Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Final Four weekend is still a special time; My favorite memories of past weekends – Wooden, Valvano, Manning and more

Late tomorrow night I will arrive in Indianapolis for The Final Four. This will be sixth time The Final Four has been played in Indy and the third different venue it has been played in there. In 1980, which was my second Final Four but my first as the lead writer for The Washington Post—in 1978 I was the newspaper’s night police reporter and George Solomon sent me to St. Louis to write sidebars because I’d covered college hoops in my free time during the season—the games were played in Market Square Arena, which is now long gone.

By the time The Final Four returned in 1991, the games were being played in The Hoosier Dome. Now THAT building is gone and they will play in Lukas Oil Stadium, which I haven’t seen yet but looks absolutely huge on television.

Market Square seated maybe 16,000 people. It was a really nice basketball arena and your sense was that everyone who came to The Final Four was there because they loved basketball. That changed years ago, sort of like The Super Bowl. Now a lot of people are there just to be there and the NCAA is insistent on getting 70,000 people into the dome even though it means playing on a raised court in the middle of the football field.

Look closely at your TV set on Saturday night and you will see Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and their statistician sitting on raised chairs so that they have a normal view of the court. The two head coaches will be sitting on little stools up on the court—or standing—while everyone on their benches sits below court level looking straight at the feet of those who are playing.

The worst seats in the building belong to the CBS PR people who get to sit directly behind Nantz and Kellogg and can’t see a thing. Everyone else just comes out of there with a strained neck.

The NCAA went to this set-up last year in Detroit and it isn’t going away because it means about 20,000 more tickets it can sell even if most of the seats are in the next county. The REALLY rich fans will be fine. Everyone else will have a better view by watching the message boards—or whatever they call them these days. Of course the NCAA will try to spin this to tell the world they’re doing this for, ‘the student-athletes.’

Here’s an idea for you to pass the time if you’re at home watching on TV this weekend: If you watch the press conferences count how many times the moderator says, ‘student-athletes.’ Last week in Syracuse at one point the moderator said it three times in one sentence. That, I believe, is a new record. I’ve said to different guys, “why not just call them players—what’s WRONG with being a player?” They all shake their heads, look around and say, “I’d get in trouble for that.”

I believe them. Big brother NCAA is always watching.

As with all old people, I find it hard to believe that my first Final Four was 32 years ago. It was a thrill to go then and, you know what, it is still a thrill. I’m jaded and cynical and I hate how late the games start—in the good old days they actually played on Saturday AFTERNOON—and how long they take once they start.

But I still get a kick out of seeing the entire basketball community in the same place for a few days. That’s not to say there aren’t members of the community who shouldn’t be in jail or something close to it. I have a basic theory: If you see a guy standing in the lobby of the coach’s hotel on a cell phone, he’s probably up to no good. If a guy comes up and acts like he’s your best friend and gives you a 70s soul shake run for your life. And if a coach you haven’t heard from for years who is out of work wants to buy you a beer, buy HIM the beer and get out of Dodge because he’s going to ask you to help him get a job.

For the most part though, it’s fun. People stand around the lobby and tell old stories. Old enemies sometimes hang out together laughing and joking. I remember one year bumping into John Chaney and John Calipari who were absolutely cracking one another up. This was not that many years after Chaney burst into a Calipari press conference at U-Mass wanting to fight him on the spot. (I would have bet on Chaney in an instant in that one).

Star coaches don’t like coming to The Final Four without their teams these days. Bob Knight only comes now because ESPN pays him. Prior to that he only came on occasion. Same with Mike Krzyzewski, although he’ll be there this weekend since he gets to bring his team along.

In the old days, they all went. I still remember seeing Dean Smith on the rent-a-car line in Seattle in 1984. “You need a car for the week?” I asked.

Dean shrugged. “I didn’t think I did,” he said. “I thought I’d be coming with my team.”

That was the year Indiana upset North Carolina when the Tar Heels had Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, Brad Daugherty and Joe Wolf on the team.

Dean always went. John Wooden always went, even after he retired. I know I’ve told this story often but it bears repeating. At that same Seattle Final Four in 1984, Coach Wooden was there with his wife Nell, who was very sick and in a wheelchair. One night, after they’d spent time in the coach’s lobby, they said their goodnights and Coach Wooden began wheeling his wife across the lobby to the elevators. It was late and relatively quiet though the place was still crowded. Someone spotted them and just began to clap. Others picked up on it. By the time they reached the elevator bank everyone in the lobby was clapping for the Woodens.

