By Eric Neel
Page 2

SUNDAY: TAKING SIDES | SATURDAY'S BLOG | FRIDAY'S BLOG

ST. LOUIS, Monday, April 4, 8:05 p.m. CST:

It's just a few hours before game time now. In other words, scalp o'clock.

Usually, the going gets considerably easier between Saturday and Monday. Fans of the losing clubs cut their losses, sell their tickets, and head home. Folks on the street today were telling me about previous trips to the Final Four where they were able to get good seats to the championship game for as little as $20.

But it's a different story tonight. There's the smack of history in the air (1 vs. 2 for the first time in 30 years and all that), and so holders are holding. Walking the streets around the Jones Dome, scalpers were approaching me to buy, not to sell. Every cell phone conversation is somebody saying, "Nah, man, I got nothing," and poor mugs who drove two days in the hopes of getting in are holding up two lonely fingers with plaintive looks on their faces. It's sad, really.

There's something cool about it, too, though. It's like big-time sports' version of the floor at the stock exchange. People are trading on hope and anticipation. As it was with the .com bust, the game may turn out to be much ado about nothing, but as it is with any boom, you have a hard time finding anyone who thinks it will be. Here's hoping our collective wisdom is worth something ...

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Lots of buzz here about the scalping that does go on (and did go on Friday and Saturdya). Some coaches, ADs, etc., are apparently well-versed in the art of dealing their freebie tickets for major returns.

In between the scalpers and the ticket-holders are the brokers, people who bring the two parties together and middle-man the fund transfers for a percentage of the take.

You can see coaches everywhere and scalpers on every corne, but the brokers are shadowmen.

According to a television producer researching the situation, "You can get some coaches on the record and you can get the scalpers to talk, but the middle guys won't talk at all."

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As the cold reality of a ticketless night becomes clear for many, two guys walk down the street toward their hotel rooms, each with a 12-pack of Bud Light in one hand and a half-gallon of ice cream in the other, giving themselves the "it'll be better on TV" talk.

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I don't need a ticket tonight because I have a seat in the press box. Well, actually, I have a seat in the UPPER press box. In a ballpark, this might mean a third-tier spot somewhere up behind home plate. Here at the Jones Dome, however, it means an unmarked chair behind an unmarked counter somewhere up near the rafters and about half a mile from the floor. If you wanted to see how the guys climb up and work the spotlights, it'd be a sweet seat. If you were curious about steel-girder construction, it'd be a sweet seat. It's like the hot-air balloon ride of seats to the game. It's a helicopter tour: "Look, Mommy, there are people down there!"

But I'm OK with this; I've brought my fancy new Bushnells and I'm ready to roll. The distance doesn't bother me, really, it doesn't.

What bothers me is the language on my "Limited Access" credential for the big game, for which the prescriptive language includes the following phrase: "At game time, flush from floor." Now I don't ask much. I don't ask for courtside. I don't ask to sit next to Billy and Jim. But don't "flush" me. That just ain't right. Ask me to leave, escort me, direct me, help me to my seat. I'm cool with all that. But "flush"? Why you want to do me like that?

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New standard for diehard fandom: 4-year-old (I'm guessing) boy walking in to the dome tonight, dressed head to toe in Louisville red, complete with beads, a hat, and some red Converse highs, shouting "Come on Cardinals!" and "Go Louisville."

Come strong, Little Man. We should all be so bold.

I'm thinking about letting out with a Cal "Go Bears" (my alma mater) cheer some time in the first half tonight. Of course, no one will hear me. I will have been long flushed by then.

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Rashad McCants came out to warm up with a diamond stud in each ear, like he's just doing his thing, same as it ever was.

Sean May took the pregame court with iPod ear buds in his ears. You wonder what he's listening to. Players usually have ritual tunes in the locker room. For me, a long time ago, it was George Clinton's "Atomic Dog." I take May for a jazz guy, maybe some Dolphy or Miles Davis smoothing the edges, but not too smooth, you know?

