To understand why Louisville always seems to play its best at the end of the season, one need only examine the slab of poured concrete outside Crawford Gym on campus. It's a basketball-shaped monument to the Cardinals' 1980 national title, decorated with the handprints of each member of that team. And if there's some resemblance to the footprints and handprints found in front of Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, no wonder. The Cards show up on TV a lot and, like any show-biz fixture, the team's sense of timing says it's best to arrive late.
All this fits nicely into coach Denny Crum's formula for keeping Louisville among college basketball's elite, where it has been for almost all of Crum's 15 seasons. The Cards slipped a bit last season, when injuries struck 13 different players. Crum failed to win 20 games for the first time, and the Cards missed the NCAAs. But as the ides of March approaches, the Ville is once again tanning hides in its signature it's-not-how-you-start-but-how-you-finish fashion. A 76-59 win at Houston on Saturday afternoon—Louisville's 10th in 11 games—brought memories of a comment Crum made back in December. "I think," he said, "we've got most of our future ahead of us."
The Cardinals' theatrical flair does not come by accident. "College athletics is show business," says senior Jeff Hall. "People pay to see us, and we try to enjoy it as much as they do. It's like a movie or anything else."
Guard Milt (Ice) Wagner acts as the team's press agent, tagging teammates with nicknames and bagging jumpers with consistency now after a horrible start. Forward Billy (World) Thompson is the Garbo, talented and enigmatic, but so sick of criticism for his occasional lapses that, for a while, he committed the Cardinal sin of not speaking to the press. Hall, the only white regular, is a Poitier in reverse, the Guess Who's Coming To Dunk guard with the automatic jump shot as well. Herb Crook plays whatever role is required, usually on the offensive boards. And 6'10" center (Never Nervous) Pervis Ellison—Wagner prefers Big Long or Windex—is the ingenue, still loath to smile because of the braces on his teeth. But he's as good as any freshman in the nation. Meanwhile, the coach directs his troupe in a manner that has sent all but one of the four-year players in his 15 years at Louisville to at least one Final Four. Crum himself almost always gets Spielberged in Coach of the Year balloting.
The typical Louisville screenplay unfolds like this:
•Open quietly, without intense preseason conditioning. Focus instead on individual fundamentals and practice your press to get in shape. Says Hall, "Coach feels the season's so long that if you start too soon, you'll get burned out."
•Cut to an excruciating nonconference schedule, often on the road and on TV. If you're a Top 20 team, Crum will go to your place; a glamorous early-season won-lost record means little to a guy in the third season of a 10-year contract.
•Add the special effects of tournament conditions and a lot of games squeezed into a short time. Hawaii, Alaska, the Big Apple NIT—the Ville wants in. The Houston game was the Cards' eighth in 17 days, and Crum is increasingly vigilant about what he calls "game slippage"—lapses in concentration. "With every turnover he raises one finger," says Ellison, who muffs the ball barely once a game. "It's like he's saying, 'That's one, and I'm counting.' "
•Sustain drama with competitive practices throughout the season. "It's a war every day," says Crum, who asks his players to rank each other by secret ballot from time to time. "That's crucial. There's no such thing as staying level. You get better, or you form bad habits."
Of course, to guarantee those combative workouts, Crum must recruit well, even at the risk of recruiting too well. He had to do some juggling when he discovered he had 17 players and only 15 scholarships last summer. And at least two supporting players have already made noise this season. Junior Mark McSwain was banished to the locker room during one game after he refused Crum's order to go in as a sub for Ellison. (McSwain's now back in good standing, but injured.) And freshman guard Kevin Walls failed to show up for four practices and a game, fed up with too much bench time. That so upset Walls's—and Thompson's and Wagner's—former coach at Camden (N.J.) High, Clarence Turner, that Turner vowed never to commit another player to Crum's care. But Walls is back, too, mollified and seeing more time.
One player who has done his job quietly is Ellison. He does the requisite 6'10" things, playing goalie in the 2-2-1 zone press and menacing opponents with his long arms. But he has also done 5'10" things—he flicked a blind, over-the-shoulder pass to Hall for a jumper during the Cards' 89-67 pasting of Florida State last Wednesday—and even senior things. When Houston hung within a point of the Cards midway through the second half on Saturday, Ellison knocked down two straight dunks, knocked in a couple of follows and knocked away two Cougar shots to put Louisville up by eight. Says Crum, "He's as consistent as any freshman we've had here since Scooter and Rodney McCray and Derek Smith." It's not insignificant that the handprints of each of those three are immortalized in Crawford concrete. And Ellison has most of his future ahead of him.