The NCAA Championship basketball game last night was, well, not the best game in history. As the experts had predicted, the University of Connecticut Huskies easily beat the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. However, the somewhat disappointing and anticlimactic nature of the game should not detract from the overwhelmingly positive feelings of the championship weekend. There may be a great deal wrong with big-time college sports, but there is also a great deal right with them.
Teamwork, pride, overcoming obstacles, and the pure joy that comes from playing and watching these games are a delightful part of life. No wonder fans started arriving at the Alamodome four hours before tipoff. Being at the Final Four as a member of the press was something completely new to me, and I loved every minute of it.
In case you think that all members of the press sit a few feet away from the court, let me set the record straight. Believe me, I'm not complaining, I'm just reporting when I tell you that I was seated in something called the Upper Press Box. I'm not saying it was high up, but I was escorted to my seat by a sherpa. And I wouldn't have traded that seat for anything.
I knew it was over for Georgia Tech at halftime. Not because they were down by 15 points, but because their cheerleaders looked so sad. A cheerleader's entire job is to look cheery, and if these kids couldn't summon smiles, the team was really in trouble.
Speaking of cheerleaders, as I walked through the arena to the elevator to the upper press box, I saw a sign that read, "Cheerleaders Storage Area." I hadn't realized before that cheerleaders were kept in storage, but I guess it make sense. Apparently, they keep pretty well, because they don't look much different today than they looked 20 or 30 years ago.
Another thing that was new to me was that most "real" sportswriters don't cheer during a game. I guess it's considered unprofessional to shout or jump up and down when one team does well or poorly. I tried this restraint for a little while, but then just gave up and behaved normally — that is, like a maniac. Fortunately, I was seated near three sports news guys from Hungary. The Hungarians were unaware of the American custom of reporters pretending not to be impressed by fantastic plays. So, the three Hungarians and I yelled whenever we felt like it.
Maybe one reason why I wasn't all that disappointed in the Championship Game was that the whole weekend had been so amazing. Saturday's games were fantastic, Sunday's nap was pleasant, and Championship Monday began in style. It started with an awards breakfast followed by a ceremony/press conference honoring those who will soon be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
So, before lunch, I saw Jameer Nelson, Lynette Woodard and Bill Walton, and met Arizona's coach, Lute Olson, Clyde Drexler, Bill Sharman, Maurice Lucas, and Bob Cousy. Here are some scoops you might not get elsewhere: Coach Olson says that Isaiah Fox, who went to high school with my kids, should have a big year next season. Bob Cousy — whose hands are surprisingly large and strong — spends much of his time playing golf. And Bill Walton talks just as much in person is he does on the air.
(To those of you who are not basketball fans, well, let's say you are a literature fan. It would be as if you met Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Roth, Shakespeare, and Jacqueline Susann at the same breakfast. And you didn't have to pay.)
One of the best things about the tournament is the spirit of those involved. Even after their teams lost, their fans continued to wear their team's colors while walking around San Antonio. They were not ashamed that their teams lost. On Sunday, they wore their Oklahoma State or Duke colors, telling the world that their kids had done their best, and they were still proud of them.
And despite their basketball prowess and interviewing poise, you have to remember that these players are kids. You're reminded of this whenever they make a foolish mistake on court or when they cry uncontrollably after they lose.
Often on TV, they will cut to a fan who is wearing a ridiculous costume or has painted his body with the colors of his team. And the commentator usually says something like, "Is this what his parents are paying all that tuition for?" My answer to this question is, "It sure is." Bonding with classmates, traveling to a different city on your own, being imbued with school spirit, doing something that you have never done before, and just letting loose and having fun are just as much a part of the college experience as the biochemistry course you'll forget about by next year.
So, this year's Final Four was an uplifting experience for all those involved — including me. I just have one question: Does anybody want to send me to Greece to cover the Olympics this summer? I'll pay for my own Greek dictionary.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2004 CBS. All rights reserved.