...They Say All Good Things Must Come To An End
You could see it on the streets of San Antonio all day long. You could hear it in the whispers of those we passed on sidewalks. The chest thumping and clothes-rending of fully grown men. The lamentations of the women. The bawling children. The unconsolable homeless. This is it. The Road Ends Here. The Going Mad Hoops Odyssey Roadtrip is all but over.
Jesse Jackson passes the word to John Thompson:
It's true. One more game and the Road Trip Guys are packing it in.
Tomorrow, I deplane in Boston and return to my life as a preternaturally gifted and overwhelmingly compensated child surgeon specializing in innocent victims, bad burns, and falls from high places. For Jake, it's New York, New York. Back to stripping. There could have been no better way to wrap up what's truly been a mad little trip than with this week we've had in San Antonio. With the city nearly drowning in college hoops hoopla - the fans, the coaches, the players - the roadtrip did it's best to immerse ourselves most fully. It probably didn't help that we've been rocking the rags and stink of our three month slog, but not even abysmally poor personal presentation could keep us from batting a thousand on parties attended, nights that lasted to morning, and not a single untimely Toss Out for unseemly behavior. Nope. This week, the boys colored inside the lines and still plain got it done. It's hard to believe that a job could be as much fun as this one's been.
So it is that San Antonio has come to be a bittersweet stop of sorts. It is, after all, the last stop. A time to let the good times roll. But an unavoidable opportunity for reflection too. In fact, it was somewhere in the vague middle of this afternoon's exhausting umbrella-drinks-poolside session that it finally struck me, simple and true: I loved this gig.
It's a hot job when I get paid to photograph Rod Strickland rebounding for Derrick Rose.
Anytime you lace them up for a season, take it wire to wire, and are left at the end of it, exhausted and looking back, it's hard not to feel a little emotional. It wasn't always good at the time (for reference, please see: state of Illinois) but it was one of those special experiences that's somehow all good in the rear view mirror. Now to have seen this last week in full and in the flesh, I figure that's probably a feeling these two teams are going to have as well, a feeling of fondness looking back. One of them will have it as soon as the final buzzer sounds. But even for who ever loses this one (and I've got Memphis winning...with my track record, surely the death knell for the Tigers), it won't be too long before even a loss in the Finals all starts to look pretty good in retrospect.
Funny how these things work out. Rolling through countless towns, logging over 10,000 US Highway miles, and seeing more than seventy five games in sixty some odd different arenas...and two of my fondest memories involve the only two teams with a game left to play.
We were in Tennessee not too long ago when the then 'Game of the Century' was set to go down, the in-state showdown between the number one Tigers and the number two Vols of Tennessee. Up until San Antonio, the scene on Memphis' famed Beale Street (birthplace of the blues) rivaled anything I'd seen. The two fan bases, out in roughly equal numbers, showcased the best of what sports can be about. Good natured ribbing from both camps, wild get-ups, body paint, face paint, props, and as much passion as any horde of people can possibly muster for a sporting event.
Some of the old bad habits haunted Memphis tonight: Joey Dorsey
meditates on fouling out of his last game in the Memphis uni.
After the game, we wandered into Memphis' locker room. There, players draped towels over their faces, held heads in hands, and generally felt the pain of losing not just a game but also their chance at a perfect season. A short month later, we caught up with Memphis in the same setting: post game locker room. This time, they'd just won their way to the Final Four. To a man, they credited the Tennessee loss as a character builder, a kind of 'we couldn't have made it to these heights if we hadn't experienced those kind of lows' thing. To a man, they talked about their shared backgrounds as young men from tough neighborhoods, kids who feel like they've gotten a rough ride in the media, but keep on doing their best to prove themselves both on the court and off it. And to a man, they talked about coming together as friends and as a team. For the tournament, Memphis players have been most frequently spotted wearing simple blue t-shirts: March Is A Brotherhood. Far more of a surprise than the fact that they're even still playing is the fact that in some pretty unexpected ways, this Memphis team has come to embody, for this month, all the best in college sports.
In Lawrence, Kansas we took in the Jayhawks on their senior night. The packed Phogg Allen Fieldhouse was perhaps the most dynamic venue we'd visited (Indiana's Assembly Hall the only other house that compares). Students filled the red and blue bleachers an hour before game time. When the lights dropped and big screen played an homage to this year's graduating players, the explosion of applause was deafening. Waiting their turns as the last two seniors to walk to center court with their families, starting seniors Darnell Jackson and Russell Robinson tugged nervously at their jerseys, then hugged each other, and stepped closer to the baseline. As much as he tried to fight it, Robinson, a kid from New York City out there four years in the flattest Kansas, was tearing up. When they finally announced him, the entire arena burst into a chorus of screams right along with the announcer to yell out Robinson's home town: New York, New York! Then to see him walk out to the court, teary-eyed and waving to thousands of cheering fans...I thought I would cry. That was the night Kansas ran off a fifty point drubbing of Texas Tech.
And here we are. Two teams left.
Chalmers for three....It's good!
The arena's an even split of Kansas and Memphis fans. For the first thirty eight minutes of game time though, it's the Memphis faithful that are rocking the boat. Only when little Sherron Collins, with two minutes left, began to drag his team back into this, one gut-wrenching drive after another, did the Jayhawk frenzy take over. When Mario Chalmers nailed the three that sent it into overtime, the place was in a full Kansas fury. Looking across at the Memphis bench, as the buzzer on regulation sounds, Joey Dorsey, long fouled out, is clutching his head in his hands. Assistant coaches Strickland and Kellogg, who just minutes earlier were finding it hard to hide their excitement, looked as though all air had left their chests entirely. A six point run in the extra frame and the rest seemed like a formality.
A good day for the Jayhawk and friends.
The celebration's still going on. On the river walk. In the Kansas team hotel. All across the city, the cries go up: Rock Chalk Jayhawk. KU! For the road trip boys it's mixed feelings. To end this thing with an overtime thriller in the national final between two highly deserving and truly interesting squads...you can't do much better than that. But it's also over. How am I going to sleep at night without the reassuring sound of Dude sawing logs in the next bed over? How will I know when and where to eat without the neon signs of another spate of casual fine dining establishment calling out to me from the highway? How will I spend my evenings, now that college basketball is closing down?
Kind of sums it up.
Your 2007-2008 National Champions. The Kansas Jayhawks.
As it is for Memphis, so it goes for me then: there's always next year.
Dr. Osterhout Signs Off
In my last post as a card-carrying Going Mad roadtripper, I'd like to accomplish four things. Firstly, I'd like to convey why I love basketball so much, using yesterday's Final Four games as an example. Secondly, I'd like to restate how great a city San Antonio is. Thirdly, I'd like to compliment my partner Cyrus for surviving this odyssey. And finally, I'd like to leave you with a pithy amalgamation of the life lessons I've learned on the roadtrip.