*****

The Illinois rooting section, otherwise known as the Edward Jones Dome, is eagerly awaiting tip-off, but a close second is its anticipation of Bill Murray's arrival.

I'm flushed from the floor before he makes the scene (the great ones arrive like that; think Nicholson at the Oscars, magically appearing in his seat after never setting foot on the red carpet). I like thinking about which Murray will arrive. Will it be the bemused world traveler of "Lost in Translation," placidly up for whatever the night may bring? Will it be the rascal camp counselor from "Meatballs," looking to stir up trouble, maybe cut away the legs of Roy Williams' chair or pull down Raymond Felton's shorts during a timeout? Personally, I'm rooting for the lounge singer Murray, the one who serenaded the prison inmates in that old "Saturday Night Live" skit. I see him leading the crowd in songs and cheers late into the night. I hear him lovingly serenading Bruce Weber with "The Way You Look Tonight" in the postgame glow.

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Carolina is so outnumbered in the stands tonight it gets to be the favorite (2 points) AND the underdogs. That's a dangerous combination.

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Saw a guy in the stands tonight wearing all green, with a paper sign taped to his back that said: "Illinois Convert." If this crowd is worth its salt, they'll have him stripped and chest-painted by halftime.

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During the warmups, just minutes before the big show, my eyes turn to the kids on each team who likely won't play at all tonight. Shaun Pruitt, a 6-8 freshman for Illinois is likely just a spectator, and Wes Miller, a 5-11 sophomore for UNC is a "practice" player, too.

These guys don't get many shots on the floor tonight because even during warmups, the balls go to the starters. But I'm watching them shoot when a ball does roll their way, and you can see, in the way they set their feet, take an extra dribble, follow through with a high, flicked wrist, that they're feeling the moment, the whole of the moment, the "I'll tell my kids someday" of it.

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OK, prediction time: UNC, 82-76. Too much Marvin Williams.

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ST. LOUIS, Monday, April 4, 2:24 p.m. CST:

I had breakfast with PTI's Michael Wilbon this morning. He's covered 22 of the last 25 of these Final Four extravaganzas.

"It's changed a lot over the years," he says. "Too much. It's like the Baby Super Bowl now. It's just so big. If I'm a fan, that's cool, I'm in the arena, I'm doing the fan experience thing, whatever. But as a writer, it's just so big now, it's hard to move around, hard to get close to people, it's lost some of its appeal, I think."

Like all of us, he's looking forward to tonight's game and the possibility that it might be one of those games we talk about for a long time.

"Illinois could get blown out, either team could get blown out, but this game could be very good too, because these two teams (and you can't say this about most teams in college ball) have guys who can actually play at all five spots. These are two deep, talented teams."

Wilbon's top-five title games of those 25 years:

1982, Carolina over Georgetown: "I remember when Ewing had all those goaltendings at the beginning of the game and afterwards John Thompson had the best line: 'Kids don't remember the goaltending, they remember that their shot got blocked.'"

1985, Villanova over Georgetown

1987, Indiana over Syracuse: "People forget about that game sometimes, but it wasn't just Keith Smart's shot; that was a really well-played game."

1989, Michigan over Seton Hall

2003, Syracuse over Kansas: "The late shot, and then the late block. Great to have the game won on a defensive play."

And Wilbon, by the way, is the guy you see on TV and read in the Washington Post: Smart, generous, energetic, humble. He brings a fan's sensibility and a reporter's curiosity to every conversation you have with him. He's the sort of guy who'll call his brother (as he did this morning) just to confirm who played two-guard for the 1980 UCLA Bruins (it was Michael Holton), and then, because he's thinking about that tourney, he'll spin off some stories about Ronnie Lester and Darrell Griffith. He's the sort of guy people love to hang out with.

