Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Final Four Frenzy






Below are four columns I wrote in Detroit while covering the NCAA Basketball Championship.



2009 Final Four Diary: Pre-Game Warm-up


It's NCAA Basketball Championship time of the year again, but you can't tell that by the temperature in tournament city, Detroit. It's more like football weather here than spring, although I'm not bringing up football in Detroit while the people of this city are in such a good mood. And they are.

Hours before game time, the streets are packed, mostly with fans of nearby Michigan State. There is so much excitement in the air of Detroit that you'd think some dealer finally sold a Yukon. It's remarkable that a city that has been hit so hard by tough economic times can be cheered up by a mere basketball tournament, but that is the power of sport.

Of course, it's not just any basketball tournament, and more importantly, people here are thrilled by the possibility that "their" Michigan State Spartans might become National Champions in a few days. In fact, the people I've talked to aren't even nervous about the games. They're simply assuming that their guys will win. I hope the team isn't as over-confident as their fans. I also hope that the team hasn't been partying all day before the game.

People on the street have told me that this basketball weekend means a great deal to the city. When I asked if the good feelings will remain after the championship game on Monday, the answer has been a unanimous "yes." One man pointed out that the basketball games will be followed by baseball's opening day and the hockey playoffs. He felt that should at least get people's minds partially off their troubles.

But what if they lose tonight? Will unhappy fans go crazy in the streets? Or what if they win? Will happy fans go crazy in the streets? A policeman I interviewed said that he's not worried. He feels that the fans are just in an "up" mood, and doesn't expect any problems. I don't, either. Nonetheless there are almost as many police cars downtown as ticket scalpers.

I'm in no way discounting the fans or the teams of the other three schools. It's just that we're here in Detroit, and for Michigan State, it's almost like a home game. But whoever scheduled tonight's double header doesn't know about drama. The game that all of those crazed fans in the street want to see – Michigan State and Connecticut -- is the first game. You don't have Chris Rock or the Rolling Stones as an opening act. Of course, I don't think too many people will be leaving after the first game and avoiding North Carolina and Villanova. There are four exciting teams playing tonight, and, as usual with these games, I'm mostly hoping for close games. I don't know if we'll get a double-overtime game like last year, but we'll have to wait and see.

I'm going to leave my hotel now, which is oddly a huge hotel inside of a huge business complex, and head over to the arena. Maybe that's actually fitting since the basketball court at Ford Field is inside a football stadium. It'll be a nice, brisk walk that should loosen me up for the games. It's an interesting walk which involves passing at least one casino. I've been told that gambling is one industry that hasn't suffered during the recession. Maybe instead of Fiat, Chrysler should merge with Caesar's Palace. Enjoy the games.

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2009 Final Four Diary: The Semifinals – April Madness


If you're a sports fan, you already know that Michigan State beat the University of Connecticut and North Carolina beat Villanova in the NCAA semifinal games. I'm not going to give you endless statistics from the games. I'm going to give you something different: the view from someone who was at the games -- a fan's perspective.

Think basketball is just a big man's game? Well, the University of Connecticut had the biggest player of them all, 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet, but Michigan State's six-footer, Kailin Lucas was the high scorer for the victorious Spartans. In the second game, North Carolina's 5'11" Ty Lawson was the high scorer as his Tar Heels beat the Villanova Wildcats. So in each contest, the smallest player in the game came up the biggest. Forget about trying to dunk. Just keep practicing your driveway jump shot.

I can't overstate the excitement in Ford Field as 72,000 people got ready to watch Michigan State play the University of Connecticut. It seemed as if 71,000 of them were rooting for Michigan State. As the introductions were made, the respective coaches, Tom Izzo and Jim Calhoun slowly walked to each other like two gunslingers from the old west. And a shootout was about to begin – for one team, at least. They gave each other what looked like insincere smiles and handshakes, and then the game started. In less than 30 seconds, Lucas hit a jump shot and Michigan State had the lead.

