Final Four Friday

This is an epically long post, but keep reading for the good stuff!
Easter weekend is getting quite overshadowed by basketball. I am very fortunate to have a ticket to the remaining games in the 2010 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament being played here in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Stadium (thanks Erik!). While the original hope was to be cheering on Purdue this week, those dang ACL’s have a way of spoiling the best laid plans. Instead, I get to attend as a sports fan without too much stake in who wins or loses. However, Indianapolis’s own Butler Bulldogs made the Final Four, and since we live about two blocks from the campus (and historic Hinkle Fieldhouse), it’s hard not root for them. In fact, Butler fever has taken the city by storm. While bandwagon fans are kind of annoying, it could be worse; it could be IU (well, not until they’re relevant again I suppose).
Throughout Friday there were festivities in the city leading up to the semifinal games on Saturday. I was able to take a half day at work and head downtown, meeting up with my friend Andrew and his sister and mom. Today, each team got to practice for 50 minutes on the main court, and they were open to the public. Butler was slated first, starting at noon, and you’d have thought the Pope was in town. Traffic was horrible (some notice from the city on street closings would have been nice!), but after the 30,000 or so Butler fans left at 1pm, it was a more manageable crowd. Besides, the traffic and crazy parking were just a great test run for the real show on Saturday and Monday. I now know exactly where to go to avoid the most mess and where to best park for free.
The plan was to meet Andrew and his family there. A little back story, Andrew and his family have a vested interest in these games since his uncle is the head athletic trainer for the Michigan State basketball team. This has provided some perks, including courtside seats to the Purdue game this year in the Big Ten Tournament. After finding parking I headed to meet Andrew at the Omni Severin hotel. Yes, the spot where I married Lynne, so it’s always fun to stop by there. Andrew was there to see his uncle before the team left for practice. Of course, I showed up just as Coach Izzo and crew were getting on the team bus. A little bit of a bummer to start the day by missing quality time with the Big Ten’s best coach (Yes, I said it. Painter is awesome and I love him, but c’mon, how can you argue with 6 Final Fours in 12 years? It’s unimaginable for me as a Purdue fan). You’ll see how the theme of this post revolves around meeting some famous people though, so missing out on Izzo turned out to be negligible.
So we headed to the stadium to catch the rest of the team practices. Part of the draw of the events today was that I scored some VIP seats thanks to Indy Hub, an awesome young professionals group in Indianapolis (who are DonorsChoose.org fans, too!). I didn’t know how good the seats would be, but the selling point was that they were reserved and in a good location so you didn’t have to battle the lines since the place was swarmed with people. Andrew and I each had a VIP ticket, and thanks to the nice women working the booth, we scored one extra ticket each. I used the line “my mom ended up coming with me, can I have a ticket for her,” so sorry mom, I adopted Andrew’s mom for the day.
As we headed to our seats we realized that our VIP pass was looking pretty lucrative. We made our way to our seats which were basically in the front row of the section right behind the north basket. While that honestly doesn’t make for the best view of the court, since seeing the other basket is difficult, that wasn’t really the point of the day. Instead, we were right along the walkway used by all the media, coaches, and some players throughout the day. Everywhere I turned was another famous sports personality, I was as excited as a kid at Disney World.
Our seats were also between the CBS booth and the court (with the booth cameras aimed over our heads so that you could see the broadcasters and the court, you know the shot). When we arrived, the CBS crew was some B-squad online team that none of us recognized. However, the A-team showed up eventually. So, here’s a list of the guys I met. Now, part of this is just having the audacity to holler at someone to come over to say hi, or the guts to sit down next to them and say something. That’s not a problem for me, but at times I did have to check with Andrew to make sure I wasn’t being too much of a fanboy. Everyone on this list I met, shook their hand (only way it counts), and spoke to. Most of the comments were in the manner of “You do a great job/Enjoy how you call the games” or “You need to give Purdue more love next year, we’re legit.”
1. Dick Enberg – the man who could be comfortable seemingly calling any sporting event. I startled him a bit with a big high five and hand shake, and the reply received was “There you go kid.” I haven’t been called kid for a while, but I guess I was acting like one.
