Today is the gloomiest day on the sports calendar.
Sure, the NBA and NHL home-stretches are heating up, baseball is underway, and we’re about to spend the weekend rapt by Tiger at Augusta – but there’s something missing.
College basketball is gone.
No more marathon Saturday’s on the couch, no more Big Monday’s, Super Tuesday’s or BracketBusters. The NBA game is more polished to be sure, but nothing compares to the passion and unpredictability of college ball. Not even close. That’s why the Final Four is so bittersweet – the thrill of the championship chase coming to fruition alongside the fact that it isn’t coming back until November. Hell, some of our favorite players are never coming back.
As a Syracuse alum and die-hard, this year’s “Black Tuesday” hits even harder given the Orange’s unexpected late-season run to Atlanta and legitimate title hopes. But at least I live with the consolation that I was there to see the Orange’s final game (albeit a loss) and experience the Madness first-hand.
Just as the final buzzer sounded in the Verizon Center on March 30th to cement the ‘Cuse’s Elite Eight victory, my Final Four odyssey began. A few hectic minutes later, tickets were purchased, travel plans were finalized, and the countdown to A-Town was on.
To be honest, it still hasn’t fully sunk in – not necessarily that my team had managed to string together so many impressive wins at just the right time (though that was a slight shock) – but the fact I was able to take part in a Holy Grail weekend for college basketball fans.
What struck me throughout the weekend wasn’t the amount of fans and school colors – that I expected. (Aside: I don’t think there was one person in Atlanta who wasn’t wearing school colors. Not just Final Four teams, either. I saw plenty of Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Kentucky gear, too. Again, the passion of college basketball fans as a whole is unmatched). What really surprised me is how damn nice everyone was. With a few drunken exceptions, there were no taunts, brawls, condescending stares, or sarcastic gibes. People were just flat out friendly. It’s as if everyone understood that we were all there for the same reason, with the same hopes and the same fears. I’m always happy to watch a Georgetown fan getting his ass kicked, but it was quite pleasant not having to worry about the unnecessary outside noise.
The area surrounding the Georgia Dome was a festival of college hoops. Centennial Park hosted concerts, and the Georgia World Congress Center (dubbed Bracket Town) was home to games, autograph sessions and photo ops galore. Everywhere you looked, there was Final Four signage, branding and merchandise for sale. There was no way you could ever forget what you were there for.
The Georgia Dome itself is immense, and that’s not necessarily a good thing when it comes to basketball. The NCAA rakes in a ridiculous amount of money from the 75,000 people who attend these games, but the fans are the real losers here. Only about six sections in the entire arena afforded great views, with the upper tiers and end-court sections automatically turned into nose-bleeds due the court’s midfield location. Our seats in section 240 were by no means terrible, but for the money we paid, I’d imagined we’d be a bit closer to the action.
The games themselves were nothing if not dramatic. A phantom jump-ball allowed Louisville to squeak past Wichita State, and the dreaded block/charge dilemma ruined Syracuse’s chances of making it to Monday. But nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for having witness and experienced the very best of college basketball.
As Jews are fond of saying each spring – Next Year in Arlington.