During the game, Connecticut's Coach Calhoun kept looking around, astonished. His body language implied that he thought something weird was occurring. Instead, it was just that Michigan State was much better than he – and most "experts" – anticipated.

The most famous MSU player in history, Magic Johnson, was in the stands, and during time-outs he signed autographs and posed for pictures with his electric smile. During the game, I'm sure he was as nervous as the rest of the fans who had to keep worrying that no lead was safe against UCONN.

With a little over a minute left in the game and MSU ahead by five, Spartan Goran Suton undercut Connecticut big man Thabeet and the seven footer crashed to the floor. His head hit the wood making a sickening thud. It took him a while to get up, and when he did, he said he was "okay," but he looked like a boxer who had been knocked down by a hook to the jaw. He was wobbly, and it didn't look like he was sure where he was. His coaches and trainers wisely took him out of the game and let someone else shoot his free throws. Fortunately, his injury was not serious, but it was symbolic: Michigan State made Connecticut wobbly and knocked them out of the tournament.

The arena went crazy. At the press conference, Michigan State's coach and players said they hoped they were helping the people of Detroit – and of Michigan in general—forget their troubles, even if just for a little while. And they certainly seemed to be.

The second game was an emotional letdown for everyone except North Carolina and their fans. After five minutes of the first half, it was obvious that there was no way North Carolina was going to lose. Villanova might have led the Final Four teams with the most players named Corey – two – but that's about the only category that they led in their semi-final game.

It's not that the Tar Heels played that great. In the second half, they only hit 31% of their shots, but Villanova only made 23% of theirs.

Villanova had a priest on their bench who helped with anything that needed to be done and urged the team on. This could lead to an interesting situation if Villanova ever plays Yeshiva University in the Final Four.

I witnessed a nice moment of sportsmanship during halftime of the Carolina-Villanova game. The two mascots, hot and exhausted, sat with each other on the floor of a hallway at Ford Field. They removed the heads of their costumes, drank water, and talked about the game. Maybe they were enemies during the game, but they shared a commonality that nobody else in the arena could understand. I suggested to them that they switch costumes for the second half. The Villanova mascot said he'd be tempted if his team kept playing the way they were, but the Carolina ram just shook his head, "no."



So we're down to two teams, one game. North Carolina is favored over Michigan State. They are considered "the class" of the tournament. But as MSU's coach, Tom Izzo said after their semi-final victory, "This is a blue collar team, playing in The blue collar city." Of course, let's not forget that those in Carolina Blue might also have something to do with the outcome of the Championship Game.

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Michael Jordan, My New Roommate





Okay, maybe the above headline is a little misleading. But I was in the same room Michael Jordan today. It was the annual ceremony in which this year's new basketball Hall of Famers were announced. Surprising no one, Michael Jordan was one of those chosen in his first year of eligibility. Along with Jordan, John Stockton, David Robinson, Jerry Sloan, and coach Vivian Stryker comprised the class of 2009.

Sportswriters aren't supposed to get excited around athletes. They're supposed to act blasé, but I didn't see a lot of blasé-ishness when it came to Jordan. Grizzled reporters asked for autographs and photos, you know, for their "kids."

Except for Michael Jordan, all of the soon to be inducted members expressed how thrilled they were to be there. While he was grateful for the honor, M.J. talked about some ambivalence, for the honor implied to him that is playing days were definitely over. He thought it would be more appropriate for people to be elected to the Hall of Fame when they were in "their 70s," when they could no longer tell themselves that all they had to do is put on a pair shorts and get out on the court and compete.

The others who've retired from basketball seemed to have moved on with their lives. They appeared to have adjusted fairly well to life after basketball. Not Michael Jordan. He freely admitted that he missed the competition, and golf was no helping to satisfy his competitive addiction.

Jordan's penchant for competition was obvious at the ceremony. When M.C. Jim Nantz kiddingly told the former North Carolina star that if tonight's championship game is tied after regulation, instead of overtime, it was decided that Jordan should play Michigan State's Magic Johnson one-on-one to decide the outcome. Jordan laughed, "Are you kidding me? That's no problem. Magic's never beaten me in a Final."

