Hoosiers have adopted GMU, are drinking to them
INDIANAPOLIS -- The recipe for Kryptonite Ale isn't much different from the one that Saint Patrick's Day made famous: Take a light blonde beer, stir in several teaspoons of green food coloring and pour the mixture into a disposable plastic cup.
It's the top seller this week at the Big Horn Brewery, an establishment that's located a quick block and a half from the RCA Dome. Big Horn is one of the four NCAA-sanctioned gathering locations here in Indy, and it's been tabbed as the official fan headquarters for the Final Four's surprise guest, George Mason University.
There were green and gold helium balloons everywhere in the main lounge area that led to a cluster of tables, booths and long curving bars. The brewery walls are decorated with printed posters that echo the title of the Purple Ribbon All-Stars rap single that the Patriots have adopted as their anthem: "I'm On It (Kryptonite)." And four dollars will get you a 16-ounce cup of the green stuff, as well as a grab bag of fun fan extras: a green glow-tube necklace, a temporary tattoo of GMU's logo and an oversized green button that reads "David 4 - Goliath 0".
But a quick survey of the packed-to-capacity room on Friday night revealed that nobody wearing the water-soluble tats or neon neckwear actually was from George Mason; most didn't even know where the school is. "It's near Washington, D.C., right?" came the embarrassed whispers. "Is it somewhere in Maryland?"
You can certainly forgive the locals for locating the upstart school from Fairfax, Va., on the Division I men's basketball bracket far more easily than on the U.S. map. This is Indiana, after all -- basketball's first state, home of "Hoosiers" and the last true mid-major to achieve the national title game (Indiana State, 1979). Despite any day-to-day allegiances, they're pretty much genetically predisposed to cheer for little guys who come out of nowhere.
"We love the 'dogs," explained Michael, a scraggly-bearded Indiana fan in a dark green t-shirt who would have had on a yellow long-sleeved one underneath if it wasn't back home in the wash. "And we love good, fundamental, team-first basketball here. That's what George Mason plays ... five guys in double figures, good shooters and post threats, pass the ball well ... it's impossible not to fall in love with them."
But visitors from out-of-town have been won over, too -- even those who have faced down the George Mason juggernaut and lost. There was a small gathering of UConn fans positioned near the bar -- they'd all seemingly put aside their frustrations after their vaunted one-seed lost 86-84 to George Mason in overtime at the Washington regional final, and made the trip to Indianapolis anyway.
"We deserved to lose that game," says Steve, who sported the clashing combo of a Connecticut tackle-twill sweatshirt and a GMU logo tattoo, which had been applied squarely in the middle of his forehead. "We absolutely deserved it. We were lazy, and we paid the price for not playing hard, and we had it coming all tournament. I've got no problem rooting for George Mason, they beat us fair and square."
And then, just before 8 p.m., a guest of honor arrived at the Big Horn. George Mason president Dr. Alan G. Merten walked through the front doors grinning and shaking hands, and once news of his identity spread, the school's new fans offered up a whooping ovation. The 10th-year school president responded with high-fives, cellphone-photo ops, and gifts of "Go Mason!" buttons from his suit pockets. Someone bought him a Kryptonite Ale.
"It's not bad," Merten said after taking a sip. "I need something for my throat. I've been talking non-stop for the past 11 days."
And then, a woman in a green and gold t-shirt interrupted. "Excuse me, sir," she said softly to Merten. "We have some alumni out front. Come out and visit with us when you have a moment?"
Outside in the warm spring evening, a group of six actual George Mason alums sat together on the brewery's tiny sidewalk patio, hemmed in by a short iron fence. Half an hour after Merten's cordial visit, the small gathering took head coach Jim Larranaga's exhortation to have more fun than anyone else a step further, singing drunken renditions of the school's fight song and applying one of the rub-on tattoos to one alum's pasty posterior. To passersby, they must have looked like zoo curiosities.
"Basketball is everything here," said the relatively calm and subdued Vince, who sported a George Mason School of Law baseball cap. He lives and practices law in Indianapolis now. "Four years ago when I interviewed here, I told [potential employers] I went to George Mason and they said, 'Didn't they make the Tournament in 2001?' And I said, 'Yes, and it has one of the best law schools in the country.' Then they paused and said, 'Didn't they make the Tournament in 2001?' "
"Go Mason!" a recent convert yelled out from the street, wearing a neon tube as a halo headband. "Whooo!!"
"I can't believe all this is happening," Vince said, shaking his head. "It's like free advertising for the school. And I know that that all this attention is going to go away next week. But people are going to remember that name, George Mason. They're never going to forget that name."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.