Denny Crum

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- The past and the present came together during the celebration of Hall of Fame Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum's life Monday night in the KFC Yum! Center on the court that bears his name.

In recognizing Crum's accomplishments as the Cardinals' coach for 30 years, beginning in 1972 and consisting of two national championships and six Final Fours, plus his impact on the community, several former players noted that the best way for fans to honor his legacy is to support one of his former players, Kenny Payne, in his efforts to rebuild the basketball program to its previous heights.

Crum, 86, died on May 9 after being in failing health and under Hospice care for almost about seven months. About8,000 fans and friends attended the celebration, which came after a service at Southeast Christian Church and burial in Cave Hill Cemetery earlier in the day.

"If you want to celebrate Coach Crum's life, if you want to make him smile," said Darrell Griffith, "then next year let's get back to the way we were when we filled this arena night in and night out."

Griffith led U of L to the 1980 title as the national player of the year. Billy Thompson Jr. was a key player on Crum's 1986 championship club who is now the senior pastor of a church he founded in Florida.

"My prayer is going to be that thing that God put on Denny, on (UCLA coach John) Wooden, that it would come on Kenny. Coach had the best fans behind him and we're going to need those same fans to continue to speak up and stand up for Kenny Payne."

Payne, of course, was a freshman teammate with Thompson on the championship team. Crum told me and others that one of his proudest moments was when U of L hired Payne as its first black head coach, a move that should have come in my opinion and many others when Chris Mack was named instead and presided over a short and disastrous reign that led to last year's 4-28 record under Payne.

"To me it's the elephant in the room," Payne told the crowd. "So when you find people that are saying not good things about Kenny Payne or whatever, it goes against the fiber of what this is built on. And the reality of it is, you need everybody that's true Cardinals' fans, that loved Denny Crum, to love me so that I can help bring back what he did. That's what that's is all about. That's why I came here. Thank you for giving me the standard of what Louisville basketball should be and what it will be again. We know what it looks like because of you, Coach."

Payne thanked Crum "for loving me. Thank you for allowing me to see you love others."

Junior Bridgeman, who played for Crum from 1972-75, talked about the special bond that unites former Louisville players like him and later players like Luke Whitehead, Ellis Myles, Pervis Ellison, Russ Smith and many others.

"When we see somebody that might have played 10-15 years after us, there's still a connection," Bridgeman said. "I thought about it and what made it special was Coach Crum. We lost that today. But Kenny Payne is gonna bring that back. I'm not worried."

In an interview with Rick Bozich of WDRB, Bridgeman also talked about the advantages he gained having played for Crum.

Bridgeman, an Indiana All-Star whose East Chicago Washington team won the 1971 Indiana state championship and who could have gone to virtually any college of his choice, was Crum's first recruit.

"It was absolutely a little bit of a leap of faith (coming to U of L) and a little bit of being hoodwinked, I think," Bridgeman told Bozich with a laugh.

Bridgeman went on to score 1,348 points in three seasons as a Cardinal as the program won 72 of 89 games. He led the U of L to the 1975 Final Four, where they lost to UCLA in overtime in San Diego before the Bruins beat UK for Wooden's tenth and final championship.

The Los Angeles Lakers selected Bridgeman with the No. 8 pick in the 1975 draft, then included him in the four-player package they traded to Milwaukee for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Over 12 seasons, he scored 11,517 points and later credited Crum's coaching for his successful career.

"I didn't really understand what it meant to be with a Hall of Fame coach until you get away and you look back and you're with some other coaches," Bridgeman said. "The first time I really realized how much of an influence that (Crum) had had and how much I had learned was when I got to the pros. The fundamentals that he had taught us were a big, big part of being successful in the pros. Positioning on the floor. I could go through a whole list of things.

"I remember thinking how thankful I was that I had gone through that here at the university because it was a big leg up on on a lot of guys coming into the pros at that time."

Bridgeman was even more successful after his playing career, earning a fortune in Wendy's Restaurant franchises, Coca Cola distributorships in the U.S. and Canada, an aluminum mill, Ebony and Jet magazines and part ownership in Valhalla Golf Club.

Over 120 former U of L players, coaches and managers under Crum attended the celebration. They attended former athletics director Bill Olsen, former assistants Jerry Jones and Wade Houston and players LaBradford Smith, Cornelius Holden, DeJuan Wheat, Milt Wagner, Reece Gaines, Roger Burkerman, Everick Sullivan, Keith Williams, Lancaster Gorden, Jerry Eaves, Tick Rogers, Herbert Crook and others.

"What he did was more important than basketball, more important than winning games," Bridgeman said of Crum. "He changed the city of Louisville. He changed the fans of the University of Louisville and he made Louisville a national power."

There were also video tributes played throughout the ceremony from Dick Vitale calling Crum "just Awesome baby," to fellow Hall of Famer and former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, former UCLA All-Americans Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton (a written letter read by emcee Paul Rogers), along with Roy Williams, John Calipari, Jay Bilas, Bobby Cremins, and Hugh Durham. Coach K noted that when Crum was part of the ceremony to honor him during his final trip to Louisville that he remembers, "I was thinking 'Wow. I'm getting honored by one of the coaches that I have respected for my entire career.'"

In the letter from Walton, the ending said: "I am who I am today because of Denny Crum."

Walton also said in his letter that those around the UCLA program expected Crum to "come back home," but that never happened. "They must have treated you as the king you were because you never came home."

Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at