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LDN at the Final Four

By Jeff Mayfield

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[April 11, 2008]  Since the inception of the LDN, we've been taking you inside the action at the annual Final Four, no matter where that may take us. This year was no exception. So, now that I have returned from sunny and warm San Antonio, Texas, I wanted to take a few minutes to bring you some of the pageantry, the glitter and the fun that make this event the greatest spectacle in sports!

San Antonio the best site?

Many friends have asked me over the years what my favorite venue is for the Final Four. The answer is quite easy. Since they took Seattle (it would have been a close second) out of the rotation (the Kingdome was replaced by an outdoor stadium), San Antonio is by far the best venue, and whatever city is now voted second isn't even close!

San Antonio has it all. Hotels and restaurants are close by. The climate, the weather, the environment ... can't be beat. The people are incredibly friendly and helpful. In fact, San Antonio is so nice it might even be able to give Lincoln a run for its money. If the NCAA gave me a vote (and that is unlikely to happen any time soon), I would vote to make San Antonio the permanent home of the men's basketball championship.

I guess if you had access to my ballot of the top 10 sites that I have personally been involved with, it would look something like this:

  1. San Antonio, Texas

  2. Seattle, Wash.

  3. Tampa-St. Pete, Fla.

  4. St. Louis, Mo.

  5. New York, N.Y.

  6. Charlotte, N.C.

  7. Minneapolis, Minn.

  8. Atlanta, Ga.

  9. New Orleans, La.

  10. Indianapolis, Ind.

Now keep in mind I mean no disrespect to any city that may appear to be ranked too low. Also, keep in mind that I am not the typical basketball fan when I attend the event. The vast majority are hoop junkies who only want to eat, sleep and drink basketball the whole time. I actually only want to do that during the games. The entire rest of the time is to spend time with friends and family members, eat food I probably wouldn't eat in Illinois or Wisconsin, and visit as many local sights as is humanly possible (more on that later).

At least two cities that hosted title games that I was not able to attend, Denver and Albuquerque, would also rank very high on my list. We're also going to Houston soon, and that is a pretty good venue. In addition, look for Phoenix to be chosen as a site in the near future, and they would immediately vault into my top four!

Local flavor

So, what is there to do in San Antonio? It would take a week to tell you. I guess you could say that it all starts and ends with the River Walk right downtown. I think it is a part of the San Antonio river system, but don't hold me to that. You can take a boat taxi or, better yet, a boat tour through the city that is as unique and fun as any other tour in the country! Some of my all-time favorite restaurants are on this River Walk.

Then, of course, a history nut like me would tell you to visit the Alamo. I think my first recollection of ever hearing about it was the old John Wayne movie. But to go there, take the tour and hear what happened is just a special experience. It is one of my favorite historical places that I have ever visited. Not to mention that according to my son, they have some of the best toys! (I brought him home a Davy Crockett pop gun and some plastic men representing both armies, and he's already got them set up in our living room -- company, beware.)

There is a spectacular indoor-outdoor market, the architecture gives you that feel of the Old West -- stone streets and buildings, trolleys, etc. -- just a great place to roam.

There are also some great churches in the area. We attended Oak Hills on Sunday and got to hear the noted author Max Lucado speak. I had heard him several times before, but he was never better. If you're in town and he's scheduled to speak, you won't regret driving out there. Former college and NBA great David Robinson is one of the ministers on their staff.

Speaking of driving... We drove out to Johnson City, Texas, on Monday and visited the boyhood home of Lyndon Baines Johnson, our former president. From there we drove the 15 minutes out to the LBJ ranch and boarded a tour bus that took us out to the "Texas White House." They still farm cattle, longhorns, sheep, goats, etc. It is the Texas Hill Country and it is much more beautiful than I had imagined... It's like Illinois farmland on steroids ... with cliffs, hills, more trees, etc. It also served as a journey back through some of our childhood memories, as President Johnson was in office during our childhood years.