How come more cheerleaders don't wear cowboy hats?
1. Before yesterday's Final Four games, I said to Cyrus, "Memphis and UNC are going to win. Take that to the bank. I'm one hundred percent positive." I had good reason to be so sure of myself. I'd seen all four teams play multiple times this season and had already carefully evaluated all aspects of the match-ups. Memphis had gelled as a team and, as of late, looked unstoppable. Faced with such raw talent, UCLA would have to play a near perfectly controlled game. Kansas seemed vulnerable against Davidson and I wasn't sure about their inside defense. I thought UNC, led by Tyler Hansbrough, would tear the Jayhawks apart from the inside out.
And this is why I love college basketball - because I was wrong, and not just once. Pick any game all season and anything can happen. Certain teams show up for certain games and other teams come out flat. Yeah, that happens in every sport, but more so in college sports than in professional sports, and even more so in college basketball than in, let's say, college football, because there are only five guys on the court at any given time. The games rely so much on these young and fallible heroes that the fans get to see a very real and human side to athletics.
I've seen Joey Dorsey brought to tears after a brutal loss to Tennessee. I've seen Tyler Hansbrough search desperately for the positive after an early season loss to Duke. I've seen Russell Robinson cry on senior night at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. There's a very real and passionate side to this sport, one where losing and winning have as much to do with caring and concentration as physical skill.
And that's what I love, not necessarily the high-flying acrobatics of a Rose or the chest pass of a Love, but the raw emotions that seep out the bindings of student-athletes that have dedicated their entire lives to a sport and have, as all but 12 do each season, failed to achieve their ultimate goal - a National Championship.
After yesterday's performance, I'm not so sure of that.
2. I love you San Antonio! I'm from the East Coast and have had my fair share of unspectacular experiences in Texas, but the Alamo City rocks. It is the perfect place to host an event like the Final Four. The weather this time of year is beautiful. You can walk everywhere, from the bars to the hotels to the Alamodome. And the River Walk is pure urban design genius. Somehow you can be in the middle of a city in the middle of the U.S.A. and feel like you're in la-la land. There are a lot of people in town for the Final Four. I mean, a lot. Yet, somehow, after the second game let out last night, everyone and their mother walked from the arena to the River Walk and, except for a few minor medical emergencies, there were no issues. Detroit, good luck following on the heels of such a great host city. You ain't got the weather, the River Walk or the manageable distances...
3. Cyrus and I have now been on the road for 73 straight days. That's two and a half months of sharing everything, from hotel rooms to bathrooms to holding cells. Sharing anything, never mind a life, for that long is not easy, let me tell you. And as a testament to Cyrus, I love the kid just as much now as I did before the trip. Not only is he a more fluid writer than I, but he's just a good guy. He's honest and resourceful and sensitive to the needs of others, mainly me. And I can be a pretty terrible person sometimes, especially after not sleeping for 48 hours. But Cyrus never held back. If I was an ass, he called me an ass. And for not holding back, for not harboring cheap emotions, for not playing silly girl games, I've developed a deep respect and, dare I say, love for my partner in crime. In fact, I'd give him a hug right now, but he smells so bad I'd probably pass out. (He claims it's his shoes...)
Everyone seemed to know the Dude on press row except for Cyrus and me.
4. In the end, college basketball is just a game. If this trip has taught me anything so far, it's just that. No matter who is playing or how much money is being made, college basketball is just a competitive activity that's meant to provide entertainment and amusement to the masses. And when this game starts to become something more serious, and less fun, then we've lost the very essence of college basketball. When fans stand up at every stoppage in play and scream obscenities at referees, then we've lost the essence of the game. When student sections chant "asshole" at an opposing player, then we've lost the essence of the game. When coaches don't put their seniors on the court on Senior Night to preserve the team's chances of winning, then we've lost the essence of the game. As corruption sets in, college hoops goes from a pure and wholesome game to a seedy and dark business that values money over hard work and passion.
Fortunately, most of the college basketball Cyrus and I have seen, has been true to its untainted roots as a team sport that can be played both indoors and outside with minimal equipment. In fact, when done right, hoops can be downright enlightening. It can take years of hard work and practice and refine that down to one fantastical moment. Western Kentucky's Ty Rogers' nails a game-winning shot in the Tournament. Washington University in St. Louis wins its first D-III championship. Davidson overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to defeat the Big East and Big 10 Champs.
Notice the symmetry. I did.
Of course, much of the atmosphere surrounding college hoops is due in large part to a cast of characters who never even touch a basketball on game day - the bands, the cheerleaders, the students, the guy in Section 314 that painted his entire body blue. So I'd like to extend a special thanks to these peripheral characters who do it for the love of the game or their school or just life.
There, I've accomplished the four goals I set out to accomplish in this, my final blog post. Now, it's time to say good-bye to the loyal few who have gotten this far in the trip, or even this entry. Thanks for sticking with Going Mad for the 10,000 miles and 70 or so games. I think there are only two of you, but hey, two is better than none.
It's like I said at the end of last year's Hoops Odyssey: when all is said and done, life would just be a better place if we'd follow the advice of a sign that used to hang outside a cheesesteak joint on Flatbush in Brooklyn. The sign read - "Shoot Hoops. Not Guns."
Right? It doesn't have to be a whole lot more complicated than that. The game is real simple.
And Then There Were Two
Apparently, The Road Ends Here. Or so the million some odd banners currently draping this town would have you believe.
The road ends here.
If San Antonio hasn't been in full out Mardi Gras mode these last few days (and really, it has) then today, it became official. From about noon right on to tip time, the streets were teeming with people, the bars were overflowing, and the hilariously disgusting karaoke that these people seem to love was already in full swing on a warm and sunny Texas afternoon. For a block leading up to the Alamodome the road was blocked off, the giant black-metal smokers were doing their thing on great heaps of barbecue, live bands were blasting, and fans from four different corners of the country were pouring into the scene a full five hours early.
If there's a city well-suited to host this jamboree, I think we're in it. Out on the sidewalks, some friendly back and forth between the different camps quickly fades beneath the party atmosphere. Maybe it's the beer that flows like wine here, or the soft touch of the high sun, but we saw more cross-camp high fives and bear hugs here than on any of the road trip's previous stops. No matter what you hear from the players and the coaches, for your average man and woman on the street, its pretty clear that everyone's simply happy to be here.
