March 18, 2007

The Sausage King of Chicago

Hoops Odyssey flew into Chicago this morning. We took a cab straight to the United Center. It's early, almost two hours before the UNLV/Wisconsin tip off, and there's no one around. Just me, the ushers and a bunch of important-looking men in suits carrying walkie-talkies. I stand at center court of this famed professional basketball arena and take a good look around.

Matt and Bucky squeeze in a halftime stretch.

So this is where the magic happens? This is where Michael Jordan led the Bulls to their second three peat. This is where he proved, at least to me, that he was truly one of the greatest ballers of all time. This is..."REBELS, REBELS." UNLV fans start to stream down the aisles belting out their signature chant. So much for a nice quiet moment between me and the United Center.

Pretty soon this once empty arena is crawling with fans decked out in their schools' colors. Red, red, red. Red everywhere. There's no way to identify the badger boosters from a rebel rousers. Even the bands are indistinguishable - that is until one of them starts to play Viva Las Vegas. (I'll let you guess which one.)

Press row is a mad house too. More so than at the other two tournament venues Hoops Odyssey has attended. Jim Nantz, who is surprisingly tall, talks to an usher about his desire to call a close game, while Billy Packer messes with Matt's head before finally granting him an interview.


Even the bloggers are out in full force for this round of the tournament. Luke Winn's there and so is the man, the myth, the legend, Jerry Palm. This guy knows more about college basketball than God - who I hear is a Duke fan...Seriously, someone should get Palm a bucket, he's a fountain of information. Get it? A fountain. Okay, not funny.

I spend the first half of the UNLV/Wisconsin game just trying to stump Palm with random trivia questions. I came up with two that he couldn't answer.

1. This one was inspired by a Barry Alvarez sighting in the United Center press room. For a brief stint, Alvarez was both the head football coach and the AD at Wisconsin. Can you, Jerry Palm, name any other major program that has had either its football or its basketball coach also be the AD? (His response: Not that I can think of in recent times.)

2. The best storyline of the UNLV team is the father/son combo of Lon and Kevin Kruger. Excluding Press and Pete Maravich, can you, Jerry Palm, name another college coach whose son plays or played on his team? (His response: Bob and Pat Knight, which I'm not going to count since Pat Knight was a bench warmer and Bob Knight beat him up, thereby reclassifying their relationship from coach/player to master/bitch. Although, now that I think about it, I would've counted Homer and Bryce Drew for Valparaiso if Mr. Palm had mentioned them.)

Running Rebulls? UNLV fans posing with Kirk Hinrich and Co.

Anyways, the first game of the afternoon is a doozy. UNLV takes an early lead, but Wisconsin comes storming back. The Rebels' Kevin Kruger, though, will not let his team lose. He comes up with two threes in the last five minutes and leads his father's team to an upset of the Badgers, 74-68. I was completely impressed. Here's this short, white kid with bags under his eyes and floppy hair, who looks like he just crawled off a fraternity sofa, and he's outplaying Alando Tucker, Big Ten player of the year, at the end of the game.

After reading about the Pete Maravich's relationship with basketball and his father and experiencing my own tough hoop lessons with Dad, I wouldn't recommend anyone play for their old man, but it's obviously working out well for the Krugers.

(Sidenote: Maybe I'm being completely inappropriate here, but doesn't Wisconsin's Kammron Taylor look exactly like Chris Rock? I see it.)

The second game isn't nearly as interesting in terms of basketball as the first, the Jayhawks are too much for Kentucky and everyone knows it long before the 88-76 final score. So I take a little seating liberty and reposition myself right behind the Kansas bench. Coach Bill Self is a treat to listen to. For what seems like the entire first half he constantly yells at center Sasha Kahn. "Get your head in the game." "Wake up, you're playing like a mouse out there." It's refreshing to see a coach concentrate on his players and not the refs, although Self does manage to fit some politicking in as well.

Surprisingly, though, Self doesn't curse. He uses variations on "dang it" a lot, but he never utters a four letter word while I'm listening. I'm not sure there are many coaches you can say that about - certainly not Coach Knight.

Here's a blurry pic of His Royal Airness (left) taking in the UK-KU game.

At halftime, I stand up to stretch and look around, and wouldn't you know it, there he is - no, not the Sausage King of Chicago - his Airness, sitting up in a luxury box, staring down at the hardwood he once dominated. Michael Jordan's back at the United Center for NCAA Tournament basketball. What a cocktail!

So that was our second round day in Chi-town. A very informative day, might I point out. I learned a lot at the United Center. Some of it amusing: Wink Adams has the best first name in college basketball. Some of it random: Rick Hartzell is both the AD at Northern Iowa and a DI referee (Thanks to Jerry Palm for that one.) And some of it just weird: Jayhawk forward Julian Wright has such bad posture that when he sits on the bench next to guard Russell Robinson, they look like they're the same height. Dang it, if only I'd known this information before I filled out my brackets...

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Posted by Jacob Osterhout at 11:23 PM | Comment