*****

They announced the Basketball Hall of Fame class this afternoon: Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, and Hubie Brown, former LSU women's coach Sue Gunter, and Brazilian legend Hortencia de Fatima Marcari Oliva.

Hubie was in his element at the press roundtables afterward, telling stories about his father, and about his early coaching days with the Bucks of Robertson and Alcindor and with the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA. A born storyteller and born teacher, Brown was clearly excited for the chance to talk hoops, and clearly moved by his election to the Hall.

"You start thinking back to all the people, all the coaches and teachers and friends along the way, all the people who have touched your life in a positive way. And the gratitude you feel, it's just overwhelming," he says.

"I can't quite believe it, to tell you the truth," Brown said. "All the places I've been, the road I traveled. I feel like I'm coming in through the kitchen door."

Which is the best team Hubie ever coached? Bernard King's Knicks maybe?

"The 1975 Colonels," he says. "Greatest team I ever coached and it's not even close. We scored 108 points per game in the regular season and 108 points per game in the playoffs. We went 4-1, 4-1, 4-1 on the way to the title. That team had Artis Gilmore; Dan Issel; Louie Dampier, one of the great 3-point shooters of all-time; Ted "The Hound" McClain, who could guard anyone you threw at him; Marv Roberts, who was one vote short of being the Finals MVP that year. Fantastic team. Truly great."

How about Artis Gilmore being left out of the Hall of Fame yet again?

"Artis Gilmore was a great player at Gardner-Webb Junior College, a great player at Jacksonville, and a great player in the ABA. And then he came to the NBA and did it with San Antonio and then he did it with Chicago. Now I ask you, 'How many places does a guy have to do it?!'"

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One of the big storylines here since Saturday involves Illinois' team approach to the game, a college hoops version of the Patriots and Pistons.

Bruce Weber says, "We use (those) things as motivation. I've talked about things I heard Belichick say to the guys. He talked about intelligence, love for the game, things like that, things that are why we're good, I think."

Is self-sacrifice, commitment to passing and to defenses, something you can teach?

Jim Boeheim says more than anything it's about time together: "The veterans on a club create that atmosphere. You don't get it out of freshmen unless there are some seniors who set that tone."

Jim Calhoun says some of it comes from the way a coach "tries to instill his values in a team over time," but a big part of it, too, is in the personalities of the kids themselves. "Some kids are committed by nature and some are going to fight it. You can teach the idea all you want, but you need kids with whom the idea resonates," he says.

How do they teach it at UConn?

"It's a lot of things, it's in the little things," Calhoun says. "But one of the things we do is we have a chart that shows how much more likely it is for players who make the Sweet 16 to get drafted, and then how much more likely it is than that that you'll get drafted if you make the Final Four. We tell the players, we need this commitment, and we let them know that there's a good chance of rewards on the back end."

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Best line of the Hall of Fame press conferences:

"I was just thrilled about the double meal money!" -- Calhoun discussing what his first NCAA Tournament win at Northeastern meant to him when it happened.

ST. LOUIS, Monday, April 4, 8:30 a.m. CST:

I had a chance to talk to David Thompson Sunday afternoon. I write that line like it's no big deal, like I was cool about it, like my voice didn't crack and my hands didn't shake, like I wasn't all Ed Grimley dancing around on my tip toes and babbling like a fool. I write that line in regular script, when really it should be written like this: I had a chance to talk to DAVID THOMPSON!!!!!! Just like that the quiet off day of Final Four weekend is transformed into a personal highlight of Final Four weekend.

It was quick, but we talked a little bit about college vs. pro hoops ...

"I love the individual talents you see in the NBA; things that take your breath away every night. But there's no comparing the two games when it comes to passion. Look around this weekend, see everyone in team colors, see how far everyone's come just to be here. With college ball, it's all about the feeling that surrounds what's happening on the floor. There's nothing like it in pro sports."