Inside the dome, it's not much different. The media room is packed still two hours out. A member from maybe every publication in the nation, recognizable or not, is busy holding forth over a Texas-sized spread. More bear hugs. More high fives. More flashing of the pearly whites. The party continues.
Penny Hardaway in town to get down for alma mater Memphis.
Of the four cities who came here to get down this weekend, and maybe watch a little basketball, those folks from Tennessee are the ones who travel with vigor. The UNC crowd, as we've grown accustomed to, is more the wine and cheese set. The UCLAers, a little harder to find than the others, seem to be the flip-flopping, laid-backing, cooler-if-you-did kind. Kansans, to their credit here in force, tend towards stoicism, the hardcore if also somehow reserved fanaticism, that perhaps comes with the territory of a long Kansas winter. And Memphis. Well. Memphis brought Beale Street with them. The blue and white pompons, the flashing blue lights, the shades, the face paint, the lack of due restraint...it's all got the mark of the Tiger this week.
It's interesting who shows up and who doesn't. Sometimes there's just no rhyme or reason to it. Arguably the most storied program to make the final weekend, UCLA, represents perhaps the least rabid fan base. And the relative newcomers, the party crashers, the Memphis Tigers fans are here in numbers, with loudness. I don't know that I would have predicted this scene, so heavily dominated as it seems by the Jayhawk and the Tiger faithful, but it's unmistakably turned out this way.
Inside the arena, the biggest bursts of noise, the most aggressive bands, the rawest emotions belong to those two schools. Small wonder that it spilled over onto the court as well.
Memphis gets their energy levels fixed to level 11.
There was one thing Jake and I were agreed on coming into today's action: the UCLA vs. UNC national championship was going to be great. But it's a funny thing about college basketball, it's a funny thing when kids lace up the sneaks and hit the hard court: you never can tell who's going to show up and who might not. Both Memphis and Kansas jumped out early in their games. Watching it happen, you could see the difference almost immediately. From the starting five to the head coach and right on down, Memphis and Kansas were two self-fashioned underdog teams that truly believed they could make this happen. Both teams rocked the opening five minutes of their respective games with a chip on their shoulders, a heavy dose of confidence, and some fast, high flying, high scoring action.
Kansas committed thirteen personal fouls in the first half of their game. UNC had five. Normally, you'd think that might be a bad thing. Not tonight. Tonight, it was a measure of how hard the Jayhawks were set on taking it to the bigger, stronger, and favored Tar Heels. In the Memphis game, everyone will be writing about Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, two guys that seem to be reliable combining for fifty every time out. But the story for me was Joey Dorsey. With the Joey for Mayor t-shirts out, the Mr. Dorsey signs hanging all around the stands, and the pre-game talk that as Joey goes, so go the Memphis Tigers, there was more than a little bit of pressure on the twenty four year old senior from Baltimore. And this is what he did: 0 points. But in 27 minutes of play, he was everywhere. He notably frustrated Kevin Love. He grabbed 15 rebounds, 6 of them off the offensive glass. And he had two monster blocks that brought the Alamodome to its feet.
Rock Chalk Jayhawk: the only ones not surprised by this outcome?
The entire state of Kansas.
Tonight, the folks from Tennessee and the folks from Lawrence, Kansas showed up big in San Antonio. Their kids followed suit. As reward, they'll play for everything on Monday night. I've got a prediction: Memphis wins. Watching these fans get whipped up, hearing the rowdy southern accents late night on the river walk, and witnessing Joey Dorsey clear out the lane and snatch another clutch lose ball, what can I say: I'm a convert. Unfortunately for Memphis, I haven't predicted anything right since February.
Up until February 12th, 2008, the Republic of Texas was one of only four states in the U.S.A. where it was illegal to buy obscene devices. I mention this only because I'm having a blast here at the Final Four in San Antonio and I find it odd that a state which values liberty and pleasure so much would ban toys "primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs." As far as I can tell, this place is all about having fun and banning plastic phalluses seems antithetical to such pleasurable aims. You start with sex toys and what's next? Dancing? Basketball?
Let's hope not.
The Tar Heels show off during their open practice.
It's like a big party here in San Antonio and I'm not even talking about the River Walk or the Alamo, the city's every day attractions. I'm talking about the events surrounding The Event. The Final Four games aren't until tomorrow afternoon, but pretty much anyone who's going to the games has already arrived and it seems like everyone's brought their party shoes - you know the ones I'm talking about, they're comfy and got sole.
Cyrus and I roll out of bed this morning and are floored by the day's options. Should we head on over to Hoops City and check out the basketball promos? Should we hit up a few hotel lobbies for some celebrity interviews? (I caught a glimpse of The Roots drummer, ?uestlove, sucking on a coffee at the Marriot.) Or should we ride Dave Scott's coattails and head on over to the Alamodome for the team practice sessions. We're not accustomed to so many choices so early in the morning. I mean, normally it's coffee or water, shampoo or soap, change of clothes or keep rocking the same shirt you've been wearing for a week.
After a lengthy debate, Cyrus and I decide to follow the wise ways of Mr. Scott. We stumble over to the Alamodome, where we arrive just in time to see the end of the Memphis practice. I use the term "practice" in the loosest of ways. This was more of a dunk contest than a practice and if basketball were only about hops, the Tigers would be National Champions.
Where you going, Mr. Beasley?
Despite the festive atmosphere of the arena, most of the talk on press row during the Memphis practice session is of the more sober variety. During the Kansas practice, reserve guard Rodrick Stewart slipped on a wet spot while going up for a dunk and fractured his right kneecap. No one thinks it will have too much of an effect on Kansas' chances against UNC, but the sad part is that Stewart's a senior who spent the last minutes of his college basketball career rolling around on the floor of the Alamodome with a broken bone. That's no bueno, muy no bueno.
After Memphis leaves the court, it's the Tar Heel's who emerge from the locker room. As compared to the Memphis practice session, the Tar Heels' is considerably more tame, at least until the last few minutes, when Roy Williams gives his players permission to put on an impromptu dunk clinic. Even tiny Ty Lawson gets in on the act, albeit unsuccessfully.
Oddly enough, the two teams I see practice today are my picks to make it to the Finals on Monday, and not just because I'm watching them warm-up. If Memphis plays as well as it did against Texas, the Tigers are unstoppable. Just watching them practice, every player looks cool, calm, collected and athletic. If you had no prior knowledge, it'd be tough to distinguish the starters from the reserves. Everyone on the team is that physically gifted. UNC has talent, too, but the Tar Heels didn't put their raw skill on display like Memphis did. Watching UNC practice, I got the sense that this is a team on a mission. The way the Tar Heels ran drills conveyed less pomp and more of a quite determination.
It's a beautiful day at the Alamodome.
