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Billy Reed: Going home to old friend, as Bellarmine University will play basketball at big Freedom Hall

While almost every college and university that plays basketball in NCAA Division I is anticipating severe attendance and revenue drops due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Bellarmine University of Louisville, is looking forward to expanded attendance and revenue in its first season as a member of the sport’s highest division.

Impossible? Ridiculous? Not if you’re ready to welcome an old friend, Freedom Hall, back for a second life as the home of a college hoops team.

When it opened in 1956, Freedom Hall, the centerpiece of the Kentucky State Fairgrounds, was the biggest basketball arena in the nation. It had good seating for approximately 18,500 fans and was surrounded by huge parking lots. The NCAA was so impressed that it held the Final Four there six times (1958, 1959, 1962, 1963, 1967, and 1969), still the record for one venue.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

The University of Louisville, which had been playing its home games at the downtown Armory (capacity around 6,000) moved quickly to claim Freedom Hall as its home. The program didn’t begin selling out every game until 1979-‘80, the season Darrell Griffith led the Cardinals to their first national championship. After that, Freedom Hall served the program well until around 2005, when then-coach Rick Pitino began making noises about a new arena.

State government and Louisville’s business community took it from there. The result was the opening of the 23,000-seat KFC Yum! Center on the banks of the Ohio River in 2010. Never mind that the new arena, which was as thoroughly modern as Freedom Hall had been in 1956, was squeezed into a block on Main Street where there was little room for new business and parking.

Since then, Freedom Hall has been used for a variety of rodeos and car shows, but not as the home of a basketball team. Also lost was the only “Neutral Zone” where Kentuckians of all colors, races, and socio-economic status were able to mingle peacefully and happily. A lot of rural Kentuckians simply didn’t like going into downtown Louisville and spending any more time there than necessary.

Meanwhile, out at Bellarmine, Coach Scott Davenport, who built a state championship team at Ballard High before working for both Denny Crum and Rick Pitino as an assistant, was doing great things with the Knights’ program. He found good players who also were good students. He won the 2011 NCAA Division II national title. The university’s Knights Hall, with a capacity of 2,193, was sold out almost every game.

Inevitably, Bellarmine got the chance to move up to Division I. The ASUN is a relatively new league that includes Liberty, Florida Gulf Coast, Jacksonville, Kennesaw State, Lipscomb, North Alabama, North Florida, and Stetson. When the ASUN Conference offered an invitation in 2019, Bellarmine jumped at it. The Knights would start playing at the D-I level in 2020-’21.

But then the Coronavirus pandemic crippled every facet of American life.

Under Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s formula for limiting attendance at games and other events, Bellarmine would have been limited to crowds on no more than 328 in Knights Hall. But then Dr. Mark Lynn, a huge sports enthusiast who runs a successful chain of eye-care centers, came up with a brilliant idea: What about moving to Freedom Hall?

After checking out the iconic arena to make sure it had been kept up since U of L moved out, President Donovan, Athletics Director Scott Wiegandt, and Davenport agreed to make it happen. And under Wiegandt’s leadership, they did.

So now, under Gov. Beshear’s attendance formula, Bellarmine will be allowed to have crowds of around 2,700 for every home game, which is greater than the capacity at Knights Hall. Instead of less revenue, Bellarmine figures to make more.

“We saw the obvious benefits of making Freedom Hall more of a long-term home for our basketball programs,” Wiegandt said. “It has long been considered one of the best places in the world to watch a basketball game and the venue gives us ample room to grow into our new D-I status.”

The women’s program, coached by Chance Dugan, also will play in Freedom Hall, which is operated by Kentucky Venues for the State Fair Board. The president of Kentucky Venues, David S. Beck, has promised to renovate suites, improve lighting and the sound system, and a new floor with the Bellarmine logo.

“Can you believe it?” Davenport said. “Every time, I go in there I’m in awe all over again about who’s played there and what has happened there.”

Every major singer or musical group played in Freedom Hall from 1956-2010. The world’s championship horse show was there, not to mention a variety of tractor pulls, a Billy Graham Revival, and pro hockey. But it’s known best for its revolutionary role in basketball history.

Besides U of L and NCAA tournaments, both Final Four and Regional, Freedom Hall was home of the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA from 1969 through ’76, when team owner John Y. Brown Jr. folded the franchise instead of letting it be part of the NBA merger. Brown was elected Governor in 1979, and ordered a renovation of Freedom Hall to include suites.

Interestingly, Bellarmine played in the first basketball game ever in Freedom Hall, taking on Fort Knox in a preliminary to an exhibition between the NBA’s Boston Celtics and Minneapolis Lakers late in 1956. The Knights’ first game as the building’s main tenant will be against D-III Transylvania University at 2 p.m. on Nov. 28.

Welcome back, dear old friend.

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