Regional Road Trip: Postcard from Indianapolis
INDIANAPOLIS -- Of the four destinations this Regional Road Trip odyssey comprised, Indianapolis was by far the least exotic -- or the most familiar, let's say -- to your humble travel correspondent. I've been to Indianapolis for lots of basketball games, first as a fan and then as a writer; I know my way from the airport to the hotel to the arena and back; I know where to eat and where to find fans and the best place to park; I didn't have to unleash my trusty co-pilot (Google Maps) once.
Even so, this one was special -- in ways both good and bad.
The atmosphere in downtown Indy took a little longer than usual to ramp up -- it was Easter Sunday, after all -- but once it did, it was even better than usual. Louisville is just two hours down I-65, and so Cardinals fans (and their car flags) dominated the scene. They moved in packs on the sidewalks, crowded into (and spilled out of) bars and hosted impromptu, stripped-down tailgates wherever a gate could legally be tailed.
And that was before I walked into the arena.
It was, to use an drastically overused word, electric. Lucas Oil Stadium is similar in scope to JerryWorld, but instead of closing off the top sections with curtains, the hosts took a more traditional tact, halving the stadium and placing the court and entire crowd on one side. It didn't hurt the atmosphere at all; instead, the whole thing felt like a Final Four game. I'll use it again: electric.
So it was for the first 13 minutes and 30 seconds, right up until Louisville guard Kevin Ware plunged Lucas Oil underwater. Ware's freak compound fracture, too gruesome to describe in detail, was so horrific -- and the reactions of Louisville players so anguished -- that the entire building went numb. It took a second-half Cardinals surge for the building to reach full throat once more.
Save Ware's injury and the resulting emotion, it was a rousingly successful day of basketball in a city that revolves around it, which is exactly what I expected. When it comes to hoops, Indy always delivers.
Regional Road Trip: Washington, D.C. postcard
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Outside Dallas, the sky is big and the Earth is flat, and you don't even have to be that close to Cowboys Stadium to make it out on the horizon -- a pure-white alien orb that looks like it dropped from the sky and took up residence where it felt it had enough space to not be bothered.
It inspires the kind of awe that makes you write sentences like this: For better or worse, as silly as it is, you start wondering what the pharaohs would have thought. Whatever it makes you feel, "I am about to watch a basketball game" is the least of them.
Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center does not conjure these kinds of cultural questions. It is a much simpler, and more straight-forward, experience: Show up, watch a basketball game, walk out, go home.
I mean this entirely as a compliment.
For all the wonders and riches JerryWorld offers, it isn't a basketball venue. The Verizon Center is a basketball venue, and while I like to be wowed as much as the next person, when it comes to the NCAA tournament, I'd always prefer a straight-forward basketball site over a total circus. And I'll always take a quick train ride or walk over a two-mile parking-lot weave.
In other words, my experience at the Verizon Center wasn't mindblowing in any particular way. There were no FGCU fans, no massive panaromas, no feeling of scope in the worst seat in the house. But it was still awfully fun -- exactly what the NCAA tournament in late March should be.
Regional Road Trip: Postcard from Arlington
ARLINGTON, Texas -- That dateline just to the left says "Arlington," because that is an actual place on the map. Those are the rules. But if we wanted total truth in nomenclature here, we'd use those all-caps more accurately. Today, your humble correspondent reported live from JerryWorld -- every nook and cranny of it.
After a day in L.A., where a flashy basketball arena was surrounded by fan-fest activities and tourist-friendly restaurants, the JerryWorld experience brought something totally different: the feeling of entering a self-sustaining city, the modern equivalent of Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu, a gleaming monolith that shows up in plain sight even when Google Maps tells you you're 15 minutes away. It's the kind of building future civilizations will credit to ancient aliens, because that will be the most plausible explanation.
I spent time in the stadium's highest reaches and lowest depths, walked its perimeter and sat smack in its middle, saw Michigan high-five Florida Gulf Coast in the tunnel between games, hung with coaches and players and staffers and security guards and binocular salesmen (yes, you read that right) and seemingly every type of fan one can find. And all on less than an hour of landing-pattern airplane sleep. Not too shabby, if I may say so myself.
