unseld. He didn’t succeed, but I was hooked.

But it wasn’t just the players – which later included Jim Price, Allen Murphy and Junior Bridgeman – who hooked me. It was Freedom Hall’s smooth-voiced announcer, John Tong, who always reminded you that all of the Fair and Exposition center’s gates were open when you left. It was the cheerleaders and the Lady Cardinal mascot (I still have her autograph somewhere). And it didn’t matter that we may have been sitting about halfway up in the upper deck, just right of mid-court. There were no bad seats in Freedom Hall.

It wasn’t just Louisville games that fueled my passion. It was the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels. Before I graduated from Seneca High School, the Colonels gave away free tickets to straight-A students. My dad never let a free ticket go to waste. We were there on April 21, 1973, the night Wendell Ladner dove into the water cooler and needed 48 stitches. In fact, we weren’t sitting that far away from the water cooler, the last glass one ever seen in Freedom Hall, or perhaps in basketball, for that matter. We ogled the likes of Julius Erving and Artis Gilmore.

And then there were the high school games, especially during my seventh grade year. My dad took me to every Seneca football and basketball game and the Redskins advanced to the state finals in both sports with the same two players – Darryl Bishop and Carey Eaves, the brother of former Cavaliers assistant Jerry Eaves.

The pressure was on for me that football season. Maybe two games in, Dad said that if I didn’t figure out what a first down was, we were going home. When I did, I swear it was like the light bulb really did go on.

I’m not sure I’d be a sports writer today if the Redskins hadn’t made the state championship in both football and basketball, both played at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center that included Freedom Hall. Perhaps it was because I was with my dad, who died in 1977, that made it so magical. But there we were for the state football championship and a few months later for the state basketball semifinals in the morning, although I believe we watched the finals that night at home on TV. I was over the moon, despite a loss.

I also remember vividly when my dad went alone to Freedom Hall and bought a scalper ticket to the NCAA Final Four (it had to be 1962 or ’63) and our car was broken into. Although it seemed like little was taken, my mother was furious, almost as mad as my dad was when she got a speeding ticket driving me to my college orientation.

While in college, I got a summer job doing public relations for the state fair. My co-workers and I snuck in to see Elton John and the Eagles perform in Freedom Hall. We missed out on a chance to complete the cycle with Elvis only because one of us got caught with a phony backstage pass at the Eagles show. Freedom Hall will still host concerts and conventions and the fair, even as the Cardinals move to a snazzy new arena downtown next fall.

In later years, Freedom Hall continued to lure me back. I came with friends from Dayton in 1987 to see Rick Pitino’s Providence team (with Billy Donovan) in the NCAA Southeast Regional. A week after my mother died of cancer in January, 1989, I watched Chris Jent and the No. 17 Ohio State Buckeyes beat Louisville. There was solace there, even in a time of sorrow.

My brother, nephew and I attended a game about four years ago, unfazed by the lowly early-season opponent because of -- you guessed it -- free tickets.

I watched ESPN avidly on Saturday, catching glimpses of the former basketball stars who gathered for Freedom Hall’s last hurrah. There was ‘’Never Nervous’’ Pervis Ellison, Darrell Griffith and Milt Wagner. Coach Denny Crum, still looking dapper after all these years. A few photos of old games flashed on the screen.

But it was the network’s poignant closing that prompted my tears. It showed the empty hall, first in full light, then with the lights shut down in segments until it went totally dark.

There went some of my best hurrahs, too.

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