Kentucky has made Freedom Hall its home away from home every year since 1958.
Even before Kentucky and Louisville resumed its instate rivalry in 1984, the Wildcats have made a yearly visit to Freedom Hall. Before the Cardinals vacated the venue last season, the Wildcats played in the building twice every other year.
Kentucky has established its own tradition at Freedom Hall. Adolph Rupp has coached there. So has Joe B. Hall and other coaches who succeeded Hall. Once the proud home of the hometown Louisville Cardinals, Freedom Hall sits mostly vacant during the college basketball season. The Cardinals have moved on to a modern facility — The KFC Yum! Center — in downtown. The playing surface during Kentucky’s “home” games at Freedom Hall resembles the one at Rupp¿Arena and even has the school’s logo in the middle of the court. It’s as close to home — Rupp¿Arena — as you can get.
Kentucky has played well at Freedom Hall as the home team on the scoreboard. Going into tonight’s game against Arkansas-Little Rock, Kentucky has recorded an impressive 59-18 record and has won nine of its last 11 games in the historic venue.
In the past, playing at Freedom Hall was a big deal for Kentucky and a chance for “average Joe” fans to see the Wildcats in person. The team held open practices before gameday and usually played Notre Dame in the venue. Times have changed and playing in Louisville isn’t a lure for diehard fans in the region anymore.
Kentucky coach John¿Calipari has even taken note of the lack of interest in the team’s annual visit to Freedom Hall.
“People have to come to it and make it something they want us to do,” the Kentucky coach said Monday. “It’s hard to say, ‘get us UCLA in there,’ you just can’t.”
It’s true that Arkansas-Little Rock doesn’t have the appeal of a program such as UCLA, but Calipari made a valid point in the same sentence. If the game were played at Rupp¿Arena, it would have been a sell-out, proving that a trip to Louisville doesn’t mean anything, other than continuing a tradition that began more five decades ago.
As for future visits to Freedom Hall, Calipari “wants to continue to do it and reach out to our fans” in the metro-Louisville region, but wants to make sure fan interest remains high and the investment is worth it down the road.
“This is an opportunity for people that aren’t season ticket holders,” he said. “A great thing about our fans is that they come to see us play, not the other team.”
Calipari said the team is “excited” to play at Freedom Hall, but would like to see Big Blue Nation continue to buy into the concept.
“I’m hearing there are tickets left but they are (in the upper arena), so I would just tell our fans it is your chance to see us in person, get out there and get to the game,” he said.
If fans fail to respond to Calipari’s request, it could mark the beginning of the end.
Freedom Hall has always has been generous to the Wildcats, but lack of fan interest may force Kentucky to turn in its keys to the facility in the future.