HAIL to the HALL
After 54 seasons, the Cards are saying goodbye to Freedom Hall
By Ron Cooper
The University of Louisville men’s basketball team and Freedom Hall have been intertwined for 54 seasons, carving out a glorious history of pride and triumph for fans, players and coaches associated with the grand dame of athletic facilities. For the past 25 years, UofL has ranked in the top five in attendance among collegiate basketball teams. In 16 of the past 19 years, attendance has averaged more than 100 percent of capacity.
Throughout this remarkable half century-plus run, Freedom Hall has surpassed the 12 million mark in attendance for UofL basketball games. And while these statistics are mind boggling, the real story of Freedom Hall and its ardent admirers boils down to the individuals who have fostered this love affair of place and play.
This, the last season of Freedom Hall as the Cards’ venue, is the time to look back with the help of those intimately involved with the success of the team.
One would be hard-pressed to find a basketball player more truly enamored of Freedom Hall than Darrell Griffith, the 6-4 “Dr. Dunkenstein” whose retired jersey, No. 35, hangs in its lofty position in the facility’s rafters.
We all know Griffith as the high school player of the year 1976 who went on to earn the John Wooden Award from the Los Angeles Athletic Club as the Player of the Year in 1980—the year that he helped engineer UofL’s first NCAA national championship.
Griffith was a fixture at Freedom Hall during his heyday. But his history with the facility goes back to his junior high days when he played on the city-wide championship team, and later at Male High School during competition for the regional and state championship titles.
“All of the big games have been held at Freedom Hall,” Griffith says. “Besides the Cards, the Kentucky Colonels played there and so did the Utah Jazz [Griffith’s pro-ball team]. I watched the Final Four game between UCLA and Purdue at Freedom Hall [in 1969]. Freedom Hall stands out as the place to play.
“At one time, there was Madison Square Garden and Freedom Hall in the same category,” he adds. “Freedom Hall will always be a special place for me.”
Freedom Hall will always be a special place for legendary Coach Denny Crum, whose mark on Cardinal basketball is so indelible, his success so palpable. The coach rolled up a breathtaking 675–295 record during 30 illustrious years at the helm of the men’s basketball program from 1971–2001.
Crum orchestrated NCAA titles in both 1980 and 1986 and directed his teams to 23 NCAA tournament appearances. Three of his squads participated in the NIT in 1971, 1973 and 1976, reaching the semifinals in 1985.
His 675 victories rank him 16th on the all-time coaching win list. The school honored the coach by naming the Freedom Hall court after him in 2005.
“Our fans have always given our team a huge home court advantage,” he says.
Crum is referring to fans like Gil Sturtzel of Louisville, a 1958 UofL graduate who has been a season ticket holder since 1982. But that’s only part of the story. Actually, Sturtzel, 72, has been attending games for about 60 years, throwing his support behind the team when it played at the old Armory (now Louisville Gardens) downtown.
Memories of Freedom Hall flood Sturtzel as he speaks of his fondness for the Cards’ home. One in particular was of the great Wes Unseld, who played from 1965–68, leading the team to a final No. 2 ranking in both wire service polls during his junior year. Unseld also led the team to two trips to the NCAA tournament (1967 and 1968) and one to the NIT tournament (1966).
“Watching Wes play was probably one of the greatest experiences for me at Freedom Hall,” he says. “He was so strong and rebounded so well.”
Nowadays, Sturtzel sits in the “L” club section where he talks with some of the team’s great players-turned-fans, including Bud Olson, Phil Rollins and Lancaster Gordon (all UofL Athletic Hall of Famers), Roger Burkman and Jadie Frazier.
“I like mingling with the guys who used to play out there,” he says.
Stuart Grossman, 80, is another lifetime fan who has had an umbilical cord relationship with Freedom Hall. A self-described “die-hard fan,” he and his family have been ardent supporters of the Cards since the 1950s.
“My family used to travel with the team and one of my sons even served as a team photographer in those early days,” he says. “We donated the first U.S. flag flown at Freedom Hall.”
Players such as Butch Beard, Junior Bridgeman and Lancaster Gordon loom large in Grossman’s memory of games played at Freedom Hall. “I very much enjoyed watching those games and still do today,” he says. “Look for me at the home games. I’m the guy in the referee shirt.”
Grossman hailed Freedom Hall as “a great facility where there’s not a bad seat in the house.”
That’s a statement that rings true for Griffith as well. He points with pride to the $13.3 million remodeling of the hall back in 1984 when the arena floor was lowered by 10 feet and seating capacity was increased to 18,865 from 16,613.
“Freedom Hall has a unique layout,” says Griffith, now a special assistant to UofL President James Ramsey. “There’s a great sight line in the hall. Every seat, even those near the roof, is a great seat.”
ESPN College Basketball Magazine has named Freedom Hall as the nation’s “Best Playing Floor” in its 1995–96 edition.
But basketball isn’t the only sport played out at Freedom Hall.
In fact, the facility was originally constructed for one event—the Kentucky State Fair World Championship Horse Show.
But for UofL fans, Freedom Hall will always be tied to the kind of school pride that only basketball and other major collegiate sports seem to attract. “The Hall” has showcased not only the men’s basketball team’s mastery on the hardwood, but the women’s team as well. Going into this season, the women’s team had compiled an all-time record of 216–58 at Freedom Hall.
Not to be overlooked is the talent of UofL’s coed cheerleaders, who have claimed 14 national championships. The all-female cheerleading squad has won eight national titles. And UofL’s Ladybirds dance team has won eight national titles.
As the Cards play their last season at Freedom Hall under Coach Rick Pitino’s capable tutelage, the athletics department has gone all out to recognize the players who have stood out over the years. The goal during this season is to have one of these players at each home game. Each is being recognized with a short video tribute.
The department is also planning to do a rundown, through a fan vote, of all the greatest games played at Freedom Hall. A big event will be held at the final home game against Syracuse on March 6.
In Coach Crum’s eyes, Freedom Hall deserves all that and more in the way of kudos.
“We’ve had great fans and great support for the basketball program over the years,” he says. “Freedom Hall is a great place to watch and play basketball.”