The 2012 NCAA Final Four will tip off this Saturday night in New Orleans’ Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and as you’d probably expect, SLAM will be in the building. But it wasn’t always like that. Years ago, this magazine couldn’t get credentialed for the event, and so our coverage of the best weekend in NCAA basketball was a tad, well, limited. Until 2005, that is, when we got into the building—the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, to be specific—for the first time, and then-contributing editor (and current EIC) Ben Osborne covered what went down in its entirety. Peep his feature from SLAM 89 (July ’05) below.—Ed.
by Ben Osborne | @bosborne17
SATURDAY, APRIL 2
12:10 pm—I’m sitting nervously in Newark airport surrounded by fellow excited basketball fans as rain pounds the tarmac. If I’m late to my first-ever Final Four, I will be hurt. When I was young, my dad and I entered the ticket lottery several times but never got ’em. Then, in the seven-plus years I’ve been at SLAM, we (the biggest basketball magazine on the planet) had never been approved for a credential. This year we have, Scoop’s column in SLAM 87 notwithstanding. Throw in the Stylin’ Illini and the fact that this Tournament has been exciting throughout, and it should be a special weekend. As long as I get there.
3:45 pm—On Central time now, tip-off 90 minutes away. The plane left late but landed almost on time. Given the pilot’s repeated references to “Illinois’ big game,” I wouldn’t be shocked if he pulled some strings to get us to the gate quicker. Now I’m outside the Edward Jones Dome, in a cab driven by a guy who has no clue what he’s doing, surrounded by hoop fans who have effectively shut down the streets.
3:55 pm—I jump out of the stagnant cab and walk the last few blocks to my hotel in nearby Laclede’s Landing (the party spot in St. Louis). My first reaction is that I’ve stumbled into a more wholesome Mardi Gras, with open containers in full effect, music blasting and the streets packed with happy people, most of whom are wearing Illini orange.
5 pm—I’m now in the Dome, where my “limited access” credential doesn’t actually provide a seat. Time to follow the lead of my boys from Sports NewSatellite, Final Four vets who also lack official seating designations. We end up in section 112 (where the players dwell, holla!), the closest non-sold seats in the building, which are crazy far from the court. It’s not just the distance from the court that’s jarring, but what’s between us and the court—temporary bleachers. We can see around them, but it’s not a vantage point you expect at a game.
5:05 pm—Gripes about the money-grabbing seat arrangement aside, it doesn’t take long for my passion for the games to take hold. The Louisville-Illinois player introductions are going on, in the classic, one-guy-at-a-time style, where two opponents shake hands before the next teammate is announced. Louisville’s first three announced starters hail from the Bronx, Compton and Medellín. Luther Head’s Chicago is not a joke, of course, but the Ville’s definitely got the realer hometowns.
5:10 pm—Visually, the court is pleasantly simple, but the orange v. black unis are a little too post-modern for me. Aurally, things are pretty good in here. The school bands must have mics right by their sections, because their songs are heard clearly—this is a good thing when you’ve got one as solid as Illinois’ haunting, “duh na na nuh, duh na na nuh…” which I’ll hum all weekend long.
5:45 pm—Just as I break out my binoculars to get a better view, Larry O’Bannon of Louisville hits a three-pointer that has tied the game at 22. Despite being decisive underdogs, the Cards are playing well, which reminds me how bad they got f’d by the selection committee.
6 pm—With Illinois up 31-28 at the half, I head for the pressroom, passing the always-sharp Tubby Smith on my way. Can’t help but think that Kentucky-UNC would’ve been a dope Game 2.
6:05 pm—While Illinois has the most fans, by far, Tar Heel heads represent as well, many wearing “Jackie Manuel Has A Posse” shirts, which are amusing in spite of their unoriginality. Pressroom sightings include the still-imposing John Thompson, Miles Simon (working for CSTV, apparently), and ESPN’s Doug Gottleib—a favorite of mine as a player—who is dressed like an extra from Dazed and Confused.
6:20 pm—Get my first text message from Lang and Russ, watching the game in NYC: “Is your seat on top of the Arch?” Close. Seconds later, after Roger Powell’s play-of-the-game putback jam (off his own missed triple), the building reverberates with chants of, “I-L-L…I-N-I!”
6:40 pm—Attendance is announced as 47,754. A disgruntled fan behind me says, “It feels like 47 million.”
6:56 pm—Too much Powell and Luther Head. Nice bench play from Jack Ingram and Nick “Chainsaw” Smith. Too little from Francisco Garcia, either nervous in the setting or just totally thrown off by Deron Williams’ lockdown D. Whatever it is, Head’s triple with 4:23 left in the game makes it 64-51 and effectively finishes off the Cards.
