By Mark Marchand:
As we approach the Final Four this weekend in North Dallas, I’m reminded that my bracket was trashed at about 4:30 p.m. on the first day of the tourney two weeks ago. But my journey into March Madness began a week earlier in the borough of Brooklyn…
For almost anyone, doing the same thing for 12 hours straight – work, school, play, watching TV, reading, etc. – presents challenges that range from exhaustion to boredom. Yet this is exactly what I chose to do on March 14, focusing on one of my all-time loves: division one college basketball. After years of following on TV the conference championship season that precedes the “Big Dance” of the national NCAA tournament, I made a decision. I would spend the day watching all four games of the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals in the new Barclays Arena in Brooklyn. My alma mater, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is an A-10 member and fielded a good team that was a lock to make the Big Dance even if they fizzled in the conference tourney.
I resolved to ditch my car and make the trip from my home in Saratoga County, N.Y., via public transportation. In the end, it proved to be a day filled with dazzling hoop plays, surprises, a bit of boredom, fatigue, shockingly expensive Bloody Marys, and an even better understanding of how the game is played.
Prior to sunrise on March 14, the day began…
6:55 a.m. – The New York City-bound Amtrak pulls out of the Albany/Rensselaer station, squeaking along tracks that will guide the train south on the east side of the Hudson River. Destination: Pennsylvania Station in midtown Manhattan. The car is relatively quiet and I delve into the day’s New York Times and a cup of coffee. To my right, jagged pieces of ice thrust upward from the mostly frozen Hudson. Further south, there’s less ice and more open water. Birds scatter as we rumble past. The rising sun casts the train’s shadow on the riverside trees, bushes, and a few houses as we zip along. Nearing Manhattan, I spot the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge and I think about the workers forced to endure the nearly arctic-like conditions we’ve experienced during our difficult winter. Still further south, the George Washington Bridge rolls by and, almost ahead of schedule, we’re in Manhattan.
10:35 a.m. – After checking my bags at a hotel in Manhattan, I return to Penn Station to board a #2 subway to Brooklyn. I settle into a vacant seat, which surprises me because it’s still a work day and the car is pretty full. As we pass through lower-Manhattan/Wall Street stations, passengers disembark at every stop…and suddenly I look up to find myself all alone in the car! I cannot believe it. I’m in a city of over eight million people and I’m all alone on a subway car on a weekday morning? I look through the doors to the connected cars before and after my car, and they’re almost half full. I become a bit nervous as the subway departs the last Manhattan stop and heads below the East river to Brooklyn. My fears prove unfounded. The car remains empty as we begin making stops in Brooklyn. Finally, some 20 minutes after leaving Penn Station, I leave the train at the Atlantic Avenue/Barclays station.
11:30 a.m. – I emerge from the subway and gain my first view of the nearly new Barclays Center and its faux rust exterior. It’s an architectural wonder. A massive elevated “ring” with a center open to the sky and a stunning video screen greets visitors. I’m disappointed to find out it’s still chilly, but I walk around the center a bit to learn more about the neighborhood. I spot a large shopping mall across Atlantic Avenue and make a mental note that it might be good location to eat during the two-hour break between the afternoon and evening games. That supposition proves to be very wrong later.
11:50 a.m. – I enter the arena and am greeted by some of the nicest security people and ticket takers I have ever met. I have a strange inkling that I’m someplace other than a sports arena in a major city. After reading the tourney program between games, I discover why. The people who work at Barclays are trained at the Disney Institute. If anyone knows how to teach people to deal with visitors and guests, it’s Disney. Smart move. I buy a beer and head to my seat.
Noon: — My college basketball extravaganza begins as I find my seat near the TV cameras in the second level near mid court. The #9 seed and lowly St. Bonaventure Bonnies from remote Olean in western upstate New York are facing off against tourney # 1 seed St. Louis Billikens, a nationally ranked powerhouse. Even though I’m still mad at St. Louis for beating my UMass team with a last-second basket in the last game of the regular season a week earlier, I dip into my iPhone to find out just what a Billiken is. The Billiken mascot prancing around the court near the St. Louis cheerleaders looks like the Grinch in the “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” cartoon. I learn it’s an elf-like doll created almost a century ago by a Kansas City art teacher and illustrator. A St. Louis University football coach later adopted it as a mascot for the team, and its use spread throughout the athletic program. I’ve seen lots of mascots over the years, but the Billiken is interesting in a disturbing way. Anyway, he had good dance moves and he kept up with the cheerleaders.
