INDIANAPOLIS -- Standing near the 6th Street NW entrance of the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, the third stop on my four-day, four-city NCAA tournament Regional Road Trip, a few minutes after Syracuse's ruthless win over Marquette, I was looking for fans to talk to when Stacey Pushkin and her son Max came to talk to me.
"Is this where the players come out?" Stacey asked, pointing to the media door. I didn't know, but I didn't think so. There was no charter bus purring nearby, which wasn't a good sign. Syracuse's players, which had just finished one of the great four-game defensive runs in NCAA tournament history, had escaped.
The Pushkins were undeterred, and after Stacey noticed the press pass dangling from my neck, quickly turned their enthusiasm on me. They asked about the job and where I sat during games and whether I traveled a lot -- "Of course he travels, Mom, it's like the hugest tournament," Max said -- and when I asked them whether they lived in the area, they explained that in fact they drove all the way from Westchester County, New York, on a whim. They were watching Syracuse upend No. 1-seed Indiana in the Sweet 16 when they decided they wanted to see the Elite Eight. They called a family friend, who hastily arranged tickets, a hotel reservation, and two spots on the Amtrak train.
"I wanted to do something nice for him," Stacey said. "He just had his bar mitzvah, and he studied for five years, and now he's doing another project collecting sports equipment for underprivileged kids. So now we have to work on that project."
For the next 15 minutes, we talked about basketball. They asked about the Michigan finish -- Max's analysis of Trey Burke's 40-footer: "That was a shocking shot!" -- and his bracket. He had picked the Orange to go to the Final Four, naturally, and when he dialed it up on an iPhone (before Wichita State's win over Ohio State) he ranked in the 99th percentile on ESPN's Tournament Challenge.
"Max had an amazing day," Stacey said, as her son beamed.
In each of the four days on this Regional Road Trip, as I traveled from Chicago to Los Angeles to Dallas to D.C. to Indianapolis, I spent far less time watching basketball than I did walking and talking (and taking pictures and shooting videos and bothering otherwise innocent people, all of whom were polite), in the hope of opening a window into what it's like to attend one of these events as a fan -- or at least a fan with a backstage pass.
It's like being a fan with a cheat code on.
In Los Angeles, an Ohio native was legitimately torn about whether he should root for his adopted Wildcats team at Arizona, where he's an alumnus. There was a whole mess of Wichita State fans who had no idea just how good things were about to get.
In Dallas there was a father, a Florida graduate, who abandoned his Gators to cheer for Florida Gulf Coast with his daughters and the thousands of people in attendance for their once-in-a-lifetime moment. I saw Michigan's players tell Dunk City to "go get it!" in the tunnel just seconds after Trey Burke embossed his legend.
In Washington, there was a Syracuse fan wearing her grandfather's 1987 cap; there were five friends rooting for the Orange who stood in the highest row in the arena for 40 minutes; I stood among the Orange when Jim Boeheim pointed to them to thank them for sticking by their often-frustrating team.
In Indianapolis, I saw the most electric crowd of the season instantly muted by Kevin Ware's gruesome compound fracture; I saw teammates mourn for their brother; I felt a crowd that had been shocked out of its giddy bliss root with even deeper investment when its kinetic team eventually pulled away.
I was also reminded of how sports can disappoint.
It was easy to see the inauthenticity in L.A., the disgusting excess in Arlington, the offensive tragicomedy in D.C., the uncompensated athlete break his leg in front of 34,657 paying fans in Indianapolis.
When you're a kid, you believe in it. When you grow up, you learn that big-time college sports -- where the athletes are kids like you are, or once were, who take classes and play for the joy of the game in rivalries that run like arteries through your childhood -- aren't pure or free of greed after all.
If anything, they're just less honest about it. You see 100-year-old rivalries die for money. You realize you know coaches' salaries and TV contracts off the top of your head. You know how much Texas ($153.5 million) and Ohio State ($126.5 million) spent on athletics in 2012. You realize all of this is possible precisely because fans love their schools, that there's no way to stop feeding the beast unless you decide to stop caring, and how could you do that?
You stop seeing student-athletes. You start seeing unpaid labor.
You don't feel it happening, and then one day you realize the water in this kettle is boiling.
You realize you're becoming cynical.
So, what did I learn on this trip? I'm not sure if it was a lesson, or if I was merely reminded, but here it is: fandom is pure.
The geography may vary, the stadiums may differ, the systems may be flawed. But the connective tendons that string it all together -- fandom, love, the sheer thrill of the thing itself -- remain as taut as ever.
We act like we have relationships with teams; we say "we" instead of "them." But that's just shorthand for the real relationships that exist around the teams and the schools -- obsessions borne from grade-school friendship; bonds passed down by blood or happily adopted through marriage; lifelong rooting interests accepted, logo hoodie and all, on the first day of college.
When Syracuse cut down the nets at the Verizon Center on Saturday, I could have seen recruiting murk, academic scandal, bloated budgets, a Big East charter member with one foot already in the ACC. And for a little while there, maybe I did.
But then I saw a proud mother and her whip-smart, sports-obsessed 13-year-old son -- a man now -- recount a day they'll never forget. The game gave them that. For all its flaws, it still has that power. It still brings people together.
Cynicism doesn't stand a chance.