INDIANAPOLIS -- Day broke over Indianapolis with a hazy grey so light it could have been mistaken for silver. The streets, still relatively lazy and quiet on Thursday, exploded in a thousand team colors as basketball people took over downtown -- a slow-motion floor storming of citywide proportions.
Wherever it is, the Final Four can feel like the biggest small town in the world; you can't walk a single block without seeing somebody you know. All day long, I ran into head coaches and assistant coaches and writers and charity operatives and apparel company reps and SID's. It's a wonderful basketball neighborhood that could never last more than four days, and we have to enjoy it while it lasts.
Most of the fans streamed down the wide Capitol Avenue asphalt walkway towards Sports Bubble Stadium, where from noon to 4 p.m. the four teams held free open practices. It's a practice that is a lot more popular than it was back in 2006 when the Final Four was at the old demolished Hoosier Dome; thousands of people liked up outside the gates at 11 a.m. and filled the massive lower bowl to watch Butler get used to the shooting sightlines.
The mood quickly darkened, however. The frog-freak mascot
of NCAA Basketball, J.J. Jumper, emerged with his usual dank and foul bag of filthy fake fun. As ever before, the hideous fur-thing attempted to pander to both kids and adults, and ended up terrifying the former and confusing the latter. "Who are you?" more than one person asked. He had to turn around, point to his jersey nameplate. "Oh," the adult would say, before walking off.
The end will find you, J.J. Jumper. Yessss.
You are as entertaining as a guarantee game, as revolting as a Duke-West Virginia final, desperate and unloved as a 96-team bracket. We will outlast you, we will. We will dance. On. Your. Grave.
With as much basketball love as there is in Indianapolis, there was no way that this sickening focus-group monster could ruin the fun. As Butler wrapped up its practice, the team gathered at center court. As one, the crowd rose to its feet for a prolonged standing ovation. Bulldogs head coach Brad Stevens took the mike and addressed the crowd. "I know some of you aren't rooting for Butler," he said. "But maybe we can convert you."
If you consider that that many of the people in attendance left after Butler's one-hour practice, there may not be that many folks left to convert.
Out on the streets of Indianapolis, the basketball party continued into the afternoon. There was so much to see, do and hear. There was Bracket Town
, the corporate-champion fan center where people could shoot hoop on a court, or shoot large balls into oversize baskets, or shoot small plush balls into small baskets. There was an opportunistic panhandler with a boom box playing "One Shining Moment."
(No takers.) There was a saxophonist at every corner, playing for spare change. And there were bittersweet scenes, too -- well-meaning yet irrelevant power-conference head coaches reduced to street theater.
Me, I had to get Bally to his power lunch at the Westin Indianapolis, the one with the infamous 15th floor
. While I tried to bribe the security guard to let me up to the top level to take a pilgrimage picture (I lied and said I knew Tom Crean -- didn't work), our beloved Mid-Majority mascot discussed policy over Diet Cokes with conference commissioners (Bernadette McGlade of the Atlantic 14, the West Coast Conference's Jamie Zaninovich, and Doug Elgin, curator of the Valley
) and Andy Pawlowski of the ingenious college basketball marketing blog Digital Hoops Blast.
I know they were talking about me behind my back, but Bally didn't tell me anything. As usual.
Back out on the streets, the afternoon was warm and dry. Anybody who'd worn too much clothing was constantly reminded that they could switch into a t-shirt if they wanted to.
At the Final Four, there is an official store on every block, a temporary tent full of tables or an unused storefront with merchandise piled high in racks and boxes. I have a very vivid memory of 2006, when I stepped into one of these places and saw the George Mason logo on a Final Four t-shirt. That's when it sank in, that the Patriots were really there, that they had won four NCAA Tournament games and were in the main event. The same thing happened here -- seeing a Butler Bulldog logo for sale a thousand times over made the realization more real. But I'm in awe of how fast this machinery works. Just three days after Butler defeated Kansas State to become West Region champions, there were piles of perfectly-stitched blue and silver and white baseball caps for sale. There are also a few of these:
This is, of course, cornhole
, the bean bag toss game that has entertained Indiana residents for hundreds of hot summers, and carried them through their winter days too, in arenas deep in residential basements. But this may be the first-ever mass-produced cornhole setup that celebrates American-Style Football at the non-scholarship, Division I-AA level.
Yes, Butler is the champion of the Pioneer Football League, the original Hawt Dawgs.
Eventually, night descended on Indianapolis, as it always seems to at that time of day. We made our way over to the RAM Brewery on South Illinois, which was designated as the official Butler fan headquarters for the weekend. It looked vaguely familiar. That's when I realized that the RAM was really the Big Horn Brewery, the official HQ of George Mason fans four years ago.
But things were different this time, very different.
