|Come together, right now, over hoops|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
LAWRENCE, Kansas -- Twelve hours before Kansas tipped off against Syracuse for the national title, Egan Waggoner and his friends showed up at the Wheel, the restaurant/bar/campus institution where Kansas coach Roy Williams occasionally eats lunch. As the first people in line, Waggoner and his friends pretty much had their pick of places to watch the game, but they chose the outside patio even though it was bitterly cold and even though they had to go to the Salvation Army to buy a couch to sit on.
"We could have gone inside," Waggoner said, "but we chose to sit outside so we could have 20 or 30 from our house sit together."
They were ready for Monday's game, these Jayhawks were. When I went to bed after finishing my writing about five in the morning (Sunday night), the local channel was showing a rerun of Roy Williams coach's show. From 1990. When I woke up Monday afternoon, I found the parking lot filled with 13 state patrol cars -- what kind of place had I checked into? -- all ready to help out in town in case the fans got out of control.
Downtown, there were lines out the doors of the bars six hours before tipoff. On campus, sophomore James Howard walked around wearing nothing but KU basketball shorts and a warmup jacket. At Memorial Stadium, a couple thousand fans huddled under blankets and braved game-time temperatures in the 30s to watch the broadcast on the scoreboard. At the Sigma Chi fraternity house, the boys went through their pregame rituals, donning the proper accessories -- lucky sweatshirts, headbands, whistles, wristbands, sunglasses, etc. -- that would assure the Jayhawks a victory.
Sadly, life is full of disappointments. Kansas not only lost, it never even held a lead.
I fear I'm partially to blame. My teams always lose. Saturday, I openly rooted for Marquette and the Golden Eagles lost by 33. Sunday, I drove more than 700 miles from Austin to Lawrence to root for Kansas ... and the Jayhawks shot 12 of 30 from the foul line, fell behind by 18 points in the first half and lost 81-78. I am the official mortuary of the NCAA -- I bury everyone. Kansas should never allow me on the campus again.
"Sure, we will," Rod Barleem joked. "Just not during a game."
Barleem had been in the Wheel since early afternoon -- he brought his laptop so he could spend the afternoon working from a booth -- but he appeared to be taking the loss fairly well. The woman next to him, Theresa Gopp, was having a harder time.
"Syracuse played a helluva game but Kansas deserved to win," Gopp said. "Carmelo Anthony is the s----, I admit that, but he's going to the NBA after only playing one year at Syracuse. He didn't deserve to win. Nick and Kirk stayed four years to win this. They deserved it."
I also thought of all the fans wearing Orange, cheering on their team and enjoying $1 pizza at the Varsity restaurant in Syracuse. I thought of Evans Boston, the Syracuse broadcasting senior who was calling the game from courtside in New Orleans for the campus radio station. I thought of 25-year-old Syracuse senior guard Kueth Duany, who came to the United States as a child to avoid the civil war that is still raging in his native Sudan.
And there were fans, players, hangouts and stories like that at the other schools as well. That was the only problem with my tour of each Final Four campus. By the time it was over, I wanted them all to win. But only one could.
I was embedded on the Final Four campuses for just nine days, but I feel as if I completed graduate studies in modern university life. I attended classes and toga parties, ran with ROTC students and walked alongside protesters, prayed with Jesuit priests and discussed the war with Muslim women, shivered in the snow of Syracuse and relaxed in the 80-degree sunshine at Texas.
And I had as much fun as is possible without being placed on double-secret probation.
I met a lot of different people from a lot of different places with a lot of different views, and what stands out most is the one thing they all had in common: the NCAA Tournament. Walking on the Texas campus Saturday afternoon, I came across a war protestor on his way to a rally. "Both our men's and women's teams in the Final Four," he said with a smile as wide as a longhorn. "Wouldn't it be amazing if they both won?"
This tournament started hours after the U.S. began bombing Iraq, amid discussion about whether the games should be postponed. As the tournament ended, American troops were in Baghdad. Monday morning, KU fans were able to see an Internet photo of a U.S. soldier holding a Jayhawks flag in one of Hussein's captured palaces. Obviously, someone over there is happy the tournament went on as scheduled (though not as happy as he would have been had the Jayhawks shot a little better from the foul line).
The streets neighboring Allen Fieldhouse are named for states -- Massachusetts, Indiana, Tennessee, Iowa, Michigan -- and the tournament works the same way. For three weeks, the country's basketball arenas bring the country together. There are other great sporting events -- the Masters begins in just two days -- but none have such a nationwide, geographic flavor. No other has such truly national participation.
Oh, sure, sometimes it can be unpleasant. Like when your team is shooting 12 for 30 from the line. Or falling behind by 29 at halftime. Or when you're freezing in the snow while camping out for tickets you can barely afford after you pay your tuition bill which is going up another 10 percent next semester. But then a future NBA lottery pick drops by at midnight to hand you a plate of chips, and it all seems worthwhile, because you feel as if you're part of more than a college, you're part of a team.
That's why Mike Stuble flew here from New York just to watch Saturday's semifinal game. That's why Khaleel Sayeed drove six hours from Minnesota to watch the championship game with his old frat brothers. And that's why I was able to be on campus for just a day or two and still feel like such a part of the schools that I expect the alumni associations to hit me up for a donation.
It's like Waggoner said while watching the game at the Wheel's patio: We can sit somewhere warmer, more convenient and more comfortable, but it's nicer to sit together.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.