Diary From Salt Lake: West RegionalPosted by rtmsf on March 30th, 2010
RTC was in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the West Regional over the weekend. Here are some of the sights, sounds and impressions of the town, the games and the goings-on while we were there.
The Trip There. You have to love air travel sometimes. Not so much the security lines, the crying children always scheduled one row behind me or the petulant TSA morons who keep stealing my Right Guard deodorant gel, but the whole concept of it. At 12:30 pm, I was sitting in my office next to the deep blue waters of the Pacific; by 5 pm, I was sitting in a green seat in Utah’s Delta Center EnergySolutions Arena watching the West Regional Semifinals tip off between Syracuse and Butler. When air travel works with such efficiency as that, it still amazes me. Too bad it’s so infrequent these days.
When I landed, I noticed two things immediately. Everything was white: the air, the mountains, even the people. Ok, especially the people. I think the only two nonwhite folks I encountered in SLC the entire weekend were my cab drivers to and from the airport. It’s fairly clear with such a glaring lack of diversity in the area why NBA stars in particular look at signing with the Jazz as equivalent to hoops purgatory. Well, except the white ones (Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, Kyle Korver, etc.). The other thing I noticed was that it was cold. As in still-winter type of cold. Snow was on the mountaintops that tower right over the downtown, and here I was with a lightweight hoodie as my only form of jacket. I should have probably checked the weather report before I left, but I made the self-centered presumption that every place is like where I am now, right? And if it’s not, it most definitely should be.
Thursday Night Games. Tickets were aplenty outside the arena for this set of games. The closest school (K-State) was over 1,000 miles away, and the tip was right after 5 pm local time. That said, once I entered the arena, the place looked nearly full. It seats about 20,000 and the announced attendance both days was in the 17-18,000 range . I couldn’t get an immediate sense as to which school brought the most fans because it appeared that there were smatterings of orange (Syracuse), purple (K-State), navy blue (Xavier) and black (Butler) around the arena, but more than anything else, I noticed red everywhere. Quickly checking the google to see if any of these four schools had red anywhere in their complementary color schemes and finding not, I decided that this warranted further investigation.
It turns out that many of the red hats, shirts, coats and so on were emblazoned with a strange word called “Utah,” which makes a lot of sense considering that the UofU campus is a mere two miles up the hill from downtown, but was completely lost on me because I couldn’t factor in that the Utes didn’t make the Tournament this year. I didn’t expect that they’d have so many fans who just wanted to watch some good basketball. I ran into that all weekend long here. The good people of Utah LOVE their basketball. From the youth league level all the way up to the Jazz, they’re extremely supportive of the sport and have a keen appreciation and knowledge of the game. This is in stark contrast to some of the other neutral-site venues where I’ve visited this year and it barely even registers with the locals that there’s something called March Madness going on down the street. In fact, I’d wager that the majority of attendees in the ES Arena over the weekend were simply folks from the surrounding area who wanted to watch the games. I can only imagine the homecourt advantage that BYU would have held there had they gotten past Kansas State in the second round.
As for the games themselves, you already know how intense and well-played they were. Syracuse vs. Butler was as big of a shocker that you’ll find in a Tournament like this one, and Kansas State vs. Xavier had more big shots, mindblowing suspense and drama than Tiger Woods addressing suitors in a Vegas nightclub. As you might expect in a situation where more than half the crowd was filled with Utahns, the underdog Bulldogs and Musketeers had the unaffiliated support. It even extended to other games outside the arena: when the jumbotron showed early leads for Cinderellas Washington and Cornell in the East Region, the crowd went wild in support of the possible upsets. My seat on Thursday night wasn’t the greatest, but at least it was within the lower bowl. The best part of the night came when Xavier’s Jordan Crawford pulled up on the ribbon for a 30-footer to tie the game in the first overtime, and my view was right on line with the ball. I’ll have to search the memory banks but it may have bee the greatest shot in a clutch situation I’ve ever witnessed live. Just phenomenal. And JC didn’t even have to shove his defender down to get the look either!
Unfortunately for the crowd, it was a single-upset kind of night, as K-State finally vanquished Xavier in the second overtime, setting up a KSU vs. Butler matchup on Saturday afternoon. Back to the hotel.
Friday: Off Day. The downtown Salt Lake area is pretty compact and easily walkable. My hotel was three blocks from the arena and pretty much the entire downtown core is roughly an 8-10 block squared area. I didn’t get out of the hotel until late due to overnight work on the site, but when I did I was able to circumnavigate the entire thing in about two hours. I noticed quickly that the city had a very strange vibe to it. You just can’t get around the Mormon thing. More than half of Salt Lake residents belong to the LDS church, and reminders of it are everywhere. Temple Street. The Geneology Library. Polygamy Porter Ale. Deseret News. Even a little bar called the Tavernacle. That said, the vibe is one where you constantly have the sense that the city elders are sitting somewhere on high watching to make sure that you don’t mess around with anything important. It’s difficult to explain because everyone there was exceptionally friendly, but at the same time, they seemed a little too friendly. It’s feels like a cross between Canada friendly and Stepford friendly — hard to see where the line is drawn there.