At 8:30 a.m. CT tomorrow, it's off to the third stop on my tour, Washington, D.C.'s Verizon Center, a medium-sized arena nestled into a dense urban area that outlaws skyscrapers; it actively restricts its own outward largesse. It is the anti-JerryWorld. I bet you can't even see it from space.
Regional Road Trip: Postcard from L.A.
LOS ANGELES -- I'd been to Los Angeles before. I'd never been to L.A. Live. From afar -- read: on television -- it seemed like the perfect place to host an event like the NCAA tournament: a big plaza across the street from Staples Center, restaurants and bars and tourist attractions galore, hotels everywhere, the works. Full spread.
On Wednesday night, with the exception of the Arizona band, Wilbur the Wildcat and some dude with a cane who kept telling me to move out of his way so he could take seemingly aimless photos, the whole scene was 100 percent dead. Even the Staples Center marquee, which I assumed was L.A.'s version of a 24/7 Rockefeller Plaza Christmas tree, was dark.
Come on, L.A.! It's the NCAA tournament! I realize the Lakers aren't playing, and the beach is just around the way, but still. Work with me here.
Some thoughts from Thursday's L.A. excursion:
Game notes: La Salle's fans had reason to keep up said joie de vivre after the game; they were thrashed by a Wichita State team fully in charge from start to finish. But Ohio State-Arizona was a really good game, and not just because it was close: It was the best I'd seen Arizona play all season -- all sharp angles and crisp dribble moves and NBA athleticism -- and they had just as much of a right to the victory as the Buckeyes did.
Food notes: If you say "Where should I eat in L.A.?" by far the two most recommended places are In-N-Out Burger and Pink's Famous Hot Dogs. Are they both tourist traps? Yes! Are they both completely delicious? Also yes! I enjoyed both, even if I thought In-N-Out was just a tad -- a tad! -- overrated. I mean, great, great burger. Don't get me wrong. Life-changing experience? Eh.
Traffic notes: Los Angeles has traffic, and that traffic makes it difficult to get around quickly. Have you seen this? Have you heard about this?
"Check the map first" of the day: When I was scouting out a route from my LAX hotel to Pink's, I noticed that Santa Monica Boulevard ran smack dab through Hollywood. "Why, that's not in Santa Monica," I thought. "Heh!" So, naturally, wrote a tweet: "Santa Monica Blvd. is nowhere remotely close to Santa Monica. Discuss." Turns out, the street runs literally through the heart of Santa Monica; no street is more in Santa Monica than Santa Monica Boulevard. Twitter straightened me out on that one pretty quickly.
What's next: A 6 a.m. PT flight to Dallas; some merciful sleep on the plane; frightening children with my haggard appearance; adjusting to another rapid-fire time-zone change; scouring Dallas for the best eats and the best fans; and two fantastic South Region games -- Kansas-Michigan and Florida-FGCU.
Thursday was a long, exhausting, and totally awesome day, and I'm going to do it all again Friday. Bring it.
Regional Road Trip Blog
Best from Indianapolis
Best moment: For the first 13 minutes and 30 seconds of Louisville's win over Duke Sunday, the atmosphere inside Lucas Oil Stadium was the best I'd felt this weekend -- the best I'd felt all season, maybe. Then came the injury. The stomach-turning realities of Kevin Ware's compound fracture were quickly overtaken by the scene on the court, where Peyton Siva, Russ Smith and Chane Behanan collapsed and cried. Instantly, all of the arena's buzz was sucked out, replaced by a vacuum of strained, muffled noise. The Cardinals looked just as flat.
When Louisville's second-half surge got the shaky crowd all the way back on its feet, and the Cardinals rode it all the way through to a resounding victory, all of that raw emotion was unleashed. The crowd cheered louder than it had all season, I'd wager, and never louder than "Kev-in, Kev-in." Wear's injury could have marred the Cardinals' season, and it could have destroyed what should have been an intense but ultimately fun afternoon of NCAA tournament basketball. Instead, it invested the moment with something more.
