Note: Chuck Klosterman is in Atlanta covering the Final Four for Page 2. Check back over the next five days for more updates.
Day 1: Arriving in Atlanta
Prelude to Atlanta
John Hinckley Jr. tried to kill Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981. It was a Monday. I was informed of this by my third grade teacher (Burna Pribula) after coming inside from morning recess.
"I have some news that may shock you," she told the class. "The president has been shot." The room remained silent. We stared at her like tiny, Smurf-obsessed zombies. "This is a terrible situation," Mrs. Pribula continued, "and I realize you might have some questions about this. Does anyone have any questions about this? Anyone?"
We sat in silence.
After 10 seconds, I slowly raised my hand.
"Is the basketball game canceled?"
"The Indiana-North Carolina basketball game," I said. "The NCAA championship. Are they still going to play it tonight?"
Six more weird seconds elapsed.
"I have no idea," my teacher responded, mildly (or perhaps not-so-mildly) disturbed. "The president has been shot. That is the big news here: The president has been shot."
This, of course, did not strike me as particularly earth-shattering information. I was in third grade; at the time, I could name only six presidents and two of them had been killed in office. I assumed presidents got shot all the time. Children are astonishingly effective at public grieving; three hours after the announcement, one of my classmates invented a game called "presidential assassination." Still, I had my concerns: I really wanted to watch Isiah Thomas throw bounce passes to Landon Turner. I feared the worst.
Fortunately, everything worked out: Reagan lived, Alexander Haig overstepped the Presidential Succession Act, and the Hoosiers rocked the Heels by 13. In the subsequent 26 years since that night, I cannot fathom how many hours of college basketball I've watched; I'd estimate a number somewhere between 1,800 and 3,000. This is partially due to my father, a man who forced me to inflexibly embrace the following life lesson at an extremely young age: Pro basketball is something you watch only when there are no college games available. Within the walls of our home, this law never evolved. My father was still referring to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as "Alcindor" during the 1986 playoffs. He never wanted me to watch the NBA All-Star Game, always fearing it would expose me to "crazy ideas." Even today, whenever an NBA team calls a timeout and automatically moves the ball to midcourt, my father becomes confused and despondent.
These are the principles through which I have come to understand existence.
Because I am weird and maudlin, many of my Final Four memories focus on the games I did not see. These missed games continue to haunt, although I cannot explain why; they feel more vivid than the games I saw. When Syracuse beat Kansas for the title in 2003, I was on a plane bound for England to interview Radiohead (I read "No Logo" during the flight, a book that barely mentioned Roy Williams at all). When Villanova upset Georgetown in 1985, I was running in an indoor track meet (when they announced the final score over the sound system during the 3,200 meters, the paltry crowd audibly gasped). When Steve Alford beat Armon Gilliam in the 1987 semifinal, I was at a livestock judging competition in Valley City, N.D. ("I rank this class of Hereford bulls 2-1-4-3"). It seems that whenever I miss a Final Four game, the contest automatically becomes a classic. Which -- sadly -- might indicate that this year's games will be underwhelming, since ESPN is sending me to Atlanta to watch them in person. I will reciprocate by writing sporadic e-mail posts throughout the entire weekend. This is a very popular art form among affluent American young people, especially those who are fans of James Walcott and/or profoundly interested in unauthorized photographs of Nicole Richie's rib cage. I believe there is even a name for this journalistic practice, but I can't remember what it is; normally, I use the Internet only to discuss math principles via CompuServe.
Now, perhaps you are wondering what I am going to write about over the next five days. I am a little curious about that myself: Beyond going to the games and attending the open practices, I have no plan of attack. I won't even have a rental car or a map or a handgun or a subscription to XXL. But here's a partial list of things I would like to write about, which may or may not appear in this space:
1. Throughout the 2007 tournament, I noticed a trend: A low-seeded team would face a high-seeded team, and the underdog would immediately jump out to an early lead. However, the favorite inevitably came back to win virtually all of these contests, often in the closing moments. In other words, the games were almost always close, yet the favorite almost always won. This phenomenon is stranger than it might sound anecdotally: The only other sport in which this consistently happens is soccer, a game in which international juggernauts (Brazil, Germany) regularly face ultra-feeble cupcakes (the Kingdom of Bahrain, the United States) and always win, but usually by just a single goal. I have several theories about why this has started happening in major college basketball, but I might not be able to work these ideas out unless I hook up with Gary McLain's collegiate posse.
2. John Wooden. I really, really want to interview John Wooden. Can anybody make this happen? I need only 10 minutes with the man.
3. I have noticed that many Internet people share a specific writing style: They tend to be bombastic and ironically detached at the same time. They really love certain things and they really hate certain things, but they always manage to remain outside the emotional investment that normally accompanies strong feelings. As such, I intend to do the opposite: I am going to be an earnest, emotionally vulnerable pragmatist. I won't love or hate anything, but I'll be hyper-intense about my apathy. As such, expect sentiments along the lines of, "Oh my God! Oh my dear Jesus who died for our sins! Mike Conley Jr. had an unassuming workmanlike performance this evening! He went 6-of-13 from the field with two turnovers! I respect his father's triple jumping ability! Is love merely a human construction?"
