HOUSTON -- For the record, Jack Swiger said "Houston, we've had
a problem." A present-perfect report of the recent past, not an implication of overwhelm -- as per the endlessly repeated "we have" or "we've got" misquote. Big difference between the bottom of the valley and the first steps out of it. We've all had problems. Apollo 13 had an oxygen tank rupture and explode, and 341 men's college basketball programs have failed to get to this final destination. But everyone, astronauts and all of us, returns home and survives the experience.
The Final Four is an annual event, counter-programmed to the beginning of baseball season, that turns one American city into the ultimate College Basketball City. The fans of the four all pile into cars and airplanes once their teams make it, but thousands of others reserved in advance. Winners of the ticket lottery, all those who will make up the swayable middle at the games, have known they were coming since last summer. And just about every single head coach and assistant make it too, as per annual tradition. The NABC Convention is held this weekend too, and there are more charity breakfasts and award shows and "state of the game" roundtables than anybody could possibly attend or care about.
But most of all, the Final Four is a place to get drunk.
More specifically, a place to take people's money. At this liquor stand near Discovery Green, there was no BLAPP (possession is a capital offense, this being Texas), but the average drink price was about $14.
With such high prices, visitors tend to gravitate towards the "free" entertainment. Every year since the Final Four got gigantic in the 1990s, NCAA's Corporate Champions have set up shop downtown wherever College Basketball City has been every year. They've paid millions to college sports' governing body for the right to be here, but don't pass it along to the fans. This is all filed under advertising in the annual report.
Around the downtown zone called "The Big Dance," there are high gates and a security frisk required to get in. Once access is achieved, one can safely keep their wallets and purses closed, but the price is a sponsor message assault. Distant embedded reptilian memories urged me to sneak in a Pepsi.
There is also a nightly concert series, underwritten by the CC's.
Bally is six years old, and doesn't remember 1996. For me, it meant being in college and having greasy makeout sessions on the couch to Sublime's terrible version of "Sugar Magnolia." For some reason, Sublime doesn't want me to forget this, and has reformed (after a series of lawsuits) for the express purposes of collecting cash and blasting lots of f-bombs through a thousand-megawatt festival speaker system. Bally, promise me you'll never fall for nostalgia.
Wait, this looks like fun.
But this ain't no disco. It's a chance to surf the internet, have a picture taken in front of a green screen, look at a television set with no remote control, touch non-Apple phones, and charge your own phone. Half the floor of the tent is taken up with a halfcourt basketball setup called the "Trick Shot Challenge." You spin a wheel, and if you make it you get points towards a piece of logo merchandise. In one corner, a line of six middle-aged men, each with a beer in one hand and crumples of dollar bills in the other. They were bored enough to bet on the outcome. I saw a guy lose five bucks on a girl in a UConn shirt who blew a left-block layup.
For the record, coverage by the service provider in question inside this tent: three bars. Oh, and there was this:
Four percent. Four percent.
Outside, at a nearby merchandise stand, VCU was far more popular. This unscientific study shows that Ram hats are being sold at a higher rate than those of the other three teams.
I said this last year too
, but it's amazing how quickly they print up merchandise during Final Four week. And it doesn't really sink in until it's on a shirt. Chills.
For the next 12 hours, you can wear an As-You-Go Bracket on your chest.
Or as a cool poster. Here are some cool shirts.
And one for kids.
As @HustleBelt said on Twitter, "Kids are going to grow up thinking mid-majors always make the Final Four. This is fantastic."
But just a few blocks away from the commerce zone is the Hilton, where college basketball's true nerve center is located this weekend. This is where the NABC convention is. Coaches and athletic directors mingle with hanger-on Basketball Guys, as lyte beer flows freely (as much as it can for $7 per 16 oz. bottle).
Inside these pockets of conversation and networking, the future of college basketball is happening. Wonder why there are so many announcements of head coach hirings and firings right after the Final Four? This. "My agent's out there working the room," one upwardly mobile assistant told me. "Just seeing what kind of interest is out there for a guy like me."
And then, around 1 a.m., after hours of mingling and meeting and shaking hands and collecting rumors, it was time to go back to the hotel. But how?
Please send a search party.