We talked a little bit about the legendary 1976 ABA All-Star slam dunk contest with Dr. J ...

"The told us they wanted to do something, but we didn't know how it would go. It was halftime. Our legs weren't exactly 100 percent. I remember both Doc and I were just glad we had it in us to put on a good show and stick the dunks we tried. I broke out the 360 for the fist time there, but what I remember most of all was missing one dunk. I had another dunk I wanted to try, that I knew I could do in practice, but I thought maybe my legs weren't there to try it in the contest. I never did break it out, but it was a great dunk: I would cuff the ball in my left arm, up near my face, and when I got up over the rim, I would come through and punch it through the bucket with my right hand, like bringing a hammer down. I should have used that dunk. It would have beaten even Doc's free-throw dunk, I think."

And we talked a little bit about skywalking ...

"That thing about getting a coin off the top of the backboard ... yeah, I could get the coin, but I couldn't quite make change."

I knew he'd said that last line a thousand times, but I didn't care. I ate it up.

And then he was gone – had to catch a plane – and there I was standing in the spot where he'd been, grinning like the cat that got the cream, and trying to imagine the long-lost hammer dunk.

*****

According to an informal straw poll, Illinois is the pressroom pick to win tonight.

Chalk at least some of that up to wishful thinking. Roy Williams' "I'm all about the kids" act has worn paper thin since his jump from Kansas to UNC made it clear that, well, no he isn't.

*****

Most comfortable player interviewee from Sunday: Sean May. The kid talks in paragraphs, full of insight and candor.

Least comfortable player interview: Luther Head just didn't want to be there.

Most charming, humble interviewees: Tie: Illinois' Roger Powell Jr. and Carolina's Marvin Williams (a quiet kid who one reporter said to me this weekend, "just moves, just walks, like a seasoned pro.")

Interviewee with that smooth, Barry White, above the fray, cool about everything you ask and everything he answers: Rashad McCants.

Most popular North Carolina answer: "I'm not thinking about the NBA right now."

Smartest, put-the-pressure-on-the-other-guys Illinois answers: "They have a lottery pick coming off the bench. We share the ball as a team and that seems to work for us."

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Went to the Runyon's party (a Final Four tradition) at a local Irish pub Sunday night. Fewer sweats than the adidas party, and one less DJ. More silver-haired, country-clubbish older guys in blue blazers with gold buttons. They all look like they might be ADs somewhere, or boosters, or Ted Knight impersonators.

One of the staples of Final Four weekend, by the way, is the not-quite-recognition moment. Former players are everywhere, but they're not in the uniforms in which you've come to know them, of course, and they've all gotten a little older and a lot of them have gotten a little softer, and so you can't quite peg who they are, though you know for sure that they're someone. Last night I almost, maybe, kind of, could have, spotted Lawrence Moten. Two nights ago I think I may have, might have, bumped into former Cal guard Ryan Drew at the adidas party, but I can't say for sure.

The moments you're waiting for at these parties, of course, are the moments when someone famous outside of hoops makes the scene. Last night at the Runyon's party it was Vince Vaughn, strolling in at about 10:30. Now, a Vince Vaughn sighting is solid, no doubt (the man did "Swingers," after all), but it's not exactly major (he also did "Clay Pigeons," after all).

"The Final Four is weird that way," an ESPN producer friend told me last night. "You get unpredictable guys. I remember one year at the Women's Final Four, John Cusack kept showing up everywhere."

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Typical awkward Final Four social moment:

Fifty-something man in bad Hawaiian shirt standing in the patio bar at the Raddison says to tight-T-shirted 20-something woman: "I'm here for the Final Four."

Tight T-shirted 20-something woman, face blank as a crashed computer screen: "Are you having fun?"

Hawaiian shirt man: "Nineteen."

Blank-woman: (nothing)

Shirt-man, leaning in, almost whispering now: "In a row."

Blank-woman: (gone)

Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2.




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