4. The past and future of Billy Donovan, if not necessarily the living present.
5. Ex-Houston Cougars dunking machine Benny Anders.
6. How it feels to be alive.
7. A lot of that, "Have you ever noticed that [specific Florida player] is like the [dated cultural reference] version of [obscure player from the middle 1980s] except that his [some ridiculous stoner concept about grizzly bears] has been filtered through the political ideology of [random indie artist currently on tour with Built to Spill]?" We all have to pay the rent, rockers. I know who I am.
8. Life on the streets of Atlanta, if by "life" you mean "looking for bars that are womb-like and empty."
9. The difference between reality and television, as it applies to sport.
10. Are you aware that Greg Oden is taking a class at Ohio State this semester on the History of Rock 'N' Roll? That might come up once or twice.
SO OKAY THEN time to board my Delta airbus and consider the metaphorical significance of Roy Hibbert. I'll try to write more when I arrive in Hot-lanta, perhaps while watching "Survivor" and consuming the kinds of foodstuffs that would make Jethro Bodine ecstatic. As for you well, you can just continue reading the Internet. That's always superfun. But please don't shoot the president, or at least not until Tuesday.
Thursday, 5:44 p.m.
ATLANTA -- Celebrity, as we all know, is contextual. Which is to say the three primary factors that determine one's fame are the same criteria that control the value of real estate: location, location, and location. I only bring this up because I was just walking on the floor of the Georgia Dome when Billy Packer suddenly showed up. He was wearing khaki pants and a blue shirt, and he looked affable and mildly disinterested in his surroundings (kind of grandfatherly, to be honest). However, it was weird to see how everyone else in the venue stopped talking and just stood there for two seconds, silently (but aggressively) noticing his existence. Nobody said anything to him and they all resumed their previous conversations instantaneously, but it was obvious they were all hyper-cognizant of his presence. This, I suppose, is everything you need to know about being at the Final Four: It's the kind of place where Billy Packer inevitably becomes The Elvis In The Room.
Other notes on the Georgia Dome floor: It's slicker than I anticipated. I think it might be overwaxed (take heed, Corey Brewer). Its principle colors are green with orange trim, sort of like the Miami Hurricanes. The row of leathery chairs that will comprise the players' bench are extremely comfortable, kind of like $800 computer chairs without wheels. The nets look brand new, which probably should be expected.
As you might have gathered from the details in that previous paragraph, there isn't a helluva lot happening down here (at least not at the moment). Downtown Atlanta feels genial and docile and little like Paul Stanley in 1989 (i.e. "Hot in the Shade"). My hotel has no in-room bar and an extremely fast elevator. The first person I saw when I entered the lobby was Clark Kellogg. For a moment, I considered walking up to him and saying, "You're no Ron Kellogg," which -- while not really an insult -- would at least be technically accurate.
Things I've learned in the past 20 minutes ...
• The nickname "Hoya" derives from the Greek and Latin phrase "Hoya Saxa," which loosely translates as "What Rocks!" This is apparently a reference to the stones that comprise the outer wall of Georgetown University. Clearly, these rocks are awesome: As of this afternoon, the college has never been overtaken by nomadic hordes. I'm not sure how rocks equate with a bulldog; maybe bulldogs like to eat rocks. I'm no zoologist.
• The Gators might be among the most balanced college basketball teams of all time. All five of their starters average in double figures, yet all are within 2.4 shot attempts of each other and none attempt more than 10 field goals a game.
• Here's a decent trivia question: Who is the all-time leading scorer in UCLA history? Somehow, the answer to this query is Don MacLean (1989-1992), a white dude best remembered for regularly appearing on the Jim Rome radio show to discuss the 1998 NBA lockout. MacLean scored 283 points more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and over 1000 points more than guys like Kiki Vandeweghe and Jamaal (Keith) Wilkes. It should also be noted that Bill Walton finished his Bruin career with three more rebounds than Jabbar, a factoid he probably brings up at dinner parties way too often.
• Ohio State is in Columbus, Ohio. One of that city's most famous natives was Alice Schille, a watercolorist whose friends included Pablo Picasso and Rodin. Why this information was included in the Buckeyes basketball media guide remains a mystery on par with the Loch Ness monster. OSU is a pretty strange learning institution, all things considered. I believe it actually offers a post-graduate degree in couch burning.
In not-really-but-kind-of-related news: If you're ever in a bar and some semi-tall black dude tells you he once led the NCAA in scoring, I suspect you would assume he was a lying drunkard. However, it's totally plausible that this hypothetical man might be telling you the truth; I'm currently looking at all the 2007 statistical leaders for college basketball, and none of these guys are 2 percent as famous as Billy Packer, even when he's only at Wal-Mart or the bakery or the bathhouse. The three top national scorers this year were Reggie Williams (VMI), Trey Johnson (Jackson State) and Morris Almond (Rice). Kevin Durant was fourth. The most proficient rebounders were Rashad Jones-Jennings of Arkansas Little-Rock, Chris Holm from Vermont, and Kentrell Gransberry of South Florida (interestingly, Durant placed fourth in this category, too). The top assist man was Jared Jordan of Marist. Somebody needs to popularize a collegiate fantasy basketball league in order to makes these guys a little more recognizable. It seems insane that the only time they will ever get mentioned on ESPN is when some rock critic brings them up for no valid reason.
Time to hunt for unicorns ...
Chuck Klosterman is the author of "Fargo Rock City," the essay collection "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs," "Killing Yourself to Live: 85 Percent of a True Story" and the anthology "Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas." He can (sometimes) be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org