I took a walk over to Temple Square where I ran into multiple suited gentlemen who weren’t businessmen and a good number of women who all dressed exactly the same way. There was a wedding at the Salt Lake Temple at the time so I tried to stay out of the way for the most part, but suffice it to say that there were a ton of kids running around and everyone had a very clean, fresh look about them. Apparently you have to be a true believer to gain entry into the temple, so I quietly moved along on my tour to the next few items on the list. The next thing I did was cross the street to what is officially called the Salt Lake Family History Library, but what my friend likes to call the nefarious epicenter where the LDS church is taking over the world. With several bookish-looking middle-aged women at the front of the building, I had trouble envisioning the sinister plot he referred to when I walked into the library, but here’s a quick lesson for all of you future visitors to this place. Don’t hesitate. Walk right to the nearest open computer and act like you know what you’re looking for. Because if you pause to get the lay of the land, you’re already sunk. I must have briefly stutter-stepped in my approach to the computer room, and that was all they needed — within three seconds I had two sister wives (this is not a joke) descend upon me with goodness in their hearts and creepiness in their smiles. After a half-hour of fending myself from the slow burn of their nice-but-stern indoctrination, I walked out with a yellow folder containing lots of great information on my great-grandparents, a brand-spanking-new LDS-seal copy card, and a conveniently-placed set of informational brochures on why geneology is important to me (and Mormons). Part of me wishes I had asked to see the caves full of the good stuff they have hidden away in the mountains, but I figured that not even Stockton & Malone have gotten to see that and I have to hang out here another day or so.
After that spiritually fulfilling experience, I had a couple more hours to kill so I Yelped a late lunch recommendation and came across a deli on the west side of town called Tony Caputo’s (the Olive Garden in the hotel wasn’t a reasonable option, no matter what those CBS ads say). All of the Yelpers were raving about the meatball sub at this place, so I looked around and finally pulled the trigger. As you can see below, this Utah delicacy of meat, peppers, parmesan cheese and bread probably took a year off of my life, but I don’t ever want to hear that SLC is boring ever again!
Afterward, I waddled back to the hotel to do a radio spot over the phone and fell into a deep sleep that was surely brought on by my spiritual awakening and the two pounds of meatballs I had just ingested. Woke up around 5 pm and it was time for the South and Midwest Regional games for the rest of the evening. I had called around and discovered that a local sports bar would be showing the games and was willing to offer me a special “lounge” setup if I wanted to bring my laptop in and live-blog from there. So that’s what I did. The bar was called Mo’s and although the general decor and furnishings were a little weathered, the corner lounge situation was absolutely a home run. I had my own plush couch, a table on which to put the laptop, a big screen tv to myself and my own server who regularly checked in on any food or drink needs. Oh, and Salt Lake prices are cheap too. The whole five-hour evening session ran about $17 before tip, and everything I ate and drank was well worth the cost.
After Duke had outlasted Purdue and Tennessee the same versus Ohio State, it was time to pack up and leave, but I wasn’t ready to head back to the hotel just yet. I walked around for a bit and found a hipster-ish coffee shop a few blocks away, where I did some work before heading back toward home. On the way back to the hotel, I passed through Pioneer Park, which seemed like any other city park to me, but is apparently where 70% of all arrests in a given year in SLC take place. Glad I knew that before I passed through there at midnight. Or not. I didn’t come across any funny business there on that night, so I kept on moving. One of our tweeple had recommended a good place to grab a beer was at the Salt Lake Brewing Company, so I headed there for a nightcap. Let’s get one myth about Salt Lake cleared up right away, though, because I heard this from at least four of my friends while on this trip. You do not have to buy a ‘membership’ pass to enter a bar and order a drink here. This was true at some point in the past, but no longer. You can walk right in, plop down on a chair and order a beer or whatever without paying an additional fee just like anywhere else in America. This surprised me a little because I had heard differently from so many people, but apparently the new law went into effect last summer as a measure to help increase tourism, and it appears to be working. The place was full of out-of-towners there for the games. I ordered a Polygamy Pale Ale and enjoyed the friendly rapport of the people in this place.