2. Clark Kellogg – true, I’m not a fan of his, but he’s way better than Billy Packer! I called him over, told him I appreciated his work, and I gave him a nice double hand clasp. Both of my hands still didn’t fit around his. He’s taller than you think in person, but he is thinner than I would have thought. Tough to be cordial to an Ohio State Buckeye, but more on that later!
3. Jim Nantz – another guy who is pretty much the name for sports announcers. I got a bit snubbed the first time I went after him, but eventually got his attention and paid my respects. He really does do a fantastic job and is one of the best in the business.
4. Seth Davis – the guy no one really cares about until March. Many people, myself included, still don’t understand how he has a job with CBS sports or as an “expert” in college basketball. And I say these mean things because he was incredibly harsh to Purdue this year. He picked them to lose every game of the tournament and would hardly give them credit for their wins when they made the Sweet Sixteen. I pointed at my hat and told him he better give Purdue more respect next year, and he replied that Purdue fans didn’t even think they’d make the Round of 16 this year after Robbie got hurt. Seth must not talk to many Purdue fans. He’s still a schmuck in my book.
5. Greg Anthony – I talked to him over at the CBS booth, barely getting off the phone with Lynne in time to get his attention during some downtime. Greg gets a few points in my book for playing a year for the Bulls (when they were terrible, post-Jordan), but he loses points for being mostly a Knick, and he’s also been disrespectful of the Boilermakers this season (yes, it’s a theme with the national basketball “analysts"). I told him he need to give Purdue more love, and he said it would be easy since we were definitely in his preseason top 5. Top 5? If we’re NOT in anyone’s preseason top 5 next year, they should lose their job (barring another injury or NBA defection, of course). I told him he better put us in his top 2. He chuckled.
6. Greg Gumbelmy first attempt to speak with him at the CBS booth didn’t work so well. I was still on the phone with Lynne, and when I shouted for him, he looked at me and turned away. Andrew said that was justified since I was on the phone, so I can’t knock Greg for that. After the events of the day, I waited around (more on that later!) and eventually got to see him after the crew had gone through their rehearsal. I said hello and let him know I really appreciated his work. All true, he does a fine job in the studio. Side note: it was interesting to see the CBS studio crew go through rehearsal, getting moved around like Ken dolls to get the lighting and angles correct, since this was in a new environment.
That was it for the broadcaster encounters. While we were there to attend the practices, we also had these great VIP seats for the Reese’s 2010 College All-Star Game. This meant we got to see studs like Scottie Reynolds (Villanova, his coach, Jay Wright, was there with his family to watch him and walked by), Trevon Hughes (Wisconsin), and…who am I forgetting? I know there was someone else there I was excited to see. Oh yeah, Chris Freakin’ Kramer! I was quite excited to see him in his last “collegiate” game, and he played some good defense, which is pretty surprising for an all-star game. During the practices, before the game, Chris came out with some of the other finalists for the Lowe’s Senior Class Award. Kramer won the fan voting portion of the contest already, but the overall winner hasn’t been announced yet. Other finalists I saw, but did not shake hands with, were De’Sean Butler (West Virginia), Jon Scheyer (Duke), and Raymar Morgan (MSU) (they were all there except, I think, for Luke Harangody). Of course, I had to get in some quality time with my man-crush.
I called Kramer over from the other side of the walkway where he was enjoying a short break from signing autographs for the kids (seriously, the man could not go anywhere without being mobbed for his sig, and because he is a class act, he was taking tons of time to honor the requests). He saw the Purdue hat, came over, and I give him my thanks for all he’s done for Purdue basketball. He said he really appreciated it, I promised not to bug him about football, and I would have given him a hug if there wasn’t railing in the way. He then commenced his normal activities of eating ground glass and nails, breaking boards with his fists, and impregnating women in the arena with only his mind.