After UNC's practice session, the party continues for Cyrus and me. We head back to locker room D, located in the bowls of the Alamodome, to hang out with one of the teams participating in The DiGiorno College All-Star Game. All of a sudden, I'm sitting there with DeMarcus Nelson and Jonathan Wallace and Shane Foster and Josh Duncan as they lace up their shoes. It's almost like I'm about to play in the college all-star game. Then, in walks Coach Oliver Purnell and Cyrus and I are treated to a quick pep-talk by the coach. Remember three things, Coach Purnell said. We must play to win, communicate and enjoy the experience.
As the players stream out of the locker room, I'm thinking: Damn right you've got to enjoy the experience. And this brings us back to the Texas obscenity statute and the Texas prohibition of the sale of "obscene devices." Coach Purnell just told me to enjoy the experience, but how can anyone really enjoy the ride if they've got the Man so far up in their business that they can't even exercise their right to buy an erotic instrument? Fortunately for Texans and freedom lovers everywhere, the Texas obscenity statute was overturned in February. So let the party begin.
Cyrus and I are going to do our part to celebrate the death of this silly statute. We're heading over to the CBS party tonight dressed like - yup, you got it - a couple of dildos.
Watching the River Flow
There weren't many people here in San Antonio beyond the usual hoi polloi when the Going Mad crew rolled into town earlier this week. Things have changed considerably.
All kinds of folks checking in for some Final Four action.
For those who might not be familiar with what a major sporting event can do to a city, San Antonio suddenly feels like a city that exists for no other purpose but to host the world of men's college basketball. Hotel's are no longer The Marriot, La Quinta, The Crowne Plaza, the Hiatt. They're the coaches hotel, Kansas' hotel, the media hotel, and on and on. Each of the four teams is camped out in a different corner of San Antonio's small downtown, huddled over the San Antonio River and the city's famed river walk. Lobbies overflow with balloons and other spirited decor as program fans and boosters lounge around, casually celebrating their institutions.
At the coaches hotel, nearly every knowable face and name can be seen spilling from taxis, towing bags, checking in,and then later, shmoozing the scene, chatting up old friends and on-court rivals alike. The river walk itself seems to shrink the scene down even further, throwing everyone atop each other. With all the bars and restaurants situated along that one lazy, sun-soaked walk, the afternoon is just a long procession of waves and excited hollers. At one eatery, the legendary Bobby Cremins takes a moment to ask old Razorbacks coach Nolan Richardson whose hair is grayer these days. A few stops down, Michigan State's Tom Izzo strolls around with his family as Stanford's Trent Johnson eyes a menu.
Meanwhile, colleague Dave Scott logs an exhausting day of blogging.
Around town, the chatter is nearly exclusively basketball. From the gaggles of assistant coaches, ADs, and the like, gossip about jobs opening, jobs closing, programs on the rise, and programs in trouble. Those of us less in the know are left to debate the week's bigger story lines. Memphis, with it's knack for the drama, showed up here suddenly short a back up guard in Andre Allen. (Hoops Odyssey broke this one last night, without breaking it, when they rode colleague Dave Scott's coattails right into a late night Memphis staff soda pop and snacks session...the only point of my telling that one is that I met Coach Cal, who oddly did not remember me from my days attending his Refuse To Lose team summer camps at UMass in the early nineties. And I remembered him so clearly...) Roy Williams facing Kansas is another one you hear a lot about. And there don't seem to be too many Jayhawks interested taking the high road this week.
With four number one seeds set to do battle on Saturday, the raw excitement along the river is palpable. Not many appear ready to agree on a likely outcome, but no one doubts the show they're in for. An informal survey of the afternoon crowd at Crazy Sam's reveals some old-school sentiment wishing the ten seeded Davidson could have snuck into town past Kansas last Sunday. But the majority are unabashedly excited to see the best of the best from all season long settle this one once and for all. As a suitably wild-eyed bartender put it: "I guess you can't argue who's the best team after this one, can you?"
No sir. I don't believe you can.
One way to do the river walk. You see more of it after dark.
So you're probably wondering what awesome insights I've gotten into this weekend's action, given all the super hot inside access and whatnot. When you're hobnobbing with the coaching set, lunching with the cream of the media crop (see second photo: that's a true professional right there, kids), living in all the right hotel hotel lobbies, and just generally fingering the very pulse of The Final Four, you're definitely riding on the inside track, right? Actually. Not really.
What's great about San Antonio this week is that more than anything, it's a celebration. It feels like a five year reunion. When we finally let all the sweat, energy, joy and frustration that's been poured into another hard-fought season float off into the air above river and simply enjoy the company of colleagues and friends all gathered in one place, for one great event. The four teams set to get it on have been all but non-existent here. Sequestered in their camps, mentally preparing, physically resting, Kansas, UNC, Memphis, and UCLA are perhaps the only teams I haven't really encountered (with the exception of Coach Cal who is, to say the least, fired up and ready to go, fully embracing the 'we've got our backs against the walls' underdog story line). Meanwhile, cameramen from ESPN and CBS share some bar space as rival coaches smile, shake hands, and chat. For one rare week, in the shadow of the Alamo and the shade of some river-side trees, it's all about basketball in San Antonio.
Discovering the Alamo
So here we are in San Antonio for the Final Four, but we're a few days early so, considering that neither Cyrus nor I have ever visited the Alamo City before, we decide to take a tour of our Final Four host city.
Cyrus puts on a pouty face right before I throw him in the river.
After only two blocks of walking it's pretty obvious that this city is going to make a great host for the last three games of the Tournament. San Antonio might be the seventh largest city in the United States, but as you walk around downtown, it feels very manageable.
I was in Atlanta last year for the Final Four and that was a lot of fun, but you had to take a shuttle everywhere and the Georgia Dome felt distant from the hotel area and, in the end, what's there to do in downtown Atlanta if you're not going to a sporting event? Shop?
In the words of my friend Jared, who used to live in Hotlanta, "San Antonio just seems so much more chill." Okay, parking in downtown San Antonio is not really that chill, but once you ditch the car, everything is pretty much walkable. Out the doors of the La Quinta in which we currently reside, Cyrus and I take a right and, in two blocks, we're at the River Walk. Before we get much further into this walking tour, it should be noted that neither Cyrus nor I play tourist very well and both of us are reluctant to take a guided tour of San Antonio's attractions. But, like I said, the River Walk was only two blocks away and, once we'd arrived, it was actually kind of relaxing.
You hear that, Texas? Leave your six-shooters at home.
