By Eric Neel
Page 2

EDITOR'S NOTE: Our very own Eric Neel has arrived in St. Louis. And throughout the weekend, he'll be posting frequent updates on the sights and sounds from behind the scenes at the Final Four. This is his Saturday blog.

MONDAY'S MATCHUP | FRIDAY'S BLOG

ST. LOUIS, Saturday, April 2, 5 p.m. CST:

It's just about 20 minutes before first tip-off now. The Illinois and Louisville bands are dueling. The Illini have them on numbers and organization. Their bandleader is relentless, plugging a tune into every single break and opportunity. He chooses traditional, pep-rallyish stuff. You halfway expect a bonfire to break out while they're playing.

The Cardinals' bandleader, knowing he doesn't have the numbers, makes a smart play: He goes with anti-pop, countering the Illinois fight song with "Crazy Train," answering some John Philip Sousa-sounding thing from Illinois with Louisville's (the only word I can think of is ...) inimitable rendition of the Violent Femmes classic, "Blister in the Sun." He slows it down, makes it almost a loungy thing, like maybe Frank was singing along in some dim, smoky nightspot. It's a bold choice. Not necessarily a good one, but a bold one.

*****

You spend the moments before tip-off studying game faces, looking for traces of anxiety, flashes of confidence.

Without a doubt, the most game-ready face in the arena belongs to Christine, front-row alto sax player in the Illinois band. She's got a picture-perfect silhouette of the St. Louis skyline, including the arch, done up in blue, against an orange background, covering every inch of her face.

Surely it was done by some professional. It's too clean, to meticulous to be done by a friend.

"I did it myself," she says, matter-of-factly, like you should expect nothing less, like she will accept nothing less.

Game on.

*****

Sweet moment in the arena about several minutes ago when former Illinois coach Lou Henson walks in, resplendent in a brave, bright orange blazer. The Illini faithful rise as one and give him a proper, genuine, standing O.

*****

Watching Louisville warm up in the last seconds before the buzzer sounds, it strikes me that warmups aren't about the body at all, except insofar as the body is an extension and expression of the mind.

This is the game of their lives for every one of these guys. They've done layups and taken jumpers in situations like this a thousand times before, but not like this, not in this sort of room.

When you see guys walking loose in these moments, with a bit of waggle in their ankles and sway in their sweats, understand that that's a conscious effort, that they're doing all they can to get themselves to feel some inkling of loose, some hint of sway. (Think Ali bouncing in the pre-fight corner, only without the king-of-the-world confidence.) Understand that they're trying more than anything to breathe, like they've done a thousand times before.

*****

Enjoy the games. That's it for today's blog. I'll be back Sunday with a preview of the game and the blog will return in full force Monday morning.

*****

ST. LOUIS, Saturday, April 2, 3 p.m. CST:

Two orange-clad strangers at a stop light:

Guy 1: "People talk about the 15 points in four minutes against Arizona, but they forget that eight of those points came in the last minute, in 20 seconds of the last minute."

Guy 2: "I know, I've been telling people, it's a truly charmed season. People just don't understand how special this is."

Guy 1: "Charmed? It's a true miracle is what it is. A miracle season."

Guy 2: "Who do you think they get, Carolina or Michigan State?"

Guy 1: "Carolina. Definitely."

Me, in my head, standing next to them:

"You should shut your yaps, fellas. You're supposed to save that kind of talk for after a win."

Illini Nation is so ripe for a fall right now.

And if they go, tickets to the title game will be like Chinese restaurant flyers under a Manhattan front door: Cheap and plentiful.

*****

I'm going to tell you now about a pork chop, prepared by Arthur Clay's here in St. Louis and available at the "Taste of St. Louis" festival downtown this weekend.

It's a delicious pork chop, slathered in bar-b-q sauce. There's an appropriate Midwestern heft about it. It's a very satisfying meal.

There's only one problem: I'm telling you about this pork chop because there were no ribs available at "Taste of St. Louis." Let me say that again. A foodfest, in St. Louis, Missouri, does not, I say, does not feature a rib joint.

How does this happen? Who is responsible for this? Is there a mayoral recount call rising up as we speak?

Yes, Kansas City has the barbecue edge, but that doesn't mean you shrink from the fight. That means you come strong, on this, the biggest weekend in St. Louis in the last decade.

No barbecuse at all? This is like the Yankees failing to show up to play the Sox tomorrow night. It's unthinkable. It's unacceptable. It's a warm pork chop offering very cold comfort.

*****

Saw Eric Montross with his family down near the Arch. Good news: He's given up on the flattop and gone with the bald head. He looks a bit like a seven-foot Bud Greenspan, but still, it's a noticeable improvement.