Best people I met
My second-favorite interaction of the day came early in the afternoon, when I asked some scalpers how things were going. They aired their frustrations with the large arena and low secondary market volume, and when one told me to "make it rain," I wasn't sure whether he meant it in the typical cash-throwing sense or whether he actually wanted it to start raining. (The former, as it turns out.)
My favorite meet-and-greet was definitely with the Spurgeons (Darrell, Gail, Tiffany, Brooke, Clayton, Fleischer) and the Townsends (Dawn, Lauryn, Jaden Noah) who together roamed the streets of downtown Indy like a pair of allied Game of Thrones houses. Darrell's pants -- pressed dress slacks with copious Cardinal logos -- and when I approached him, he took a break from his cigar just long enough to read me completely: "You like my pants, don't you?" Yes, Mr. Sturgeon. Yes I do.
Best meal I had
Indianapolis natives, as well as attendees of Indiana and Purdue, will be familiar with Scotty's Brewhouse. I consider myself something of a spicy chicken sandwich connoisseur; I've had spicy chicken sandwiches of every conceivable type from sea to shining sea, even in Ireland and Canada, which I can't recommend. It'd been too long since I had quite possibly my favorite spicy chicken sandwich -- called the Mo'Fo Cluck -- of all time. Scotty's is a straightforward sports bar done right, which makes it a lot like Indianapolis on basketball weekends, when you really think about it.
Best meal I didn't have
I knew I wouldn't have time to go after the game, which is why stepping out of the parking garage only to see that grand beef and seafood mirage -- St. Elmo's Steakhouse -- was a particularly poignant moment for your humble correspondent. The best I could do was take a photo, walk the opposite direction and imagine myself swimming in horseradish cocktail sauce like Scrooge McDuck in his pile of gold coins.
Best from Washington, D.C.
Best people I met: Stacey Pushkin and her 13-year-old son Max were watching the second half of Syracuse's Sweet 16 win over Indiana in their home in Westchester Co., New York, when Stacey had a crazy idea: She wanted to take her son to the Elite Eight. Max had just finished five years of temple study and his bar mitzvah, and Stacey wanted to do something to celebrate.
"We could tell in the middle of the game they were probably going to win," Max said, so they bought tickets Friday and came all the way down early Saturday, just in time to see Syracuse advance to the Final Four. They happily agreed to take a photo for my live chat/scrapbook -- when Stacey asked if she could put on lip balm, and Max rolled his eyes -- and were so unfailingly nice we ended up talking for 15 minutes before I realized I had to start writing. Also: Syracuse's win pushed Max's bracket into the 99th percentile in ESPN's Tournament Challenge.
Best impromptu sightseeing
On the way to the arena, I managed to swing by the U.S. Capitol building and pop in front for a photo. I've seen it before -- I've been inside the rotunda and all that fun stuff -- but I nonetheless felt obliged to see it again on my way downtown. It's always pretty great.
Best retro Big East gear
I spent a lot of the day looking for retro memorabilia, not only because that stuff is usually great, but because it felt weirdly apropos given that it was the last "Big East" game for Syracuse. I'll call it a tie between a Marquette Warriors sweatshirt from 1994 and a 1987 vintage cap owned originally by the wearer's grandfather.
Most D.C. run-in
No, I'm not talking about President Obama, though he was in the building. I'm referring to suddenly finding myself behind CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer, surrounded by Syracuse fans yelling "See you in Atlanta, Wolf! See you in Atlanta!" He barely flinched.
Most dedicated fans
I found a group of six Cuse fans who stood the entire game and were vocally proud of it; it was clearly a point of pride despite the fact that they were in the absolute last row of the upper deck. That's hustle.
Best from Arlington, Texas
Best people I met: I met some cool folks in Los Angeles, but Friday set a new high watermark: There was the shy 10-year-old Florida fan who said he thought the Gators were going to "crush Florida Gulf Coast's dreams;" the father who gave up his Gators fandom to cheer for his daughters' Eagles, at least for the time being; the suite staffer who walked me through the unseen largesse of the building's notoriously swanky suites; an FCGU fan who came dressed as Cinderella; Bill, the thumbs-up-giving binoculars salesman; Gordon Kaiser, who came decked in his TCU gear; the couple, one a Michigan fan, the other a Jayhawk, both Arlington, Texas, born and raised; the dude with the Andy Enfield big head; and the nicest traffic worker in the world, whose cheerful directions came after a long day of travel and which, I've got to say, really helped. (And many more.)