7:28 pm—Sitting next to a locker labeled “Landeta,” with his oddly shaved hairline shining in the TV lights, Williams breaks down the Illini’s win. A few feet away, assistant coach and Peoria hoops godfather Wayne McClain sums up his team nicely: “We are very savvy.”
8:02 pm—Game 2, and just minutes in, former SLAM Basketball Diary keeper Marvin Williams checks in. NBA scouts’ hearts flutter.
8:25 pm—This game is being played more athletically and more physically than the first game. These teams are chock full of cats who attack the rim, including Jawad “I can play in the League, too” Williams. In the stands, though, the intensity is starting to wane, even with Illinois fans throwing their support behind MSU in a show of Big 10 solidarity. The reason for the energy loss seems pretty obvious: in a classic example of the contradictory sides of big-time college sports, there is no alcohol for sale in the building. This means the tens of thousands of fans who were getting their drink on directly outside the stadium are now coming down from a buzz they cannot sustain.
9:31 pm—A Raymond Felton pull-up makes the score 67-52 with 10:10 left. The Carolina band plays the opening bars of “Lean Back.”
10:02 pm—Another blowout done. Here’s hoping Monday night’s final, which will feature #1 vs. #2 for the first time since ’75, is a classic. My march to the locker room takes me past Billy Knight chilling with Quinn Buckner, as well as some UNC fans holding up “Where’s Duke?” signs.
10:26 pm—Marv, retro Carolina Blue Jordan XIIIs on his feet, stays composed in the wake of repeated questions about what went on at halftime, when the Heels were down five. “What’s the big deal about halftime?” the frosh replies. “Michigan State’s a good team and played like it. We just knew we had to stick to our game and we’d be OK.”
10:34 pm—In the MSU locker room, I almost trip over the same photographer I’d seen in the Louisville locker room after Game 1. Apparently, he shoots the saddest-looking losers. Tough job.
SUNDAY, APRIL 3
12:40 am—The postgame revelry has stretched into the early morning. Every bar in the Landing is packed with fans in orange shirts, the funniest of which say things like “I love Head #4,” and “Deez Nutz: One-Man Fast Break.” I also spot an ill Kenny Battle replica jersey. One bar is showing the college dunk contest, which took place here Thursday night. As much as I’d have liked to see long-time SLAM favorite Jameel Pugh win, I’m equally embarrassed that we’ve never covered the guy who actually won, Mindaugas Katelynas. Our bad.
2:45 am—Disgruntled about cashed-out ATMs, losing an hour to daylight savings and the fact that no one will deliver food to my hotel, I walk 15 blocks to the only open food spot, along the way passing a D1 head coach aggressively flirting with young women. I didn’t test anyone’s blood alcohol level and there’s always the chance this coach “knew” the women in the car, so I will name no names, but I can guess that if his AD saw him, his job might be in jeopardy. Ahh, the Final Four.
12:30 pm—Having slept off beer and bad pizza, I dig into the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which is raising its game this weekend in a way the local delivery spots are not. Besides the solid Final Four section, there’s a column in the Metro section in which columnist Bill McClellan suggests college athletes be allowed to major in their sport, à la writers majoring in English. This point has merit, and so the NCAA will never consider it.
1:30 pm—With the Illinois and UNC practices closed to the media, my day off continues with a visit to the NikeID room at the official hotel of the NABC. I design a free pair (thanks, Nate!), then get the pleasure of seeing the likes of Mike Anderson, Jim Calhoun, Bobby Cremins, Lefty Dreisell and Pat Kennedy address each other as “Coach.” Note to autograph hunters: If you want your favorite college coach’s autograph, hit the NABC hotel during the Final Four.
2:10 pm—I drop $170 at one of the licensed souvenir stores that have cropped up this weekend. The NCAA really makes a killing off this thing.
3:07 pm—Fight my way through the masses and into Hoop City, which is the convention center-style exhibition next door to the Dome. There are 3-on-3 games, a mini NCAA Hall of Champions, an autograph booth sponsored by Cingular (David Thompson in the house!) and more. Perhaps the sponsor with the biggest presence is Monster.com, holding its second-annual Mascot Challenge in the center of Hoop City. There was no Stanford Tree or St. Joe’s Hawk, and the winning Kentucky Wildcat tried too hard, but the concept—mascots competing in an obstacle-course style race with Bill Raftery serving as the well-paid MC—is one I, a big mascot fan, have no problem with.