by Kent Sterling
When the seeds held in the sub-regional of the 1983 NCAA Tournament, a very cool opportunity availed itself for Indiana University students who were interested in making a small investment and taking a little drive south to Knoxville, Tennessee.
Big Ten champion Indiana was scheduled to play Kentucky, and Louisville would play Arkansas on the campus of the University of Tennessee, and as long as Louisville won, the drive would provide either a bounty of great hoops or some loot from scalping.
The way tickets for the NCAA Tournament games involving the Hoosiers were doled out to IU students involved a lottery, and friends of mine and I begged those few students we knew who were disinterested to enter so we would improve our odds. A group of us won tickets, and we rolled to the site of the previous year’s World’s Fair for a weekend of fun
Indiana would be without forward Ted Kitchel because of a bad back, so while there was hope that IU could beat Kentucky, the Hoosiers weren’t favored. That allowed us to accept the 64-59 loss to Kentucky with greed fueled grace because it meant the first matchup between in-state rivals Kentucky and Louisville since 1959.
The Wildcats and Cardinals had not played each other in the regular season since 1922, and there was no love lost between the programs.
Kentucky flat out refused to play Louisville. Coach Joe B. Hall knew he had nothing to gain by scheduling Denny Crum’s upstarts. The Wildcats were the blue bloods in the state, and putting themselves in a position to have that status erode would have been silly. Lexington is where rolling hills of Blue Grass are filled with very expensive thoroughbreds, and Louisville was an urban center whose population was reflected on the court at Freedom Hall. Yes, there were some racial overtones that underscored the dislike between the two closest things to professional sports franchises in the state.
The NCAA stepped in to right the wrong by putting them in the same regional on a collision course in Knoxville.
As the final seconds wound down in Indiana’s loss, we made our plans to dump the regional final tickets for the biggest game for either Kentucky or Louisville in a quarter century. Sadly, the laws of supply and demand were not in our favor because thousands of other Indiana and Arkansas fans made the same plans. Our seats were very good, but there were plenty of those too.
As we drank our Michelobs in the Fabulous Sunsphere – the iconic water tower-esque remnant of the World’s Fair – and plotted our course, it dawned on us that selling quickly would be better than waiting for the day of the game – because the beer flowed like wine, and with it our cash.
We trolled the Hyatt, where the Cardinals stayed, and were offered $80 as we laughed with fans and players. It was a party at the Hyatt. We met the wives of a couple of assistant coaches, and they shared some inside dope on the team, while one of our friends graduated to gin and tonics at the island bar one floor above the atrium. Joe was his name, and he was a master at not paying for drinks. He moved stealthily around the bar, starting tabs on all four sides while buying drinks for other guys and accepting return drinks from them.
When it was time to head over to Kentucky’s hotel to gauge the secondary market pricing structure there, Joe bolted on all four tabs having collected at least eight cocktails on someone other than him. The party that existed with the Louisville folks was nowhere to be found. If Louisville hosted a Mardi Gras, Kentucky ran their headquarters like the Kremlin. The players were nowhere to be found, and the fans were way too staid to engage in talk about tickets.
Back to the Hyatt we went to find the guy who offered $80 each for our four tickets. The Louisville players wandered the atrium with the coaches. Everyone loose and laughing. Even if we could have gotten a little more cash from Big Blue Nation, we would have felt disloyal to our new friends from the ‘Ville. We accepted $60 each from our guy, and felt lucky to get it.
Louisville went on to beat Kentucky in overtime by 12, and we weren’t arrested because our friend sucked down all the gin in Knoxville without spending a dime. From that point on, I have believed that sequestering players away in their rooms is a mistake. Let them figure out a way to relax, and play the game that way. UK under Hall always seemed to play tight, and as a result he won only one NCAA Tournament despite being ranked #1 or #2 during eight of his 13 seasons at the helm.
Friday, the two teams will play again with a chance to advance to the regional final. The regular season series was reinstated the following season and it has continued since. Kentucky is still Kentucky, and Louisville is still the ‘Ville. The only thing that will change Friday night is a shift in bragging rights.