LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The NCAA tournament has come back to Louisville, but not here. Here, the parking lot is mostly empty and the loudest noises are from the passenger jets landing just across the freeway.
The basketball clamor is downtown at the KFC Yum! Center, an arena not new, but still shiny. That’s where Alabama will show why it’s the No. 1 seed, or Princeton will continue to shock the world or San Diego State or Creighton will finally get to a Final Four.
That's there. Here, The NCAA tournament buzz used to be here, and lots of it. But not anymore.
Say hello to Freedom Hall.
It has seen a little bit of everything. Hockey and football and farm equipment shows. “The place was built for a world championship horse show,” said Kenny Klein, retired long-time sports information director for the University of Louisville. “That’s why it’s really extended and very long. A good percentage of the seats were actually in the end zone.” There have been musical concerts and tractor pulls and political rallies. John Kennedy campaigned here, and so did Donald Trump. Louisville native son Muhammad Ali fought his first professional fight here, against the police chief of a West Virginia town who needed some extra money. Ali by a decision.
But basketball is what made the name ring a national bell. Speaking of which, it was called Freedom Hall after an essay contest in 1956, the winning entry from a high school girl.
This is where Adolph Rupp won his last national championship for Kentucky. And where 60 years ago this very Thursday, Cincinnati’s bid for an unprecedented three-peat national championship crashed and burn at the overtime buzzer against Loyola Chicago in one of the most significant title games ever played. And where, six years after that, UCLA completed its historic three-peat mission with a 20-point breeze past Purdue.
This is where, in some ways, Rick Pitino said hello to college basketball, and Lew Alcindor said goodbye.
Lots of famous names were denied happy Final Four endings in Freedom Hall.
Elgin Baylor and Seattle by Kentucky in 1958.
Jerry West and West Virginia by California in 1959.
John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Ohio State by Cincinnati in 1962. The last time two teams from the same state played for the championship.
In a way, Freedom Hall is where college basketball segregation came to crumble. Texas Western is regarded the historic groundbreaker, starting five Black players in the 1966 title game. But years earlier, in a climate even less tolerant, Cincinnati of 1962 and Loyola Chicago 1963 each started four to win titles in Freedom Hall. Their championships struck a blow for integration.
That the two teams shared the floor 60 years ago Thursday, won in the last seconds of overtime by the Ramblers, makes the moment even louder through time. It was a different age in more ways than one. The two teams went overtime that night but used only 11 players; Cincinnati sent in one sub for four minutes.
By then, the NCAA was starting to pass around its crown jewel event from city to city. Freedom Hall in 1963 was the last time a building hosted consecutive Final Fours.
One famous name was not denied here. Before he was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, NBA all-time scoring leader, Lew Alcindor was an unstoppable sophomore as UCLA blew through Houston and Dayton to win the 1967 title in Freedom Hall. With an unbeaten lineup full of sophomores, the Bruins looked like a full-blown dynasty, and there were already questions of whether that would be good for the game. “I’d say the New York Yankees regime wasn’t bad for baseball,” UCLA coach John Wooden said that night.
Maybe not, but the NCAA banned dunking the next year as one way to mitigate Alcindor’s astounding dominance. That ’67 title game in Freedom Hall would see the last legal dunk in college basketball for nearly a decade.
Alcindor was back with UCLA in Freedom Hall in 1969 to finish the job. He departed in style with 37 points and 20 rebounds in a 92-72 rout of Purdue, which gave him more national championships in his college career than games lost – 3-2. For his last bow in Freedom Hall, a former jazz trombonist played in the UCLA pep band. His father, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Sr.
You could say Alcindor and Freedom Hall rode away together on March 22, 1969. Alcindor’s final college game, Freedom Hall’s last Final Four. Yet there was another role left to play and that was the home of the vastly-entertaining and seldom-beaten Louisville Cardinals of Denny Crum. The Doctors of Dunk played here, and a whole bunch of other mighty Louisville teams. It was one of college basketball’s places to be.
“Great crowds, great venue. You equated great Louisville teams to Freedom Hall, not just winning championships but so many great games during the season, one after another after another,” Klein said. “You could walk in there anytime and have a smell not just from the popcorn but they had these spiced nuts. There were smoking room in the corners. Back then around those smoking rooms there was like this big cloud. You also might have a livestock show next door and you may not have a smell that was nice.”
Yeah, other events scheduled for the complex could make things a tad complicated, such as when Louisville hosted the Metro Conference tournament.
“One year we had jumped in at the last minute when someone else couldn’t host and we hosted it while there was actually a livestock show still going on in one of the wings,” Klein said. “You could hear a moo every now and then. And we had some kind of perfumed air circulating trying to knock down the aroma.”
Freedom Hall’s final turns as an NCAA tournament host were for the 1987 regional and 1991 first and second rounds. The ’87 regional featured Pitino earning his first Final Four trip, coaching Providence to an upset of Georgetown as the Friars’ Billy Donovan made 16 of 18 free throws. Two men destined to coach four future national champions were on the Providence side that day. Also in the region field was Alabama, just like this weekend.
Kansas used Freedom Hall as the launching pad in 1991 for Roy Williams’ first Final Four trip. Then the tournaments went away. Louisville played its final game here as home team in 2010, upsetting No. 1 Syracuse. Past All-Americans and national champions were back by the score to share the final tipoff. Klein said it might have been his favorite game there.
To be sure, Freedom Hall is still busy, even with basketball. Bellarmine plays its games there. But on this day, with the South Region teams arriving at the airport across the highway, there is not much basketball flavor to Freedom Hall. The vacant concourses still carry the plaques of inducted members of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, from Johnny Unitas to Lee Corso to gobs of basketball names. Also Secretariat, with Churchill Downs only three miles away. There are rumbles coming from the arena floor this day, but not like the Cardinal crowds from the past. Trucks are bringing in dirt.
What will be taking center stage this March weekend in the arena that once hosted Oscar Robertson and John Wooden and Dean Smith and Bob Knight and John Thompson and Rick Pitino? That sent Lew Alcindor and Loyola Chicago and Cincinnati into the history books?
Five miles away on this day, they’re getting the fresh-faced KFC Yum! Center ready for the big weekend. Freedom Hall sits alone in its memories.