I asked Michael a question at the ceremony. (That counts as my having a friendly conversation with him, doesn't it)? I wanted to know what it was like for him to watch his kids play basketball and what it was like for them to play with him watching. Obviously, I said, some of us fathers didn't have the exact kind of basketball career that he did -- although I had a very quick release.

He replied that he didn't think it was all that different from any other parent watching his or her kids play. One major difference was that's it was aware that people at the games constantly look at him to see how he reacts to the game, so he has had to control his reactions. But overall, he said that you get as much joy, just as much pride out of the experience as anybody else.

However, then he told an anecdote. Get his younger son a, Marcus, was on the team that recently won the Illinois state high school basketball championship. Michael said he was very proud. There are even reports that he cried. After winning, Marcus pointed out to him that he had won something that Michael never had -- a state championship. Michael told us that he answered, "That's true. But I won a lot of things later on in my career."

He said that his point was that his son shouldn't be satisfied, and he should continue to strive to accomplish things whether in basketball or in the rest of his life. But it sure also sounded like the old man was competing with his son.

I was tempted to bet Michael that I can type faster than he can. But I held back. I figured, considering his drive, by next year, he'd be one of the fastest typists in the world.

On a non- basketball note, I discovered today that here in Detroit, there is a real school called General Motors University. I have a feeling that's applications are probably down these days for their business school.





Have a good game tonight.

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2009 Final Final Four Report: The Party's Over



The bubble burst, the prince turned back to a frog, and that classic, tricked out Mustang was really an old Ford. Pick a cliché, but the fact is that Magic ran out of magic, reality reared its ugly head, and the University of North Carolina trounced Michigan State to become the 2009 NCAA basketball champions.

As in the semi-final game, after five minutes, it was obvious to everybody that North Carolina was going to win the game. With 13 minutes, 57 seconds left in the first half, Michigan State trailed 21 to 7 and their fans started shouting, "We want new refs." But they should have called for new players. MSU just wasn't as good as Carolina.

Before the game, Motown's "The Temptations" sang the national anthem. For Michigan State to have won, they could have used "The "Miracles."

UNC was bigger, stronger, and even seemed faster than MSU. Chalk some of State's poor play up to lack of Final Four experience, peaking in the semi-final game, and stage fright in front of a record crowd. But chalk up most of that poor play to the defense of North Carolina. In so many ways, from Dean Smith to Michael Jordan to Tyler Hansbrough staying all four years, the University of North Carolina is college basketball. I mean, Hansbrough played for Poplar Bluff High School. "Poplar Bluff?!" That could have easily have been one of the teams in the movie, "Hoosiers."

Think basketball isn't all that important in Detroit? A leading candidate for the city's mayor is former basketball great Dave Bing. If Rasheed Wallace runs for sheriff, you'll know things have gone too far.

Michigan State didn't "blow it." North Carolina won it. But the Spartans have nothing to be ashamed of – far from it. They made it to the Championship Game, they overcame all kinds of problems, they inspired a city, a state, and possibly a great portion of our country. And many of their players will be back next year.

The people I talked to after MSU's loss feel that the positive feelings that Michigan State brought to Detroit will last for a while, despite the result of the final game. They know times are tough, but they believe they'll come out of this dark tunnel better than when they went in. Some of it seems to be naïve thinking as they still talk in glowing terms about the latest model Pontiac as if that's going to turn G.M. around. But mostly they are people who have always seen that hard work has paid off.

My bus driver gave me his philosophy on dealing with the recession. He seemed to feel it was a lot like the Detroit weather. You can't do anything about it, so why complain? Or, as he put it: "Either you can cry in your beer, or you can drink your beer, and go to work." I don't think he meant to go to work drunk. He just meant to suck it up and keep working.

I'm sure that's the advice he'd give to the Michigan State team: don't cry about it. Just suck it up, and keep working.




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