The River Walk was first conceived back in the 1920's by Robert Hugman as a way of controlling the San Antonio River and creating commercial development and this guy was obviously a genius. Every city should have one of these. A network of narrow walkways that line the curving branches of the San Antonio River, the River Walk creates a unique Texas/Venetian feel. It's set below street level so you feel off the beaten path, but it's not boring and touristy. Cafes and bars set up tables under the shade of decade-old oak trees so you can comfortably sip a coffee or libation, for that matter, as ferries shuttle tourists down the river on historical tours.
Initially, I try and force Cyrus to stand in line so we can take one of these river ferry tours. Cyrus looks like he might cry, but he obliges me. Standing in front of us in line for the tickets is a mom and her pudgy, little, freckle-faced kid. He's managed to shove himself into a huge cowboy hat, chaps, and vest adorned with a sheriff's star. He points his toy rifle up at Cyrus and pulls the trigger - BAM, BAM. Cyrus and I look at each other, step out of line and decide to just explore on our own.
Considering the Going Mad experience in Texas so far - freak snow storm in Dallas, over-zealous bouncer in Austin, just being in Houston - the beauty of San Antonio comes as a complete surprise. The weather, even though it's certainly not sunny, is warm enough for t-shirts and the periodic sprinkles just seem to make more flowers bloom.
The large woman in pink is just out of the picture.
Granted, the hoops-crazed hordes haven't yet descended on the city to trample the pretty tulips and block up the quaint walkways. It's still Wednesday and most fans won't arrive until Thursday or Friday, so we've got some breathing room, which is good since Cyrus, much like Axl Rose, doesn't like being stuck in a crowd.
This is apparent when we head over to the Alamo for a quick history lesson. Suddenly, we're surrounded by a herd of camera-carrying tourists. As I position my partner in front of the main gates of the mission turned fortress for a picture, a large, pale woman in a tight, pink shirt takes a liking to Cyrus. She decides to make friendly chatter and persists despite Cyrus' terse answers and sighs of discontent. For a second, I think my man is going to hurt this poor woman. He's got that "I can't take it anymore" crazed look in his eyes. But then the large woman in the tight, pink shirt gets a call on her cell phone and walks away. I snap my photo. Cyrus throws up his hands. "Enough!" He cries. "I need to get back to that river."
That's Oliver Purnell eating tomatoes.
Back to the river we go where I discover another great quality of San Antonio - there's nowhere to hide. This might be bad for ex-girlfriends and Richard Kimball, but it's great for fledgling journalists such as ourselves. The upper echelons of college hoops can't escape us. All the hotel lobbies are near each other and if you're not in the hotel lobbies, well then you're down on the River Walk. Just today, we run into Clemson Coach Oliver Purnell three times. Three times! I mean, by the third time, things get severely awkward. He looks at us with one of those death stares like, "Keep following me and I'm going to vaporize you." Cyrus immediately hides behind the nearest support column and I just sort of stare at my toes.
Finally, after what seems like ten hours, Cyrus and I make it back to the La Quinta. It's been a long, informative day. We've learned that the River Walk is a beautiful way to kill a few hours, that the Alamo is best seen in pictures, ditto for Oliver Purnell, and that San Antonio is going to kick ass this weekend, same as it did back in 1836 when Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett were fighting off the Mexican army.
Getting the Lowdown from a Legend
Today, the Hoops Odyssey drove about an hour north and east of Houston, on a spate of rural highways heading out towards Louisiana, on one of those assignments we love. We were bound for Liberty, Texas.
Liberty? Just over the train tracks. Can't miss it.
We pulled up to Ervin Hayes' car dealership, a Chevy Autoworld, ready to talk hoops with one of the best college players of all time and an NBA Hall of Famer. As one of that earlier generation of stars, guys who watched the NBA boom of the early eighties either from the twilight of their careers or from retirement, Hayes helped pave the way for today's higher-paid, greater-glamour crew. When Elvin Hayes first picked up a basketball, there weren't any endorsements to be had, there wasn't any Basketball Hall of Fame. In fact, the NBA was only just being born itself.
Elvin Hayes was born in 1945 in Rayville, LA, a rural town in the northeast corner of that state. He discovered basketball late in his adolescence but he proved a quick learner and he took the game as a ticket out of town, landing as one of the first two African-American players to play ball at the University of Houston. (The other was his teammate and fellow Louisianan, Don Chaney.) By the end of his college career, Hayes had executed a career scoring average of 31 ppg and a rebound tally of 17.2 per game. He played the pivotal role, shutting down Lew Alcindor, in what was later dubbed "The Game of the Century," a game held late one night in the Astrodome when the Houston Cougars ended UCLA's 47 game winning streak with a narrow 71 - 69 victory. A record fifty two thousand plus fans showed up that night to watch the first ever nationally televised regular season college hoops game. When the Houston team came out of the tunnel to see the hordes of fans awaiting, the lights on center court, and the Bruins warming up, Hayes remembers thinking one thing: "Wow." He didn't shy away from the moment either. He dropped in 39 and pulled down 15.
Just outside of Liberty: a great spot for lunch.
Though Hayes enjoyed a remarkable NBA career, teaming with Wes Unseld on those Bullets teams of the late seventies that reached the NBA Finals three times in five years, we were most interested in talking about his college days, his thoughts on college hoops today, and what he's been up to since he left the game. As it turned out, it was well worth our trip to LIberty.
Hayes is not only a Hall of Fame basketball talent, but it's quite clear that he's both a passionate follower of the game and a devout student of it. We asked how he felt about the new rule requiring kids to spend a year in college before entering the draft.
"Now of course, in my day," he began, "you weren't allowed to enter the draft until after your class year had graduated college. That was a great service to me. To develop not only as a player but as a young man," he went on, "was invaluable. So many of these kids today, we forget that that's what they are: they're kids. But the NBA wants to say that they're old enough, because they're talented enough basketball players, you see, to make adult decisions. And they can miss out on so much."
What followed was perhaps the most concise, passionate, and reasoned argument for extending the age of entry into the NBA draft that I've heard. As a proponent of more college for young athletes myself, I was rapt. While acknowledging the economic imperative and paying understated notice to the particular challenges and cultural pressures facing young African-Ameican men who find themselves in a position to enter the draft, Mr. Hayes carefully detailed the ways in which a young man still risks much in terms of his personal development for that glory of the early entry. On top of that, Hayes noted, are the rarely talked about examples of young men who made the jump early but didn't even pan out in terms of their basketball abilities. Here were young men, particularly tragic, he said, who had forgone a collegiate experience, made such weighty decisions at such young ages, only to see their earning potential expire and their dreams deflate sometimes before their twenty fifth birthdays.
A beautiful day outside Houston meets frustration as I repeatedly mangle our intro.