Why we were there

I guess I should say a few things about the basketball since that is what drew us there in the first place. For those of you who don't know, I used to be a basketball coach. I'm old and it was a long time ago, so I don't expect many people to care now since probably not many cared then. When I retired from the game I retained my membership in the National Association of Basketball Coaches. Probably a dumb thing to do, but after going through winter, especially one like this one, I really look forward to wasting a week of hard-earned vacation on college basketball.

This year's experience for us took on a life all its own. Some of you know that a friend of mine, former Lincoln resident Craig Zastrow, and I meet and spend the week together during Final Four week. Now that we are colleagues, it's easier to meet up to get away. Some of you also know that we don't always go to the games. We're not guaranteed tickets since we retired from the game, and if we don't like the teams playing ... let's just say that sometimes we don't try too hard to get tickets... In fact, I remember one Final Four where we did so much golfing and sightseeing I'm not sure that you could've proved it by us that there were even any basketball games going on ... but I digress. And this was shaping up to be such a year since we only really cared about one of the teams that made it (I'll let you guess as to what team that was -- no hints).

However, do you remember playing Monopoly as a kid? Do you remember the card that said, "Bank errors in your favor. Collect $200"? That actually happened to me/us ... and that kind of stuff never happens to me. Well, as I told you earlier, we're not guaranteed tickets ... but somebody, somewhere made a mistake, and the next thing we knew is that we not only had tickets, but that they were pretty good ones at that. I knew that there had been a mistake, so I asked a high-ranking official, who happens to be a friend, how I should go about making it right (I believe you must do that even if the checkout girl only gives you one penny too much). BTW, I have always found that honesty pays even richer dividends down the road than any setback or reward that happens initially. This incident was just such a case. As this official examined the evidence, he proclaimed that the error was in our favor.

I know many of you will laugh at this, but I believe that God intervened. I have been through some stuff the last few years, and sometimes it is hard to stay positive. Moments like this remind me that he's in control, not me, and that even my best laid plans are so far exceeded by his that it isn't even funny. All I could do was laugh ... while watching four games from some pretty good seats.

Four games?

I know the bright, astute fans among you immediately called my story into question when I just stated that we watched four games. You're going to retort that there are only three games -- the two semifinal games on Saturday and the championship on Monday. Au contraire! What you may not know is that this year (and I believe it was for the very first time), the NABC had their annual college all-star game at the Final Four venue. I believe that it was one of the best decisions the NABC and the NCAA have ever made.

Anyway, to make a long story longer, Illinois' Brian Randle was selected to compete in the all-star game. We didn't get to see him the night before in the dunk contest because the last few years we've only been able to get away for five days instead of a whole week (I know you're feeling sorry for me), but we wanted to see him in the game. He played for the American squad, which was coached by retiring South Carolina coach Dave Odom.

Randle got to see an adequate amount of playing time and acquitted himself well amongst the all-stars. He scored four points and pulled down six rebounds. That is incredible when you factor in that just a few weeks ago after a huge foul on a Wisconsin player (that BTW went un-whistled???) Randle was left thinking that his shoulder was busted up and that his season was over. He sure has played well since returning to action.

Although his team ended up losing to the national squad 106-100, he arguably made the play of the game. With his team in transition, Brian came crashing in to follow up a missed shot by one of his teammates and threw down a thunderous dunk. That brought a standing ovation from the over 5,000 patrons (actually they all got in free) gathered for the contest!

On a personal note, I was very happy for Brian to have that moment. He has fought through injury and adversity way too much in his career, and I only wish him the best for his future.

We couldn't have been closer to the action unless we had gone to the scorer's table and checked into the game! That was fun.

We weren't nearly that close for the two games on Saturday, but they were just as fun. Two great games with four great teams ... and I hate to say it, but probably the best four teams in the nation. It looked to us that UCLA just ran out of gas. They never seemed to be clicking and just didn't look like they were in sync. Memphis, on the other hand, looked as athletic as any team we had ever seen on the final weekend.

