Few Lessons in Perfection

The city of Louisville has been set on fire this week by the thousands and thousands of flaming hot opinions on dismissed Cardinal point guard Chris Jones. The opinions have ranged from the logical, “it’s a loss, but maybe the team will rally around this news,” to the indefensibly irrational, “Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino who won a national championship here 22 months ago is terrible at his job.”

One of the most consistent, middle-of-the-spectrum opinions I’ve heard is that UofL made an error in taking Jones to begin with. He was a two-time Junior College Player of the Year who was rated as the No. 1 JUCO prospect in the country at the time he signed with the Cardinals, but he also had a history of being immature and having a sometimes uncontrollable temper.

Every time I’ve heard this complaint, the same name has popped into my head: Preston Knowles.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino, was not happy with Preston Knowles after he was whistled for an technical foul late against Providence on Feb. 18, 2009. Photo by GARRY JONES | Contributing Photographer.

Louisville coach Rick Pitino, was not happy with Preston Knowles after he was whistled for an technical foul late against Providence on Feb. 18, 2009. Photo by GARRY JONES | Contributing Photographer.

In 2007, Knowles had all of the same red flags that Jones did a few years later. He had been suspended several times from the Clark County High School basketball team for “attitude problems,” and was even kicked off the Kentucky All-Star boys’ basketball team the summer after he signed with UofL.

What Knowles didn’t have was any of the accolades Jones did. Knowles was a two-star recruit with no major scholarship offers besides the one from Rick Pitino. A far cry from Jones, who chose the Cards over the likes of Kanas, Baylor, and Florida State. Still, each signing was viewed as something of a risk by a chunk of the Louisville fan base.

Knowles arrived at UofL with low expectations and a short leash. He rewarded Pitino’s good faith right away by providing instant energy on defense whenever he was inserted into a game, a characteristic which also made him an immediate fan favorite. He kept the intensity up but also saw his role increase with each passing season, helping the Cardinals win a Big East title and reach a pair of NCAA Tournament regional finals between 2008 and 2010.

Before Knowles’ senior season of 2010-11, Rick Pitino famously remarked that he expected the campaign to be a “bridge year,” an attempt to prepare Cardinal fans for a worst-case-scenario he believed to be entirely possible. Instead, Knowles became the leading scorer and the face of a team that exceeded the entire nation’s expectations. Their effort delighted UofL fans night after night, who turned out in droves to watch the team during its first season at the KFC Yum! Center. When the dust settled, Knowles and the Cards had overachieved to the tune of 25 victories, a Big East Tournament championship game appearance, and a number four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

For a fan base that had been dealing with far too much disappointment on the court and controversy off it, the Knowles-inspired season was an imperative breath of fresh air. Pitino himself credited the team — which he still often describes as “the Preston Knowles team” — with making the game fun for him again, and convincing him that he still wanted to do this for many more years.

While guys like Peyton Siva, Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng, and Luke Hancock are always going to be viewed as the faces of this “era of good feelings” for Cardinal basketball, it’s important to remember that Knowles was the player who got it all started. That wouldn’t have happened without an initial leap of good faith.

Taking Chris Jones was a risk, and it was a risk that ultimately did not pay dividends for Louisville. That doesn’t mean it was an incomprehensible decision at the time, or that it will be the wrong move in the future to take a player with a similar background.

At one point during his senior season, Knowles, a player who had been described as “too selfish and immature” to ever make it at Louisville, gave the following quote: “As long as we win, I couldn’t care less; my average can go down to four points and zero rebounds. As long as we win, I don’t care.”

Athletes, gamblers, and people in business always remember their bad luck losses more than their surprise victories. The modern sports fan is often a victim of the same flawed perspective. VT