Hayes comes by this honestly. A couple of things about our meeting suggested his concern with youth. Not only did he speak particularly passionately about this issue of young men balancing college and basketball, but his office itself spoke the story of a man with many concerns. Along two of his four walls hung photos of Hayes and his teammates in their playing days. Two team photos of his Houston teams show Hayes and Chaney, two young men among twelve, sharing in the pride of their Houston Cougars jerseys. Another sees Hayes in a Bullets jersey, his arms raised, just after a dramatic steal and dunk, he tells us. That was the moment the entire arena spontaneously burst out in a rousing chant of "E! E! E!", one he still gets chills to think of. On another wall, evidence of his place in the Hall of Fame.
But it's not all basketball here. The rest of his decor is reserved for perhaps an unexpected hobby of sorts. It seems that just recently, the sixty some odd year old Hayes was made a Liberty County Sheriff's Deputy. We asked him if being an enforcer on the court helps him any in enforcing the law.
"Well," he laughed. "I don't think of it that much as..as...enforcing. I'm more interested in prevention, you. For me, growing up in Louisiana at a time when, you understand, this kind of thing wouldn't have been an option for me, to become a deputy was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. Now, I look out and it seems like building prisons is the biggest business in America. I just want to get to kids and talk to them about making smart choices. If you want to join a gang, I tell them, there's no better gang to join than the men in blue. So many kids," he says, "they make big decisions so young."
Sexy time: Going Mad gets spoiled in its last week with the Dodge Magnum.
Before we could let Mr. Hayes get back to the business of selling cars and helping kids in Liberty, we had to ask him about March. We are, after all, college hoops specialists. And to our surprise, he'd saved his biggest smile for that very topic.
"I've played a lot of basketball," he said. "High School, College, the NBA. But I'm telling you there's nothing like the Final Four. I love this time of year the most."
He paused, appearing to think about it some more, maybe wondering if he'd assessed it rightly. "Yeah," he concluded. "There's just nothing like it."
Apparently, the madness is alive and well, no matter how far off the beaten path you go. Even here in Liberty, Texas, if you look, you can find a representative of the best that college basketball has to offer. And you can witness this abiding passion for the month of March. Of course, we couldn't agree more. Four hours further down the road and we're checking into our San Antonio digs, a scant walk from the Alamo Dome, awash in signs and banners reading Welcome to the Final Four.
As has been repeated incessantly by the media recently, this is the first time in Tournament history that all four #1 seeds have made the Final Four. That seems to excite a certain group of college basketball fans who want to see the best teams face off while disappointing another lot of fans who find it predictable and boring when there are no Cinderellas this late in the Tournament. How do I feel? I don't know, I'm kind of confused.
UCLA's got the talent.
There's a part of me that's happy that the four best teams in the country made it to the Final Four. From the time that Going Mad hit the road in mid-January, it was very apparent to Cyrus and me that Kansas, UNC, Memphis and UCLA were the best college basketball had to offer. In fact, by blending the names of these programs together, we even came up with a word that encompasses this top tier of college basketball - Kanucmemlina. (Pronounced: Ka-nuc-mem-lina.)
And our experiences witnessing Kanucmemlina play during the season just backed up this assertion. We saw Kansas beat Texas Tech so badly that I thought Pat Knight was going to cry. We were witness to UCLA's dominant run through the Pac-10 Tournament, punctuated by the Bruin's third win of the season over a solid Stanford team.
Even the losing efforts of the Kanucmemlina juggernaut highlighted the championship capabilities of both UNC and Memphis. We saw UNC lose to Duke, which shot the lights out, while playing its first game without Ty Lawson and even then, the Tar Heels managed to ride Tyler Hansbrough long enough to keep the game close. When we visited Beale St., Memphis lost its only game of the season in a nail biter to Tennessee, but there wasn't a reporter in the arena that would deny the Tigers' talent and depth. In fact, most thought that the loss would only make Memphis stronger come post-season.
Not today, but Louisville got Psycho T'd on Saturday.
So, in the sense that I'm a basketball fan that appreciates talent and athleticism on the hardwood, I'm happy that Kanucmemlina is heading to San Antonio. But there's another side of me that's pissed that, in the end, the Tournament has ended up pretty much exactly as I thought it would. Where are the small teams? The ones without the McDonald's All-Americans and multiple NBA prospects and egos the size of small Asian countries?
I can't deny it, even though I appreciate skilled basketball, deep down inside, I really really wanted a team like Davidson to make it to the Final Four. No, the Wildcats don't have the breadth of talent of Kanucmemlina, although they're far from being short on skills - Stephen Curry is God's gift to basketball and Jason Richards led the nation in assists this season. But Davidson makes up for its lack of size and skill (in certain positions) by playing what my dad calls, "smart ball". Coach McKillop squeezes the most out of his players by having them all, even Curry, play within a system that's perfectly suited to reward hustle and desire.
Davidson's victories over Georgetown and Wisconsin, much like George Mason's victories over UNC and Connecticut, prove that basketball is a game in which practice, poise and execution can overcome athleticism and talent. And I love that side of basketball, the side where the best overall team doesn't always win. It gives hope to the smaller programs and, frankly, the smaller guys, who can't grab a quarter off the top of the backboard or bench 350 while getting scripture tattooed on their bulging biceps.
There was more to Davidson than just Curry.
This is not something that happens often or overnight. It takes time for a team like Davidson to emerge as a unit capable of knocking off teams twice their size. Cyrus and I saw Davidson once during the regular season and then we were at all three of the team's Tournament victories and each time we saw the Wildcats play, they got better. Yes, they went undefeated in the SoCon, but when we saw them beat Furman in early February, we never would've predicted a Wildcat route of Wisconsin.
How'd they do it? A lot of casual fans credit Curry for Davidson's impressive run through the Tournament, (these are the same fans that needed Stewart Mandel to state the obvious and tell them that Curry was returning for his junior season) but if the team was just Curry, the Wildcats never would've made it out of the first round. The Wildcats achieved so much because they weren't just a one-man team. Andrew Lovedale, Max Paulhus Gosselin and Thomas Sander not only hung with the Hibberts and Stiemsmas, but shut their more acclaimed counterparts down. They set the screens that got Curry open and rebounded like they were playing for a scholarship at a Five Star basketball camp. Jason Richards outplayed both Jeremy Pargo and Jonathan Wallace, not just in point production, but in game control. And then, of course, there was the White Lobster, Bryant Barr, who stepped up and nailed clutch three after clutch three in a losing effort to Kansas.
Every one of these "small time" players believed that they could beat the best of the WCC, Big East, Big Ten and Big 12, maybe not individually, but certainly as a team. (And hey, they beat three out of four.)