The all-star game wasn’t too interesting, but there were some fun plays, and seeing Kramer’s team coached by Gene Keady and his assistants Matt Painter and Bruce Weber was fun. Quite the Purdue family tree. However the highlight of the all-star game was definitely off the court. Our special VIP section was pretty sparse, since a lot of the fans had left by then (and who am I kidding, it was sparse the entire time, but at this point, it was very empty). I think Andrew was the first to notice that standing at the stairway to our section were a few basketball players we all recognized: Ohio State’s David Lighty, Dallas Lauderdale, William Buford, and the best player in college basketball, Evan Turner.
Some kids had swarmed around these four tall gentlemen, so I slowly (that’s a lie) made my way over to them, and waited for the kids to get their autographs. Before I could get in and meet Mr. Turner, they started walking to get seats towards where I had left Andrew sitting. So I followed and joined them. Now, I’m going to post some pictures to verify the details of this long story (that’s only getting longer), but I only had the phone on my camera since my other camera’s battery died. If ever there was a photo I wanted for completely silly reasons, it would have been this scene. Walking down the aisle to our seats was a single file line of four studs. 6’7” Turner, 6’8” Lauderdale, 5’11” Smiley, 6’5” Buford, and 6’5” Lighty, in that order. One of these things is not like the other.
So Evan and his crew decide to sit one row behind and a few seats down from us, and as they go to sit down, I get Evan’s attention to give him a handshake and tell him I think he’s a fantastic player. Now, the best thing about this part of the story is that I didn’t yell “Evan” or “Turner” to get his attention. I yelled “Villain” and he turned around immediately with a weird half-smile of confusion on his face. For a little back story, Villain is Turner’s semi-unofficial nickname, given to him by a walk-on on the Ohio State team who has kept an amazing blog (Club Trillion) during his year’s as the last man on the OSU bench. Long story short (read about it here), he is really trying to get the nickname to stick, and it’s become a sort of joke. So in one simple phrase, “Hey Villain,” I was able to get Turner’s attention, meet him, shake his hand, make him smile, creep him out a bit, let him know I’m a Club Trillion reader, and give a shout out to Mark Titus. It was really sweet. But the hits kept on coming.
As Turner and his crew sat around half-heartedly watching some of the all-star action, Andrew’s Sister Sara wanted a picture of them with her camera, so I take Sara over, tell her to sit in the open seat between Dallas and Evan, and I get them all to get in for a picture. I believe I even commanded Dallas to get a little closer to Sara. I’ll post the picture once Sara sends me a copy, but it was classic. The guys were great sports, and after I got home I found out why they were there. That’s some pretty cool teammate love. After I took the photo I got another chance to speak to Evan, which went something like,
“It’s a pleasure to meet the number one pick in this year’s NBA draft (which hasn’t happened yet, but Evan should at least be top 3).”
Evan smiling and shrugging, “Thanks, we’ll see.”
Me pointing at my Purdue hat, “I’m just happy it means we won’t have to play against you anymore.” That got a big smile from him.
A few other players came down and sat with the Ohio State guys, including Robbie Hummel and Cole Aldrich (Kansas) and some other guy I didn’t know, probably from Kansas. They sat right behind us, but I didn’t get any handshakes as they were swarmed by kids seeking autographs and seemed a bit put off by it since they were really there to say hi to each other and catch up. They didn’t stay very long. Regardless, I don’t think I’ll ever sit in a group of such talented basketball players again in my life.
With about 8 minutes left to play, Andrew, Sara, and a couple of his friends who were there that we later snuck into the VIP section left to go get dinner since they were planning to stay downtown for the Stone Temple Pilots concert but had to get there early to get seats (since it was free). I was in no hurry to leave, since after the game my plans were to make it home in time to see Eliza before bedtime. I watched the rest of the all-star game, which Coach Keady’s team (with Kramer) came from behind to win. After the game, players and coaches were being interviewed on the court, kids were clamoring for autographs, the few thousand people who had stayed for the end of the game (maybe 10K?) were quickly filing out of the stadium, and I just sat there soaking it all in.
