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.