*****

The street greeting -- fans from one school or another meeting each other on the street for the first time and bursting in to songs, cheers, and high-fives all around -- is a nice game-day tradition.

If I've said it once I've said it a hundred times: The Final Four is a uniter, not a divider. (Unless, of course, you're wearing the wrong color ...)

*****

Speaking of color (and I don't want to pick on Illinois here but they are the huge representational overdogs of the weekend), orange can be too orange. There can be too much orange. And in fact, there is too much orange in St. Louis this weekend.

And the Illini, who are already contemplating changing their mascot as I understand, might want to think about altering their color scheme a bit. Because you have to ask yourself, is orange really a reliable, championship color? Yes, Syracuse won with it two years back, but do your really think the basketball gods will let that rogue color back in the winners' circle again any time soon? I don't see it. Just look at history. We've got the '69 and '86 Mets, Syracuse in 2003, and . . . that's it.

******

There's a funny habit on display around the venue in which people who do not have a rooting interest, or perhaps forgot their team-appropriate T-shirts at home, are wearing any team-related shirt that suits them. Kansas Jayhawks, St. Louis Rams, Boston Red Sox, whatever. These people are largely ignored. They move through the crowds like the great unwashed.

*****

And finally, before we head to game time, a word on the famous St. Louis Arch: This is a truly stunning and perhaps underappreciated monument, a genuine marvel of engineering. You stand beneath this thing and its height and breadth actually take your breath away. Even with two feet on the ground, when the clouds move across the blue sky and behind the shining silver of the arch, it's a wildly vertiginous structure. Something manmade that actually moves you, body and mind.

Quick list of top man-made American monumental structures:

1. St. Louis Arch
2. Golden Gate Bridge
3. Empire State Building
4. Watts Towers
5. Space Needle
6. Sears Tower
7. Dickeyville Grotto (look it up)

What am I forgetting? Other than Wilt Chamberlain, I mean ...

*****

ST. LOUIS, Saturday, April 2, noon CST:

Can you explain the whole Elvis impersonator thing to me? I'm sitting courtside at Hoop City, watching a bunch of guys trampoline dunking ... in Elvis costumes. Don't get it. Don't get "Honeymoon in Vegas," don't get Wayne Newton, don't get this. Greil Marcus could probably explain it to me. It's no doubt about our collective longing for both a long-lost innocence and a long-lost sexual freedom. But to me, it's just guys in bad wigs and flared pants. By my reckoning, if you combined all the mystery and energy of all the faux Elvi in all the world, you'd have something on the order of Pete Seeger's level of sexy and Dice Clay's level of entertainment. But here the folks are, soaking it up, just loving the way the Elvi fly through the air to "Blue Suede Shoes."

And while I'm grinding, let me ask you, ever thought about what a goofy "white-boy" fantasy the whole trampoline dunking thing is? Got no hops? Never fear, just jump on this human pitchback and you can throw down like a superstar. Don't get me wrong, it's fun to jump and dunk on one of those things; you get a sensation, a sense, of what it must be like to do what the great leapers do. But the way the crowds eat it up is a bit wacky. I mean how impressive is it, compared to say, what we were seeing from the Michigan State and Carolina players yesterday? Just asking ...

*****

All over town you meet folks who've come from a long ways off, without tickets or a place to sleep.

I met two guys this morning, Brian and Jacques, who drove six-plus hours from Milwaukee last night, ticketless and bedless. I like these guys because they're not teenagers on a lark, but 30-year-olds pretending to be teenagers on a lark. Brian's a schoolteacher. Jacques a business grad student. They have responsibilities, in other words, and they don't care. Gotta respect that.

"It's not so bad. We drove around a lot last night, but we eventually found a place about five miles outside of town," Brian says. If they were young, poor, and hungry, like a good Final Four pilgrim should be, they'd have been on some bus station bench, but I'm not going to ding 'em too bad. After all, they made the drive.

They're willing to spend $500 each on tickets, but so far that doesn't look to be enough. "We checked eBay and Craig's List, and that'll only get us 'distant view' seats, and we checked those out during the open practice yesterday; not good," Brian says. I point out that for a grand they could just buy a new couch and watch the games in comfort at home. "Yeah," Jacques says, "but we want to be a part of it, you know?"

As it stands now, they may not get the chance to turn down even a "distant view" seat for tonight's games. Not many offers are coming their way, and this despite the fact that both guys are wearing homemade, magic-markered "I Need Tickets" white T-shirts. "We're getting plenty of attention for the shirts," Brian says. "If we had a nickel for every laugh, smile, or shout we've gotten for the tickets this morning, we could buy two seats for tonight no problem."