In 2006, the place was alive with mid-major spirit and creativity. There were green glow sticks and green glowing necklaces, and they turned the lights down and played the Purple Ribbon All-Stars' "Kryptonite (I'm On It)" over and over. The beer was green, and called "Kryptonite Ale." It was a real party.
This was not a party. There were three banners hung up, the cigar-store Indian out front had a Butler t-shirt on, and the only thing on the menu Butler-related was "Hinkle Light."Light?
I asked a lady behind the bar if there was any blue beer. She was surprisingly surly. "You can't dye beer blue," she said.
The choice of the RAM was a controversial one, anyway. There was a rumor that spread across the Butler message boards that the owners had said publicly that they would have preferred Syracuse to win the regional and move within its walls, because the Orange would have brought in more business. Not the right thing to say. Whether this happened or not, it was clear on Friday night that the establishment wanted as little to do with being the Butler headquarters as possible. Hinkle Light.
At the official host hotel down the street, the Crowne Plaza Union Station, things were a lot more upbeat. That's where the male cheerleaders from "Deuces on the Inside"
were hanging out, and there was a Butler information booth with friendly people, who gave me a copy of the school fight song on a convenient business card ("A lot of people, even alumni, only know the "B! U! part at the end") as well as an embroidered Butler Bulldog logo sticker. I put it on my black short-sleeved collar shirt, immediately transforming it into something from the "Brad Stevens Collection."
Night became even more night. I made my way north of the city center to Butler's campus. It was a Friday evening, and there was alcohol. Much of it. I eased my rental car into the neighborhood near Hinkle, where there was a secret illegal merchandise sale taking place.
Some enterprising students had printed up three t-shirt designs -- "Air Gordon," a Shelvin Mack shirt with "Smack" on the front, and a shirt celebrating Matt "Monsterizer" Howard's famous yet unfortunate mustache
. The shirt sale was set up very carefully. All business was transacted on line, through a passworded purchase link. The pickup was held on a student's lawn -- the entire campaign was so subversive that she must be named "Random Butler Student Y" for these purposes.
No cash was exchanged on the premises, and the scene was lit by candles and headlights. For four hours, Butler students filed onto the lawn to pick up their t-shirts, as Random Butler Student Y and her roommate (Random Butler Student Z) passed out Red Bulls, helped retrieve shirt orders, and announced that students could not wear them to the games because of NCAA rules about merchandise bearing names and likenesses. The players could get in trouble, they had been told.
Many of the people coming to pick up shirts were drunk. "Dawgs with a W, Dawgs with a W," one girl in line smac-rapped. "Gawd with a W... oh my gawd, I'm dying with a W...
It was a typical Friday night in college. There was a stereo system set up on the lawn, blasting all the latest techno and hip-hop hits... except Ke$ha. There were fraternity brothers in backwards baseball caps holding gallon jugs of cheap vodka. Inside the house, there was a girl who had passed out in a pool of her own vomit, wearing only a thong, reportedly mumbling "Water is delicious."
At around 11:30 p.m., the event had attracted the attention of the police. Random Butler Students Y and Z had to explain that there was no alcohol being served, and no cash was on the premises. This was just your average, everyday, late night Final Four t-shirt pickup.
Though there were two cop cars hovering a block away at midnight, there were no arrests made. The remaining shirts were boxed up, the van sped away, and the party continued as quietly as it could have. A Hummer limo passed by, full of whooping drunk Dawgs. They might have been playing Ke$ha in there.
"There are a lot of things you don't understand about Butler," Random Butler Student X explained. "The drunk limo takes you to Pepper's on Thurs. The drunk bus goes to Qdoba. There's a schedule to all of this."
Butler is a series of systems, just like any private institution of higher learning. It's a tight-knit community (there are only about 4,000 undergrads) where everybody seems to know everybody else, and everybody knows who's having sex with whom. Like any private school, there are the students whose parents can afford the annual tuition, and those who are on scholarship -- and there's an invisible divide between them.
There are the future leaders of America here -- among recent students are the heir to the Gatorade empire and one of the younger members of the Little Debbie family. Standing on the periphery of Butler's campus, on the eve of the school's latest greatest moment in a string of greatest moments, I realized the truth. Butler has everybody fooled. The writers, the TV people, the casual fans, Michigan State, everybody. Underdogs? Sure. The little guy? They'll give you the story you want to hear, and then they'll beat you with the rolled-up paper it's printed on. Metaphorically, of course.
"This basketball team has changed everything here," she continued. "It's brought this whole campus together. The frat boys love this team, the theater geeks love them. Students paying $40,000 a year love them, and so do the ones on academic scholarship. These guys are just so adorable, nobody can help it."
I departed back to our TMM headquarters at the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport. And on Saturday morning, a dark blue sky gave way to a canopy as white as milk. The scheme was unmistakable, the exact colors destined to rule the city of Indianapolis later that night. This was an omen, it just had to be.