How great would it have been to see this come Saturday?
After each Davidson win, I'd always make a point of searching out Dell Curry, Stephen's father, and talking to him about the game. This is a man that's seen a lot of basketball and rarely shows emotion. During the regular season, I never even saw him smile, and this was while his son was averaging 26 ppg . But after successive Wildcat wins over Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin, Dell was pretty much dancing in the aisles. What made these games so special? Dell always talked about the team - the team creating opportunities, the team overcoming seemingly impossible odds, the team. He never mentioned his son. He believed in the team.
On Sunday, when Richards' last second three drifted left and Kansas barely knocked Davidson out of the Tournament to complete the Kanucmemlina conglomerate, I couldn't help but feel a touch of disappointment. Okay, so maybe the better players had won, the Final Four was now truly the four most skilled teams in the country, but for those that aren't Kanucmemlina fans, what's left to believe in?
Memphis, Texas, and Bob Ryan's Cell Phone
For me, the highest drama of today's Memphis v. Texas matchup came at halftime.
Halftime's second highlight: the costume change to chaps.
I was scarfing down some kind of sausage / hot dog meat-link (undefinable by taste or sight) and eyeing The Boston Globe's Bob Ryan as he worked over some sweets from the dessert spread. For an older fella, Ryan moves with unexpected quickness and impressive alacrity. He's dialing the cell phone, he's forking some potato salad, he's adjusting his tie, splitting a cookie, downing a cup of coffee. His silver-haired, elder-statesman-of-the-sporting-media appearance belies a game-time quickness that's admirable. With the spread duly dealt with, he turned his attention to an incoming call. Something about something or other. Then, splitting a sugar packet over a second of joe, he went to tuck his phone into the breast pocket of his jacket...and air-balled it! The phone clatters to the ground but Ryan doesn't see it! Ryan Doesn't See It! He spins. He gathers up some paper work, he pivots, and before I can finish choking down two cheek-fulls of tightly cased meat medley, he's gone. Ryan is gone! The phone is on the floor. And Ryan is gone.
I look around the room. Surely, I'm not the only one anxiously eyeing The Old Master's motorola? Lying there beneath the low hem of the table cloth? Surely, someone else has watched the old man give up the razor? Of course, what you don't know about media spreads at sporting events: they're obscene. There isn't a man under 250 in the room (and not a single woman). Plates are piled high, mandibles snap and gnash, shoulders and heads hunch over the wreckage of a no-questions-asked buffet. It slowly sinks in: I'm the only one who's seen it. There's only one man in this world who can return Bob Ryan his phone. There's only one man who can keep him from the wild inconvenience of a lost cellie. And I'm that man. I'm Saving Bob Ryan.
Of course, it's never that simple. Bob Ryan's cell phone is kind of like The Ring, or the Zack Morris time-out, or the much-pondered power of invisibility: once you're holding it, moral quandaries suddenly abound. It was only after a long tete-a-tete with Lieutenant General Osterhout and a number of attempts to send inappropriate texts to Ryan's Around The Horn mates (trust me, Mariotti begs to be the target of inappropriate texts) that I finally located The Man Himself and made the save. In the end, it was the picture of an obviously much-loved-and-deservedly-so golden that serves as Mr. Ryan's background picture that did it. You can try to solicit fake tanning advice from BIll Plaschke or send lewd texts to Jay Mariotti...but you should never separate a man on the road from the picture of his dog. We may be heathens. But we've got boundaries. And scruples. Ryan, by the way, revealed himself to be a very friendly and appreciative gentleman. The whole ordeal left me both titillated and warm inside. And Tom Hanks didn't even have to die.
Memphis rolls three deep on the drums. Best school band of the tournament.
I count that as the most exciting moment of the day for two reasons: 1. I saved resident Sweet Old Man and Sports Writing Legend from major headaches and perhaps death (considering what stress can do to you at that age) and 2. Memphis v. Texas didn't quite deliver on the drama factor.
There were two big basketball stories here in Houston this afternoon. First, we found out what happens to Texas when their two big-time guards suffer poor shooting performances. All season long, the Longhorms success has owed much to DJ Augustin and AJ Abrams. Both are small in stature and big in shooting skills. Augustin has the ability to penetrate at will and as good as nearly anyone (we'll get to the 'nearly anyone' part in our discussion of Derrick Rose). But tonight, Texas faced tough match-ups on the perimeter. Outsized by Chris Douglas-Roberts, Antonio Anderson, and Rose, Augustin and Abrams struggled for room to operate all night. Shots were often contested and tended to hit the iron hard, particularly in the first half. For the game, the two Texas studs shot a combined 10 for 33, not nearly enough to get it done. Augustin did his best to get to the rim. And he got close to it on a number of occasions. But with Dorsey, Dozier, and Co. underneath for Memphis, he rarely got anything worth while off.
On the Texas side of the ball, it was a classic case of out-gunned, out-run. Never mind out-sized. Rick Barnes, a coach who we already didn't like much already after he failed to play either of his two seniors on Senior Night back in early March, appeared to come into this game without a whole lot of game plan. From the start, it seemed like Texas had it's mind set on out-Memphising Memphis. Speeding up and down the court, trying to best the Tigers in transition, maybe just hoping for a little of that Tennessee magic. But it was obvious by about ten minutes in (with Memphis already doubling Texas' scoring) that that wasn't going to work. (And to see what a real coach can do in that kind of match-up you only had to watch Bob McKillup's Davidson squad take a far superiorly talented Kansas team to the wire.) No Bueno, Senor Barnes. No Bueno.
13 minutes before tip. About as good as it got for the Longhorns from the field.
The second story, as you might have guessed, was Memphis. Everyone I knew had them getting bounced early, most had them going to Pitt, and even as recently as Thursday morning all the pundits were declaring these Tigers the one vulnerable # 1 seed headed into Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight action. It appears the Memphis squad saw things differently.
Derrick Rose made another case for his status as the best guard in the country. He outplayed DJ Augustin, another candidate for that honor, on both ends of the court. Of particular note was his stifling D in the first frame. By the end of things, Rose registered 21 points and 9 assists on 7 of 10 shooting from the floor. He had at least two "Oh My God" moments, one a lightning quick steal, the other a truly unbelievable double-clutch dunk in traffic, and both of them highlighting his unparalleled quickness and leaping ability. (He and I are the same height. While I struggle to jump out of bed, I'm pretty sure he could leap over me.)