In the other marquee matchup, Kansas just overwhelmed Carolina. They came out like a team on a mission and just opened up a can on the Tar Heels in the first half. Carolina fought back, got back into the game and even had their chances to take it to the wire. But they expended so much energy coming back from a colossal deficit that they didn't have anything in reserve to finish the comeback. That meant we'd be back at the Dome Monday night for Kansas versus Memphis, a clash of the Titans.

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My Bill Self moment

I've written before how good Bill Self was to me and to the LDN during his time at Illinois -- one time even allowing me to interview him for 30 minutes for the LDN and for CITV-5 (the usual is 10-15 minutes max). And let me just say upfront that Coach Self is like that with everybody. He's way too accessible. But I like to think that if I had ever had the opportunity to coach on that level, that I would have been that way too.

Anyway, I was hoping to run into him since so many writers and fans have hated on him ever since he left Illinois. I never felt that way. I feel like he did our program a lot of good, and he was especially good with Lincoln's Brian Cook! Cook may even owe part of his salary to Self, but that's just one man's opinion. I just wanted to flag him down to congratulate him. Friday afternoon before the all-star game I got my chance.

He was in the bowels of the Alamo Dome holding yet another unplanned press conference because a bunch of reporters wanted more time than they were allowed. As I stood behind the reporters gathered around him, he made eye contact with me and began to laugh. As soon as the lights on the cameras went off he reached out his hand and shook hands with me. I offered him congratulations and told him how happy I was for him. He thanked me and then posed me this question. He said, "How many people live in the state of Illinois, 8 or 10 million?" I said, "Yah ... maybe." He said, "Of all those people (and he pointed at me) you're the only one that cares about me!" I thought that was pretty funny. I wanted to stay and talk with him, but there were dozens of reporters who didn't care about our conversation in the least, so I excused myself and went on my way.

I did take one other morsel from that experience. He told one reporter something to the effect that "I believe that this is our time and that this is the team to get the job done." Guess what ... he was right.

For those of you with super-long memories, you may now finally see why I was so depressed when he left Champaign. I love Coach Weber, so don't get me wrong -- I mean no disrespect whatsoever to him -- I hope he's here forever and we're gonna have some great years under him. But, there was something special about Bill Self.

That being said, if Illinois doesn't win, I couldn't care less who does. I still wish good things for people who labored on our behalf ... be it Lou Henson (whom we also saw), Lon Kruger or Self himself, I wish those guys nothing but the best!

Who else we saw
(kinda like David Letterman's brushes with greatness -- only better)

I guess our real up-close-and-personal moment came with NBA HOF'er Bill Russell. We were eating in my favorite restaurant on the River Walk, Boudro's, and Russell just showed up out of nowhere. He appears to shun the spotlight, as he didn't respond to fans trying to start up conversations with him. However, we did ride the elevator up to the street with him, so that is something to tell the grandkids some day.

We also saw Bruce Weber, Tom Izzo, Lou Henson, Guy Lewis, Tom Crean, Jud Heathcoat, Doug Wojic, Andy Katz, Hakeem Olijiwan, Dick Vitale, Rusty Osborne, Homer Drew, Scott Pollard, John Beilein, Jim Saia and dozens of other basketball dignitaries. In addition, we went to a concert and met Jaci Velasquez and her husband, Nick, who were just fabulous, by the way!

Craig's take
(Craig only chimes in every so many years, so this is rare indeed.)

Tigers, Jayhawks and Elvis

By Craig Zastrow

There are a lot of things going on before, during and after the games at the Final Four. Many of the activities you never get to see unless you are in the Dome, and even then you have to be in the right place at the right time. Our seats were right above the area where the cheerleaders, bands and mascots prepared for their parts in the Final Four drama. Here are a few things I learned from my vantage point:

  1. The Memphis Tiger wears four layers of clothing to "warm up" the crowd before the game. He then does several costume changes during the game, including an official's shirt and a Memphis jersey.