I walked the last block back to the hotel and got all the way up to the door of my room when I realized that I had left my backpack on the back of my barstool at the Brewing Company. My mind raced with the panic at the possibility of having just lost my laptop, sunglasses, wallet — basically my entire life — because of carelessness. The bar was about 200 yards away from the front of the hotel. I haven’t sprinted that hard since John Stevens and I were in our kleptomaniacal phase two decades ago (mostly him, of course). Keep in mind that SLC is also at 4,000 feet altitude and I was still feeling the after-effects of the following: the meatball sandwich from heaven; 15 or so incredibly hot wings; a slab of bread; 4-5 beers from light to dark in progression; a stiff coffee and a slice of cheescake. Needless to say the old gulliver wasn’t exactly ready for a rush of adrenaline followed by a Usain Bolt sprint back to the bar. By the time I got there, I immediately noticed that the backpack was still in its place on the back of the stool (ahhh… Mormons), and I proceeded to collect it before collapsing into the middle of the street ready to die. My heart was pounding to the point where it felt like my veins were going to pulsate right on out of my skin, and it took another half-hour for my breath to match the oxygen intake I needed. But, hey, at least I had my stuff. In a completely unrelated note, before I went to bed that night I made a mental note to stop eating meatball subs and start going to the gym a little more often.
Saturday: Regional Finals. I woke up feeling a little sore from my unanticipated workout the night before, got dressed and checked out of the hotel (leaving my bag with the bell desk). I had a couple of hours to kill between lunch and the game so I walked around downtown looking for some fans to interview and/or take photos with. This attempt at socialization was a complete failure because there was nobody on the streets of downtown on early Saturday afternoon other than the same homeless guy I’d seen the day before. Wherever all the K-State and Butler fans were hanging out, it wasn’t there. Bored, I made my way over to the arena and found a good number of fans already there an hour before tipoff. I took my spot in a much-better seat about fifteen rows off the floor at the backboard extended and quickly realized that I was smack dab in the middle of the Kansas State section. In listening to the fans talk before the game, I was struck by the complete lack of confidence in their team. This was a nervous group. There was none of the swagger or quasi-cockiness that I’ve come to expect from the fans of some programs better left unmentioned. Instead, even though the Cats were the higher-seeded team with arguably the better talent on the floor, it’s almost as if their fans kept waiting on the other shoe to drop.
Guess what — it dropped. Butler methodically took control of the game in the standard way that they do, and aside from a single run that K-State made at them in the late second half to take a very brief one-point lead, the Bulldogs won the game and moved on to the Final Four. And… nobody from KSU seemed all that surprised. Certainly disappointed, but in no way were they walking around in complete shock like the Syracuse fans were two days prior. I wondered whether all the years of really bad basketball and beatdowns at the hands of rival Kansas has left this fanbase in a state of cognitive dissonance, where they logically know that they have a really good team but they still haven’t gotten used to the emotional side of believing it. As the Butler players celebrated at center court in one of the all-time great displays of pure unadulterated joy that I’ve ever witnessed, I couldn’t help but think back to the beginning of our season when one of our first RTC Lives of the year was at Butler (vs. Davidson) and how far this team and our website has come in those four short months. It’s been a great run.
Since this game was in the books, I had to run to get back to the hotel to try to squeeze in the Kentucky-WVU game prior to my flight at 8 pm. The airport was only about a ten-minute ride by taxi, so I was able to watch 38 minutes, long enough to know that the Mountaineers were going to join Butler in Indy. What was surprising was just how strongly everyone in the place — fans from all four of the schools in Salt Lake — were openly rooting for West Virginia. Xavier people might have a bit of a regional beef with the Wildcats, but the other three? From talking to a few people, the universal sentiment was that John Calipari is a cheater and he buys players, which is why Kentucky doesn’t deserve to win. When I offered up the alternative viewpoint that Bob Huggins has built a two-decade career of players punching horses, getting arrested, committing NCAA violations and generally being a thorn in the side of his school’s administration, it was met with raised eyebrows and a tacit agreement that he too is a bad guy. It’s one of the stranger ironies I’ve experienced in some time in covering this game, where in the battle of supposed cheaters, there is a preferred option.
Time to head out of town, and the taxi zipped me over to the airport just before boarding. My flight took off early and I was back home within a couple of hours. It was certainly an enlightening trip in many ways, and I’m always glad to spend time in a new area of the country, even if all I learn is that I’d never want to go back there again. Salt Lake is certainly a nice place, but it very much has the feel of a big college town, not a place where you’d expect a pro franchise like the Jazz to exist. It’s not the most fun place in the world, but then again, neither is San Jose or Indianapolis yet they do fine as NCAA Tournament host cities as well. And as I said above, people there are exceptionally nice, seem very happy that you’re visiting, and really appreciate good basketball. And at the end of the day on a trip like this, those are the three things that I’ll be most likely to remember. Well, that and the meatball sub that still has my stomach in a tizzy.