The other big story for Memphis was the inside play. Known perhaps more for his inconsistency and not-always-maximized-potential, Joey Dorsey has been on a tear of late. The senior forward had 11 and 12 this afternoon, 1 massive block, and all without registering a single personal foul (another Dorsey problem area). Dozier was an equal terror on the boards. And Shawn Taggart dropped 12 points in 18 minutes of play. As a threesome, these Tigers suddenly look ferocious on the inside. It will be all Kevin Love can do to keep any one of them in check. In fact, the Dorsey / Love match-up this Saturday may be one of the more interesting big-man contests of the season.
Even the Tiger gets a Final Four shirt. Going to San Antonio!
This one was so apparent that the Texas faithful, who were out in force, started heading for the exits with 3 minutes plus to play. That was right around when, down nearly 20, Rick Barnes put his Longhorns into foul mode. I'm not kidding. Texas fouled for the last three minutes of this game, trying with all their might to stretch it out, take advantage of a much-talked about Memphis weakness, and hope that Abrams or Augustin could catch fire. And here's the crazy part: Abrams did. While Barnes was madly subbing offense-defnese, Abrams hit four threes in the last three minutes of this game. And still, it never got closer.
For today, Memphis was hitting their free throws. Chris Douglas-Roberts went an amazing 14 for 17 from the line. As a team, the Tiger shot 30 for 36, 83 %. That was a lot of opportunity for the Achilles heel to flare up on them. But it never did. With thirty seconds left and Barnes finally giving in (he had his boys fouling into the last minute, down 16), Coach Calipari pointed across the court to his wife who was seated right behind us. Jake nearly fainted.
"Dude," he said. "Coach Cal just pointed at me. We just had a moment!"
Behind us, Mrs. Coach Cal quietly applauded her husband. On the court, the ball was hurled up in the air. The Tigers pulled Final Four t-shirts over their heads. Hugs all around. And the kids who no one believed would make it were headed to the Final Four. Just like they said they would be.
March Travel Madness
It would take a lot to ruin the fun of a Division II Championship game for me.
Warrior fans celebrate.
Last year's was the most inspirational game the Hoops Odyssey had the opportunity to witness. A more religious man would've labeled the contest's outcome divine intervention. Tiny Barton College, led by their bite-size star, Anthony "Ant" Atkinson, rallied in the last minute of play to knock off reigning champ Winona State. Straight out of a feel good movie, the game's ending couldn't have been scripted better.
Here's what I wrote in last year's blog: "With the score tied, Ant stole the ball at halfcourt and turned around to see 3.6 second left on the clock above the basket. He had 3.6 seconds left to put the ball in the bucket to beat the #1 team in the country and win the championship. What would you have done? Stopped and popped? Willing to roll the dice that you could make it to the rack in time? Ant had faith. He flew. With 1.8 seconds left he hit the arc. At .2, the ball rolled off his fingers. By the grace of God, Barton won."
Special moments like Barton's miracle ending played a large role in my returning to work the roadtrip again this year. It was everything I loved about basketball - small egos, big hearts, will rising above athleticism, David downing Goliath, basketball as a game not a for-profit enterprise.
Quincy Henderson hoists the championship trophy in the air.
So the D-II Championship game means a lot to me and, up until today, I was really looking forward to watching two teams battle to be this year's champ, but today's been a bad day, a really bad day. Last night's Kansas-Villanova game ended around midnight and by the time Cyrus and I escaped downtown Detroit, returned to our fleabag motel and posted the blog the clock read three. For reasons knowable only to those educated in the mindless ways of corporate travel arrangements, our flight this morning was scheduled to take off at six so we just packed our bags and headed straight for the airport where we flew to Chicago and then Hartford before renting a car and driving to Springfield. (Pretty awesome when after taking a six A.M. flight we arrive at our destination five hours before tip-time and we're so early the motel won't even let us check in. But hey, I'm young and I used to be healthy...)
Let me tell you, it's real hard to get pumped for a game, even a game with as much personal history as this, when you're shivering, curled up in the back seat of a rented Mustang on Main St. in Springfield, Massachusetts, just trying to catch a few z's so your head doesn't explode.
Halitosis. Major heartburn. Rotgut. And I stink to high hell. Not fun, just ask the old guy sitting next to me. But once I'm actually in the MassMutual Center and see Winona State and Augusta State warming up, all my hygiene issues and travel grievances seem to disappear. As much as I hate 6 A.M. flights, I love D-II Championship ball.
Augusta State fans had little to cheer about after the first half.
Similar to last year and, I would assume, the year before, the Winona State fans dominate the stands. Their team has been in the championship game each of the last three years and they're organized and loud and purple. On the other end of the spectrum, this is Augusta State's first trip to the D-II Finals and the team's brought along a smaller, more serene fan base.
One of the things that makes this setting distinct is that one half of the arena's filled with both teams' fans while the other half is filled with local basketball fans who are just out on a Saturday to catch a good game of hoops. So we've got basketball fans and Winona State fans and Augusta State fans and, in the end, two thirds of those fans are going to walk away happy. (Let's hope the unhappy third aren't the basketball fans.)
D-II basketball never fails to disappoint, not only in skill, but in competitiveness. While the top teams in D-II aren't quite at the talent level of mid-range D-I teams, they are far above anything D-III has to offer. (Cyrus felt that in his prime he could've played D-III ball. He has no illusions about being able to play D-II ball.) Players on Winona State and Augusta State are physically imposing and athletically dazzling.
That's one excited mascot.
The game is a tale of two halves. In the first half, Augusta State dominates. Tyrekus Bowman plays out of his mind, shooting 9-11 from the field and amassing 20 points. He can't miss. These are not easy shots. Half the time he's shooting one-handed falling away, but it doesn't matter. Bowman is on fire.
He can't keep it up in the second half, though. Winona State roars back, using great defense and a couple of timely threes from Jonte Flowers, brother of Wisconsin's Michael Flowers, who dropped thirty by game's end. As is pretty much always the case, it's the second half that matters most. Augusta State just can't hang with Winona State and the Warriors win 87-76, claiming their second Division II Championship in three years.
It doesn't matter how tired you are, championship celebrations are always fun. As the final buzzer sounds, the Winona State fans go nuts. I see painted faces screaming, neck veins bulging and misty eyes. Flowers grabs the championship trophy and holds it up in front of the Warrior fan section as "We Are the Champions" blares out of the arena's sound system.
When the celebration finally comes to an end, my mood deteriorates rapidly. It's only five P.M. but I've got to get back to our motel and hit the sack. For reasons still unbeknownst to me or my partner, we have another 6 A.M. flight tomorrow morning and even the residual effects of Winona State's championship celebration can't get me excited for an Elite Eight showdown between Texas and Memphis when I haven't slept in two days and I've got an early morning date with a middle seat in the back of a plane, near the bathroom.