  2. The Ram for North Carolina should be a Tar Heel. I had to take several minutes to figure out what a Ram has to do with a Tar Heel. If anyone knows, please let me know.

  3. The UCLA Bruin was the most passive of the mascots. I think he was saving his energy for the championship game. Should have used it!

  4. The Kansas Jayhawk had a lot of difficulties during the games. He got overheated several times and had to leave the court, go take off his head and pour large amounts of water in and on himself. He had the most effect on the games. When Kansas had their large lead in the semifinal game and North Carolina caught up, it was during one of those times the Jayhawk had left the court. They righted themselves when he returned. I am sure it was a fact Dickie V. and Bobby missed in their reporting on the postgame show.

The final "unofficial" mascot was the least active. Elvis was in the building. Let me tell you Elvis has not lost any weight. In fact, he needs to be a contestant on the "Biggest Loser" TV show. We had several sightings, and he did leave the building early during the championship game. Maybe there is some connection with the Tigers blowing a nine-point lead in two minutes.

I do want to congratulate the University of Kansas (shouldn't their initials be UK instead of KU?) and Bill Self on their championship. They were the best team and best-coached team in the Final Four.

(Now back to our regularly scheduled Mutterings already in progress)

The Sunday experience

I already told you about hearing Max Lucado speak on Sunday, but the church thing isn't the only thing that makes Sunday at the Final Four so special. It is also a family day. This year we hooked up with former Lincoln resident Terry Martin and his family, since they now live in San Antonio. Terry is a captain in the Army, and he just returned home from a long stint in Iraq. We went to church with his family, then to Jim's (another fun restaurant) for breakfast, and then we returned to the Dome. Every year they have a dribble walk for kids. Every kid gets a free T-shirt, a Final Four basketball and a free ticket to Hoop City, which is an interactive convention of games just for the fans! The look on the faces of those 3,000 kids is priceless and the NCAA/NABC and others need to do more things like that for the fans.

Sunday night is one of my favorite events. I once took my LCC team to play some games in Alaska. They have felt sorry for me ever since and annually invite me to their yearly banquet at the Final Four. Since I don't travel in circles that big shots do, this is like doing the red carpet for the big stars. The food is like what the Hollywood stars eat, the venue is always five-star, and you never know who you're gonna meet there.

This year the event was in the Aztec Theatre, where Carlos Mencia and George Lopez had just entertained the two nights before. Coach Rusty Osborne of the UAA Seawolves and his wife, Stacy, are always way too good to us. They welcomed us and allowed us to sit at their table. One of their sons didn't like the food, so I ran down to the Hard Rock and got him some chicken fingers, fries and a sundae... I hope that keeps us in good graces with the Alaskan entourage! They were so deliriously happy this year anyway because they made the D-II Final Four for the first time in 20 years and just missed the championship game. Anyway, congratulations, Seawolves!!!

Monday night

Well, as you can imagine, the championship game was more wild and crazy in person than it was for you watching it in your homes. It looked like Memphis was gonna get the crown up nine with two minutes to play. Somehow Kansas found a way, and the rest, as they say, is ... history. It will go down as one of the greatest games in Final Four history.

But as great as the game was, or any game at any Final Four we've been to was, it pales in comparison to the amount of pure fun we have at these events. The friends we see, the people we meet and the experiences we have just can't be duplicated anywhere.

If one ever comes to an arena near you (and there will be one in the new stadium in Indianapolis in just two years), do yourself and your family a huge favor -- take them to the Final Four venue. Now, if you're thinking that you don't have millions like me, just do the free stuff. The Friday practices and all-star game get you into the arena free, and you can get a feel for what the Final Four is all about. The Sunday hoop dribble is also free and so are the concerts. Then if you decide to pay to take in Hoop City (the Final Four fan interactive facility) or anything else, let your budget be your guide. Trust me -- you will thank me for encouraging you to go.

My only regret ... is that it took me about 30 years to figure out how to do it and what I was missing! It truly is the greatest spectacle in sports!

Have a great month, everybody!


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