That’s probably my favorite Final Four memory, right up there in a different way with N.C. State beating Houston; Villanova beating Georgetown; Kansas beating Oklahoma; Duke beating Vegas and George Mason just being there.

Actually the games are only part of The Final Four for me. Seeing lots of old friends, hanging out in the media hospitality room late at night with the other old guys like Hoops Weiss and Bob Ryan and Malcolm Moran is still great fun. A lot of the stories begin with, “remember back in …”

I guess I should consider myself lucky that I can still remember most of the stories. I DO remember Jim Valvano running in circles looking for someone to hug and the look on Danny Manning’s face when he pulled down the last rebound—among other things.

The Final Four isn’t the same by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s still The Final Four and I’m lucky I still get the chance to go.


JeffW said...

The size of these venues for basketball is a joke. I regret missing out on Seattle as a student in 1989, but in today's set-up you are a fool not to take your $2000 and just buy a really nice TV.

If the NCAA cared, they would require the schools to allow more than 600 tickets to students than Butler did.

How upset is the NCAA and sponsors that all those Butler fans won't be buying lodging packages.

John from Indiana said...

This is not a coment on this story as much as a question regarding this time of year. My wife is a school teacher; and for about as long as John has been covering Final Fours, her spring break week has always started on the weekend of the Final Four. Fortunately, for many of those years I found myself watching the games in warm weather locations such as FL, AZ, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, etc. Probably the toughest one was trying to wedge my way into the tiny bar of a cruise ship to get a glimpse of the Indiana-Maryland final several years ago.

In many of those years, when I was trudging through the airport, I would take a moment to stop and pick up the "New Book out by John Feinstein," whatever it might be that year. As that week is just about upon us, I have not heard any rumblings about such an offering this year. I was just curious as to whether or not my "Feinstein reading" would be limited to this blog, or is another book in the offing? Inquiring minds want to know...

Mr. X said...

Why is KU (with Danny Manning's father conveniently on the coaching staff) beating OU one of your favorite memories? Billy Tubbs was a bad guy to you? For what it's worth, Ed Hightower reffed the last two NCs for KU. Just sayin'

Anonymous said...

Had you told that John Wooden story before? It's great. Maybe you can tell it on Tony's show Thursday!

Dana King said...

Regardless of how the NCAA hangs a dollar sign on everything it touches and too many coaches graduate from the used car/aluminum siding school of ethics, what makes the Final Four (and much of the rest of the tournament) watchable are the kids. They really haven't changed much. I don't mind that so many of the best players with eligibility remaining have gone pro; the kids who remain want to be there, or know their college experience is the end of the line for them. That aspect hasn't changed much, and it's always worth watching.

Anonymous said...

As a Villanova grad, I went to the Final Four in Detroit last year. I bought a set of single tickets from a ticket broker. I was in basically "box seats" in the 2nd row of the upper level (in the corner). I couldn't believe how far away I was. I had to watch almost the entire game (well, both games) through binoculars. I have been to 2 other Final Fours (at the Hoosier Dome and Metrodome) and had nosebleed seats for both - they were much better seats than in Detroit. I've also sat in the very top row of the Carrier Dome behind the basket a few times - much better. It may look impressive on TV, and it is kind of cool, but for viewing it sucks. I was lucky that Michigan St won on Sat, so I was able to sell my Champ game ticket and get almost all my money back. If Villanova makes it back, I would try to go, because I'm that crazy and psychotic about my beloved 'Cats. But it really isn't worth it unless you are a passionate fan who can't handle not being there.

Mark said...

The first Final Four I remember was 1972, Los Angeles Sports Arena, with UCLA amazingly winning by only 5 points in the final over Florida State. I still think Bill Walton was the greatest college player and UCLA the greatest college team I have ever seen.

When was the last time a Final Four was played in a real basketball arena?

Anonymous said...


1996, Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, NJ

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The "Wooden's"?...where is George Solomon, now that we need him?

Gunnar said...

I would say the Pit, on the New Mexico campus in 1986 or 1987. I understand the demand for tickets, but it would be nice to have the final four in a basketball arena. I didn't like last weekends games in Syracuse or Houston for all the empty seats. The bench seating under the court is crazy, they should at least extend the width of the floor, to allow the participants to be on the same level as the playing surface.

FOTB Staff said...

Anonymous - thanks for the Wooden catch.

Chauncy said...

My dad and I are big college hoops fans, hadn't seen him in years, he lives near Indy, I scored 2 tickets to the 1996 finals at the RCA dome from the NCAA annual lottery. The big father-son experience was he and I sitting in the rafters of the old cavernous dome with radio headsets and binoculars. Thanks NCAA...