*****

Ian Naismith, the grandson of the original hoop Doctor, is here at the venue this weekend. He's signing autographs and shaking hands with fans, and he's brought the original rules of basketball (there were 13 of them when James Naismith typed them up in 1891) bound in plexiglass frames and riding in a "Pulp Fiction" briefcase.

The two pages, recently appraised at somewhere between $10 and $20 million, Naismith says, do have a glow about them. You look at them and try to imagine all the evolutionary twists and turns that run from their words to the words-can't-describe-it stuff that a player like Vince Carter pulls out of his hat. "I only bring them out about three times a year," Naismith says. "The Final Four, the NBA Finals, and the All-Star Game."

But Naismith himself travels all year long, preaching the original basketball vision -- "Be strong in body, clean in mind, and lofty in ideals" -- and, he says, trying to fight what the game has become.

"The game wasn't given to the world by my family in order to prostitute young people," he says with an almost religious air. "It was meant to further the education and development of the young people. The greed now, the shoe companies, the television, it's disgusting to my family and I. So we've dedicated ourselves to fighting back, to restoring the game to its roots."

He's no doubt whistling in the dark, but you now, you can't begrudge him. After all, he's got the papers.

*****

ST. LOUIS, Saturday, April 2, 1:00 AM CST:

Just came from the adidas party, at the Orpheum Theater. J.A. Adande got me in the door (thanks, J.A.). It was a funny scene: Dozens and dozens of men to every woman, and way too many of them, of course, in sweatsuits; a very lonely DJ spinning old-school Michael Jackson ("P.Y.T." and "Don't Stop 'Till You Get Enough" and so on) alone up on a stage; and guys like Bruce Pearl and John Calipari trying, in that bite-your-lower-lip way, to get a little bit of groove on while they stood around talking.

The highlight of the evening for me wasn't the DJ (though I do like my early Michael) and it wasn't the dancing (though I do enjoy the chance to laugh, if only to myself, at Coach Cal). It was the martini bar, featuring four three-foot-tall vodka bottles carved out of ice and irrigated with a channel for pouring the drinks. You put your glass down in the carved-out bottom of the ice bottle and the bartender, standing on a chair, poured your drink down from on high. It was a freaking marvel. People were ordering drinks hand over fist, just to see it happen again and again.

I got into a discussion with a guy about how the bottles were made. He said the water was poured into a mold; no mystery. I said no way. I was going on and on about craftsmanship, about how some artisan with a chisel and a file had been working on them for hours before the party. It was a symbol, I thought, of the way the four teams who've made the Final Four had put in days upon days of preparation and sacrifice. The guy just looked at me, the way Sgt. Carter used to look at Pyle, and said, "You probably think, when you go to the ATM machine, that there's a sweet little old lady behind there counting out your money, don't you?"

Maybe . . .

Yeah, that's me. I'm the rube. It's not so much that I really think there was a guy with a chisel and a file, you understand, it's just that I enjoy thinking it might be true, enjoy imagining the inspiring improbable.

That's why I'm picking Louisville and Michigan State to make the chamionship game.

Well, that and the two martinis, are why . . .

*****

There is going to come a moment when you're rooting for something, maybe your daughter's soccer team, maybe Todd Heap, the tight end for the Baltimore Ravens (and, more importantly, the tight end on your fantasy football team), or maybe just a stock in your portfolio. Whatever it is, there is going to come a moment when you feel so passionate that you want to do something in order to demonstrate your commitment to this thing or this person, your connection to its (or to their) fortunes.

And in this moment, you are going to be tempted to put on a wig.

I can't say why. I can only tell you, after walking the streets of St. Louis these last 24 hours, that it is true. The wig will be bright and colorful. It might feature Marley-esque dreds or Warren Coolidge curls. You will know, in your conscious mind, that it is an absurd feeling you are feeling for this wig. You will realize that it can only make you look foolish. But you will convince yourself, because there is no other way to go, that there is a certain deranged dignity in the wearing of it, and that conviction will be enough to sustain you, to allow you to don the wig, and to encourage you to go outside.

I want you to know, in that moment, that I admire you. We all admire you. When we smile your way, we are not laughing at you, I swear. We are flashing your way the gracious smile of admiration and awe. Truly. Keep the faith. Keep the wig. Be in the moment.

*****

Are you getting all the old Final Fours on your cable package, too, or is it just me? Am I staying in some magical hotel where you can see grainy footage of Mike Gminski and David Thompson all night long? If I am, might I never check out.

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.




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