St. Louis jumps to an early 14-6 lead. They are an efficient, well-organized team that executes set plays and reacts well on rebound chances. The heart and soul of the Billikens is Atlantic 10 player of the year and senior guard Jordair Jett. He is a wonder to behold as he dashes up and down the court, his long locks moving to and fro as he dishes passes or shoots. Somehow, though, the Bonnies stay in the game and in my notes I start writing “upset?’ early on. They do a nice job double-teaming Jett. Bonnies senior guard Charloon Kloof from Suriname in Northeast Africa puts up a quick 14 points for the Bonnies. During timeouts I watch and listen to the school pep bands located at each end of the court. I end up being entertained by almost all of them throughout the day, but I give my award for this game to the St. Louis band and their terrific electric bass player. At halftime, students from Middle School 244 in The Bronx deliver a spirited dance routine that draws loud applause.
Midway through the second half, the Bonnies draw closer, trailing 52-51. St. Louis seems to tighten up a bit and at 4:32 left in the half it’s tied 61 all. The Bonnies edge ahead briefly, but Billikens senior guard Mike McCall ties it at 63-63 with one of the game’s most beautiful plays: a reverse layup after gliding directly under the basket. Finally, Bonnies junior guard Jordan Gathers breaks the tie with a three-point shot as the clock runs out, and Bonnies win 71-68. St. Louis, already a lock for an at-large NCAA bid, looks stunned.
I feel I have already received my money’s worth, with a major upset that ends up drawing tweets from college hoop expert broadcaster Dick Vitale and bulletins from CBS Sports. But a long day awaits.
2:15 p.m. – Before the second game begins at 2:30 I head downstairs to buy a beer, but decide on a Bloody Mary as I wander by a stand selling mixed drinks. It ends up being a bad move. Not only is it a drink made with a pre-made Bloody Mary mix, it tastes bland and costs $12.75. I wave goodbye to much of my $20 bill as I pass it to the bartender. It’s beer or water from now on.
2:30 p.m. – The Hawks of St. Joseph’s from Philadelphia and the Dayton University Flyers take the court. It promises to be a close game since they are the #4 and #5 seeds respectively. Before the game begins, the Dayton pep band wins my “favorite band of the game” contest as they race out en masse from a tunnel beneath the stands while a loud siren sounds. For pure team spirit, though, the St. Joe’s mascot wins hands down. The Hawk starts his never-ending routine of raising wings over his head every few seconds and won’t stop until the game ends. The student selected to don the Hawk costume raises his wings some 3,500 times during an average game but earns a full scholarship for accepting the role.
As expected the first half is close. St. Joe’s leads 35-34 at halftime as senior guard Langston Galloway from Baton Rouge pours in 20 points in 20 minutes. I scamper downstairs to a Nathan’s stand in the arena and try to buy some French fries. They tell me they don’t sell fries and point me to another food stand. A Nathan’s that doesn’t sell fries? I’m shocked.
3:30 p.m. – As both teams return from halftime, I decide to develop some sort of meaningful statistic that might speak to the pure volume of watching four games in one day – something that goes beyond the 562 points I will eventually see scored on March 14. It occurs to me as I watch Dayton junior guard Jordan Sibert dribble the ball: how many times does the ball bounce while being dribbled during one game, and then four games? Since I’m taking scant notes I quickly realize I just can’t sit there and count bounces or I’ll miss the games themselves. I arrive at mathematical extrapolation. I decide to count bounces during a two-minute period of the second half, and then spread that across the 40 minutes of play during each of the four games to arrive at a rough estimate. It’s not advanced math so I try it. I also decide to include bounce passes since it involves a player intentionally bouncing the ball on the court, as he does during a dribble. Between the 18 and 16 minutes points of the second half I count 71 bounces. If one spreads this across a 20-minute half of a college game that means 394 bounces every 10 minutes, or 788 bounces per half and then 1,576 bounces per game. Carry the two and multiply by whatever and this gives us some 6,304 bounces over four games. It’s a rough estimate, but impressive!
As game two wears on and the Dayton band cowbells resonate around the beautiful new Barclays, I settle back and absorb the back-and-forth rhythm of the games. I always suggest to fellow sports fans that if basketball inventor James Naismith were alive today, he’d point to the fast-paced college game as the way he intended the game to be played, not the often lumbering pace of the NBA half-court game. The college game seems to be played by young men and women who leave little wasted time. They inbound the ball or grab the rebound and rush up court. They then usually spread out the offense and quickly pass the ball back and forth, constantly probing for the slightest of vulnerabilities in the opposing team’s defense and then quickly try to exploit it with a drive under the hoop or a long-range shot. Successful offensive drives often depend on how quickly the ball handler can sense he’s being double teamed and then finding the teammate who’s surely unguarded. And it seems no offensive effort resembles another. There are infinite possibilities.
3:55 p.m. – Longtime St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli prowls the sideline anxiously as the game is tied following a barrage of three-point baskets by each team. Hawk guard Galloway is up to 26 points with 8:16 left in the game. In what appears to be a pre-planned move the Dayton band changes their hats for the third time. With just 15 seconds left, Galloway appears to push the Dayton defender away with his right forearm (no foul called and boos/hisses from the Dayton fans) and hits a three-pointer for a 69-67 St. Joe’s lead. While the Hawk mascot appears to be fading, St. Joe’s hangs on for a hard fought 70-67 win and my day is half done. I must leave the arena because the afternoon session is over and use my evening ticket for the last two games.
