Sweetest NCAA Memories #2: The Open Road Leads to the Final FourPosted by rtmsf on March 17th, 2009
RTC asked its legion of correspondents, charlatans, sycophants, toadies and other hangers-on to send us their very favorite March Madness memory, something that had a visceral effect on who they are as a person and college basketball fan today. Not surprisingly, many of the submissions were excellent and if you’re not fired up reading them, then you need to head back over to PerezHilton for the rest of this month. We’ve chosen the sixteen best, and we’ll be counting them down over the next two weeks as we approach the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
Roadtrippin’ to the Alamo City (submitted by John Stevens)
It was also tournament time. Our favorite time of year. Feeling the wanderlust that an emerging springtime brings, my grad-school roommate and I decided that instead of watching our favorite event on TV as we’d done for most of the previous two weeks, we’d empty our bank accounts and take a road trip to one of the regionals — say, given the snow outside our window in mid-March, the one in St. Petersburg, Florida. Not exactly a tough sell. Turned out to be one of the best road trips I ever took.
Until the next week.
We got home from St. Pete and were going through several days of unopened mail when I noticed an envelope bearing the emblem of my college. Specifically, the Office of Billing and Financial Aid. 99 times out of 100, that means a bill. Not exactly something I wanted, having just blown a wad of cash to travel to an NCAA regional. It was about as welcome as a positive syphilis test.
But wait, what was this? Weeeeell, evidently some of the grant money awarded me many months ago never found its way to my account, so now that the mistake had been found, a check had been cut for me in the amount of $1500. My buddy and I had just spent the last half hour reminiscing on what a great road trip we’d just had, but still sad because we didn’t know when our next one would be. When I opened that envelope and saw that check, I looked at my friend and told him, “Don’t bother unpacking. We’re going to the Final Four.”
He said he couldn’t part with the cash needed for such a trip, but I reminded him that I owed him a few hundred bucks from a previous debt and that we’d sort out the rest later. To his credit, it didn’t take much persuading. The Final Four that year was in San Antonio, a city I’d heard too many great things about, so there was no way I was going to defy fate and pass up this opportunity. I’d never been to Texas, never even been anywhere near that part of the country. And it’s one of my favorite things to do any time of the year, but as the weather gets warm, is there anything better than packing up a bag and a cooler and hitting the open road with a friend?
Three days later, we were doing exactly that. We bought tickets from a newspaper ad, left in the middle of the night, and drove for hours and hours. Nothing on the radio but people talking Final Four basketball. Constant analysis, endless interviews with coaches, former players, etc. The farther south we drove, the warmer it got. We started out wearing sweaters and jeans, and in a few hours we were in t-shirts, shorts and sunglasses. It was one of the ugliest drives I’d ever been a part of. It involved two dudes who reeked from being in a car too long. But in its own way, it was paradise.
We found living quarters (we thought we were going to be shacking as far away as Austin, but avoided that thanks to the generosity of my buddy’s family) and went to find the epicenter of activity for the weekend. We found the San Antonio Riverwalk by following the noise of the crowd, the sounds of mariachis doing renditions of college fight songs, and, um, Dick Vitale’s voice. Every once in a while as you walked this gorgeous underground pedestrian street along the banks of the San Antonio River, you’d see groups of tourists floating by on large rafts, looking back at the walkers who were looking at them. Sometimes the raft drifting by you would contain a school’s cheerleading or dance team squad, or part of its band, or the CBS studio crew (if Bill Raftery’s big smiling mug floating by on a raft doesn’t bring a smile to your own face, you need to visit your local neurologist, because you are officially incapable of smiling), and so on. The biggest crowd response always happened when Dickie V would come floating by, waving and gesturing to the masses like a big kid. I mean, my God, he’s been doing this for how many years? And there’s not a doubt in my mind — he was still having as much fun as we were.
We made our way to the Fan Jam and just owned the two-on-two shootout for a while, calling ourselves The Shammgods — the insiders applauded the name, much respect — and scoring many notable (and even upset) victories, including a single-shot victory over a couple of prepsters from NYC and an absolute trouncing of two cocky 14-year olds from Tennessee. In our eighth — that’s right, you heard me, eighth — game I hit a cold streak and a couple of local college kids got the better of us; I still relive this cold streak in my mind every so often and the blood still boils. We considered it an upset on the level of ’85 Villanova, but at that point I think we were such big favorites in Vegas, it wasn’t worth it any more. We met former College of Charleston coach John Kresse who actually took a few moments from strolling with his wife to talk hoops and take pictures with us. Near the ESPN set, we bumped into Steve Lavin who acted like he didn’t see or hear about our exploits at the two-on-two shootout; both of those guys couldn’t have been nicer. It wasn’t just celebrity-sighting — when talking college basketball with them, they weren’t celebrities any more, just regular guys talking about the thing they love the most.
We all know the games from that particular Final Four were fantastic, no matter for whom you were rooting – Kentucky, Utah, UNC or Stanford. There’s simply no way to describe the atmosphere at a Final Four game. The best comparison I can think of is watching the end of a Pink Floyd concert when they’re doing the last number (Run Like Hell) and there are pyrotechnics and lasers like you never imagined and the stage is basically on fire. Imagine that over three days of basketball. The fireworks are constantly taking place on the basketball floor, and the energy and emotion of the crowd is every bit as urgent and electric.
I had fallen in love with college basketball long before this road trip. Even though I never possessed the skill to play it at that level, the sport has been a favorite distraction of mine ever since I’ve had functioning neurons in my brain. But watching those games at the Alamodome and being part of the overall atmosphere of the Final Four that year… well, it was one of those few watershed times in a person’s life, like when you hear a piece of music or meet a person you know from the first nanosecond will always be part of your existence. My friend and I drove the 20+ hours back to the humdrum rhythm of our everyday lives, and as I walked around my campus and worked at my job I saw people who probably once had similar watershed moments in their lives, but whose realities had become relegated to the process of just getting through the days, just surviving things — whatever those sticky, sinister things were. Those were the days when I looked back on my trip as I looked at these people, and I decided — I will never fall victim to those things. Whatever it entails, as often as I possibly can, I’ll always go to be a part of that event. I will always have this in my life.