Not long after Trey Burke hit That Shot and the Wolverines closed out No. 1-seed Kansas, Michigan ran through the tunnel where FGCU was waiting. The Wolverines screamed encouragement to the Eagles -- "get that s---, Dunk City!" -- and high-fived their way through the tunnel. And then the Eagles, energized, started dancing and hollering on their own. It was great.
Best thing I ate
I spent the entire day in this gigantic Big 'N Lots replica, so I didn't have much time to sample the local Dallas fare. The good news? Cowboys Stadium's press food was great. I'm not sure if it overtook Staples Center's immediate launch to the top of my all-time power rankings Thursday (serve me soft shell tacos and I'm yours forever), but it did have something called "cheesecake lollipops." The early over/under on my personal cheesecake pop consumption is set at 35.
Most disorienting view
I climbed all the way to the top of the stadium -- OK, I took an elevator; I'm no Tenzing Norgay -- and walked to the furthest possible row, and took a seat, and just I mean, it's kind of hard to describe. You can see the full breadth of a mile circumference, but you're indoors. I sat in the highest reaches of the stadium -- where there were no seats sold, and curtains covered the empties -- and thought: Why? Why is this necessary? Of all the things humanity can do, we do this? And then I saw the 80-yard HD video board replay a Glenn Robinson dunk in four simultaneous angles, and it hit me. It's the same reason people have always built big stuff: Because they can.
Most briefly confusing sign
One fan I met, Dana Frantz, came ready to be seen: She dressed in a let's-call-it-less-than-traditional Cinderella and was 100 percent receptive to my hopes of photographing her and her two friends. They held up their signs, which read: "You aren't in The Swamp anymore; welcome to Sherwood Forest." Sherwood Forest, I thought. I'm pretty sure that's from Robin Hood; I used to love Robin Hood. Then I realized they were referring to FGCU's Sherwood Brown, and then I remembered I hadn't slept in 36 hours.
Best from Los Angeles
Favorite enounter: I found the basketball equivalent of a yeti: A real, live, checked-his-pulse-so-I-know-he-was-breathing Florida Gulf Coast fan. I know what you're thinking -- just another passenger on the bandwagon -- because that's exactly what I was thinking too. So I asked him. Instead, Estero, Fla. native Rick Berendes actually had a real reason to be a Florida Gulf Coast fan before Dunk City became Dunk Universe: His daughter attends the school. He admitted she wasn't the biggest college hoops fan before last weekend.
"I was talking to her before the tournament began, and I asked her where she was going to watch the game," he said. "She told me, 'Not sure, some of my friends want to go see a movie.' And I just said, "No, you're in the NCAA tournament. You have to watch the game.'"
Obviously, everyone's on board these days, and Berendes -- who was in L.A. on business and squeezing in some time with his brother, a Wichita State fan -- couldn't resist bringing the T-shirt out. To be honest, I probably pestered him too much about it. But then again, if you wear an FGCU shirt in public, and you happen to stumble into a reporter on a cross-country NCAA tournament hoops fandom tour, pestering is just part of the bargain.
Best tailgate: Ohio State and La Salle. The former was a pretty standard affair, with the pep band and Brutus the Buckeye marching through as your standard assortment of Ohio State fans clapped and took cell phone photos. I did find a group of Arizona fans, one of which attended Arizona but grew up in Ohio State. I sort of thought he was joking about how torn he was but he was serious. He really was torn.
The La Salle tailgate was a bit more, shall we say, boisterous. It was about 200 people packed in to the top floor of ESPN Zone (synergy!), who were equipped with their beverages of choice, Explorers T-shirts, signs that said "Southwest Philly Floater" in honor of Tyrone Garland's legendary post-game-winner TV interview last weekend, and lots of chicken wings. I was offered at least one of each during my tour of the group. The Explorers' following might not have been as big as their competition, but they might have a winning quality-vs.-quantity argument on their side.