I could see the crews starting to pack up, watched the giant camera crane sweep over my head a few times as they were practicing for tomorrow’s games, and so I stood up, moved to back of the VIP section, and just hung out. I finally met Greg Gumbel (mentioned above, in case you forgot in the 2 weeks it took to read this post), watched the rest of the CBS crew, and started to realize that all of the attention in the arena was many yards away where the players still were taking their time leaving the court (and Kramer was signing his 4,000th autograph of the day).
Doing a quick bit of reconnaissance I realized that if I could get past one security guard, I could get into the back concourse where all the crew, media, players, and coaches were headed. I bided my time, watched a few different crew members walk past him, and realized he was only looking for badges every now and then. All crew, media, players, etc, had big badges hanging around their necks indicating their permission to be there. I obviously had nothing hanging around my neck. But I did have a silly orange bag that Reese’s gave out, and I had my phone. Anyone walking intently with a Blackberry had to be on official business, right?
It was now or never. I waited for two crew members to head towards the backstage area past the guard, and I simply followed, holding my phone tight against my chest and close to my face, pretending to text message, with the bag in my hands, too. This thoroughly blocked my chest, so you could just assume their was a badge underneath or be forced to stop me in the middle of my purposeful walk and furious texting of important things. Really I was texting Andrew telling him that I was going in.
I made it past the guard and continued my walk to the tunnel. Other official people kept passing me (NCAA staff, CBS crew, media, etc.) so I never looked up, never made eye contact and just kept walking. I got to the back tunnel, turned right, since that’s the way everyone else was going, passed two more security guards…and then what? There was nothing going on! I stuck my head in a few media rooms, acting like I should be there, only to see a few people sitting at a table killing time. I kept on walking, but had to pull up short as I came across a security guard who seemed really into their job. So I ducked back down and stood in a small corner where I was hoping to go unnoticed. I’d occasionally peak my head out to see if the guard had moved or turned his back, but no luck. All the while still covering my chest and furiously texting. I was able to snap a few shots on the phone of the back area for proof, but then it started to get crowded and I had to go back to texting. I stood there unbothered for about 10 minutes.
The players and coaches were just starting to come off the court. I walked by most of the all-stars, but couldn’t really say hi due to security, although I did give a few shoulder pats and “nice games” to those I was closest to. I did, however, get two big encounters. First, I followed Coach Painter as he headed off in the opposite direction as the players. As we passed a security guard, me on his tail, we walked by a guard and he started to speak. I thought I was busted. Instead he said to Painter, “We’ll see you guys here next year,” to which Painter replied “I hope so,” and we walked by the guard, turned a slight corner, and I walked up next to Coach and said “We’ll be in Houston next year for sure, Boiler Up!” and patted him on the shoulder. I think that it was the first time my hands had left my phone and stopped clutching my bag, leaving my badge-less chest exposed (that sounds dirty), and Painter just glanced at me, smiled, and continued walking back to whatever room he was headed, and I went right back to my texting and purposeful walking. Yes, a big part of me wanted to just keep following him wherever he was going, but it was down a back corridor that made me feel like I’d get busted for sure.
About one minute later, after I had turned around to head back towards the direction the players went, zooming around the corner comes Coach Keady being driven on a golf cart by a security guard. I look up enough to say, “Great job coach, Boiler Up,” to which he responded, “Thanks, go Purdue,” or something something Purdue, he kind of mumbled and looked very tired. Coaching the all-starts must have taken a lot out of him since he even got the golf cart treatment. Again, I looked a bit like a fanboy without security questioning me, so I considered it a huge success.
Next, my mission was to find where the other players had gone, and in doing so I realized I had no idea how to get out of the back tunnel. I only knew how to get back into the seating area, filled with security I had already snuck past, but where was the main exit? Uh oh! So I took a gutsy move and started walking back towards to court, through the area that the players and coaches had exited (a little ways down from where I snuck through earlier). Because the players had been signing autographs, this little walkway had half a dozen security guards, but once I started walking that way, I had to keep going or look like I was lost and shouldn’t be there. So I made it all the way out, where kids are still standing around hollering for signatures. I take a quick glance around and notice the only player still signing is Kramer, what a class act. So, then I was stuck again, surrounded by officials and security and Kramer. I blended into the scenery, talked to a kid who knew me from earlier and was quite surprised to see me on the other side of the fence (I told him how to do it, but I don’t think he followed through, no guts no glory kid), and then worked my way back through the security I had already passed, to go back into the tunnel. Again, I didn’t get stopped or even looked at funny (that I could tell), texting and clutching the bag (which by the way should have been a dead giveaway since only fans had been given these bright orange bags, no media members carried them).