5:30 p.m. – I visit the previously seen shopping mall across Atlantic Avenue to forage for an early dinner, and I get skunked. The only two mall restaurants I find are an Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings – both of which have lines out the door. A search of the immediate area turns up scant restaurants. How can it be that a 17,000-seat arena is built in an area where there are so few places to eat? I finally discover a small seafood bar and wolf down some of the worst fish and chips I’ve ever eaten.
6:15 p.m. – I re-enter Barclays and find my seats for the evening session. There seems to be a larger crowd, with a big contingent of Virginia Commonwealth University fans. My seats are in a corner in the second level but I end up moving back to the center court seats I had in the afternoon when I see no one sitting there. VCU, the tourney’s #2 seed, storms to an early 8-1 over # 7 seed Richmond Spiders and it goes downhill for Richmond from there.
I spot yet another fascinating team mascot. The Richmond good luck charm is a student dressed up in a sort of Hamburgler type mask with four furry legs sprouting from his back…intended to make him look like a spider. I actually feel sorry for the student wearing the costume. It’s neither scary nor funny.
7:23 p.m. – The first half ends with VCU up 38-22. VCU freshman forward Mo Alie-Cox has thrilled the crowd with a few thunderous dunks…some of which seem to send shock waves all the way to my section. Richmond opens the half with a spirited run, but with 13:30 left VCU leads 51-31. I start to feel myself dragging a bit. It is, after all, the second half of the day’s third game. I find myself wishing this game would end soon so I could gain some energy from the last game, featuring my alma mater UMass. At 8:30 the game ends with VCU players headed to the locker room with a 71-53 win. I head down for a beer, popcorn, and bathroom break.
9:00 p.m. – Perhaps the largest crowd of the day settles in for the last game of the day, featuring #6 seed UMass vs. #3 seed George Washington University. I quickly discover I’m a lone UMass fan seated in huge throng of GW fans. I resolve to be pretty quiet. For support I glance over at the familiar UMass Minutemen mascot, who seems to be pretty docile and quiet tonight.
My hopes begin to fade quickly as GW surges to a 15-7 lead with 12:56 left in the first half. UMass looks tentative and tired. GW senior forward Nemanja Mikic from Serbia scores nine points in the first 11 minutes. With 7:31 left in the half, GW opens up its first double-digit lead, 25-14. UMass sixth-man Maxie Esho continues his recent streak of outstanding play with a coast-to coast steal and score. He will go on to score 22 points. But the best UMass player, hometown favorite and guard Chaz Williams of Brooklyn, can’t seem to get it going early. He’ll end up scoring 19 points with a late push, but it’s not enough. GW leads 40-31 at the half.
As the second half begins, I take more notice of a GW fan one row in front of me and just to the left. He has become increasingly tense and loud, screaming and swearing at the referees for each call that goes against GW. I make up my mind that if he keeps going he will have a heart attack. He is slamming his fist on the glass tunnel wall next to his seat and has reached the point where large veins in his neck are bulging. I think about some basic instruction I had in cardio-pulmonary resuscitation decades ago. He seems to be fixated on UMass coach Derek Kellogg whenever he steps onto the court while playing is going on, crudely urging the ref to call a #$%@ing technical foul. He ignores similar moves by GW Coach Mike Lonergan. I simply pray that if he does have a coronary he ends up being okay. In contrast, I end up striking up a great conversation with two GW fans from Washington, D.C., sitting on my right. They are quite familiar with UMass, and they admire the university.
UMass, already considered a sure bet to gain an at-large invitation to the NCCA tourney, never really threatens the Colonials. With four minutes left, fans begin heading for the exit. The last four minutes stretch on for a long time as UMass tries to mount a comeback, and fouls/timeouts stall play. With 1:34 left, I consider leaving but stay because it’s my team. At 11:15 it’s over, and GW heads to the tourney semifinal with an 85-77 win.
11:15 p.m. – I have witnessed four games in 11 hours and I am still full of energy. Pushed along by the crowd, I leave Barclays and walk to the crowded subway station, waiting only five minutes for a Manhattan-bound #3 train. Even at that late hour the train is filled with students, workers, young couples, hoop fans, and others. As a close friend had suggested to me, it was the quickest and safest way back to my Manhattan hotel at that time of night. As we stop at stations in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, I gaze out the car window and find myself mesmerized by the movement of three to four other trains going in opposite directions into and out of the station.
11:55 p.m. – My long day’s journey into college basketball is done. I walk the four blocks from Penn station to my hotel on West 37th Street. Before turning in after midnight I ponder the day and make one decision. You can never have too much college basketball. Close to some 6,400 bounces of the basketball might seem boring to some…but I’ll be back…