I was back in the bowels of Lucas Oil and decided to go further in to see where the players had gone since all the media rooms I had checked before were empty. I found the media room where they had gathered, but I didn’t think I had any shot of getting in. The door was open, I could see players doing some one-on-one interviews and chatting around with each other, but while no one bugs a determined texter briskly walking down the hallway, I think they would have if I was trying to get to the players and clearly didn’t have a camera, microphone, or crew. So I loitered there just long enough to not look to suspicious and then kept on walking, following one of the players from the all-star game and his coach/trainer/chaperone (who knows!), hoping to find an exit. Instead I wrapped all the way around the stadium to the exact opposite side where I had entered the tunnel and was finally able to make my escape without having to be escorted out or have my face plastered around security to bar from the games all weekend (that would have been tragic, way worse than having to post bail :).
As I exited the tunnel, the seating area of the stadium was completely empty. I realized that security and the few ushers that were actually working the game had emptied the place out while I was sneaking around in back. I definitely got some weird looks from the crew as I came out of the tunnel, dropped my bag and phone to my sides, snapped a picture of the empty stadium, and climbed up the steps to the seating area, the last person that somehow hadn’t been shone the door. I felt like Kevin Spacey going from Verbal Kint to Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects, having fooled everyone, mission accomplished.
So how do I top this on Saturday? I don’t know but I’ll be at my first Final Four, I’ll get to watch some quality basketball, and I’ll probably meet more players at Bracket Town (The All American team is being recognized tomorrow). Don’t expect to hear another story of sneaking around Lucas Oil though, I think the security will be a little tighter, and it’s hard to do if you’re not solo. And now the pictures (which are such bad quality, but it’s better than nothing).
The CBS studio setup. If I jumped really high (which I did once), I think I could get in the shot…if I was 7’3”.
Greg Anthony, don’t you turn your back on me! How’d UNLV do this year, uh huh, that’s right! Boiler Up!
Here you can see Evan “The Villain” Turner feigning interest in the game in between text messages, Buford on his cell, Lighty sitting in the back of the class too cool for school, and Lauderdale relaxing his massive arms on two chairs that are surely about to buckle. You can also see I wasn’t lying that our seating section was basically us and the Ohio State basketball team. Also, Lighty is from Cleveland but he’s wearing a Reds hat. That’s just wrong. I spent a good few minutes wondering what I could say to Lighty since he looked lonely, but I didn’t want to scare them away as they made our section suddenly relevant, and Andrew convinced me that I would, in fact, scare them away if I went in for a third conversation.
Photo-0025So who’s this dude sitting behind me? Cole Aldrich turned his back on me to talk to Robbie and the Villain (I can’t blame him). Robbie got along really well with the OSU guys, but then again, who doesn’t like Robbie Hummel? It’s pretty amazing that when you sit next to all these guys, you don’t feel too small…and then you stand up with them and suddenly want to go crawl in a hole and hide.
Photo-0027 Coach Painter went down that hallway, but only a few other people did, and they never came out. Was I scared, or did I save myself from encountering a black hole that only Matt Painter had the strength to survive? Or were they led down there to be fed to Painter, a perk to his new coaching contract at Purdue?
Through the tunnel, if the picture as better, you could see Kramer signing autographs. Instead, he appears as a bright white shining light. No, Chris Kramer is not Jesus, but he is as good as Jesus Shuttlesworth.
Photo-0030 An empty Lucas Oil. Last fan standing.

1 comment:

Lynne said...

Now I know why my husband was up until 2:30 AM!