Game 095:(10) North Carolina State 75, (7) Charlotte 63 NCAA Tournament, First Round (Syracuse Bracket) Friday, March 18, 2005 DCU Center - Worcester, MA
On television, all NCAA Tournament sites look like the happiest places on earth. The court is shiny, the paint-faced fans scream proudly, the bands are peppy and the cheerleaders are perky. Each one is a big basketball theme park.
And on a mad March Friday, the lights went up on a mild 10-7 upset between two middling power-conference teams, the Charlotte 49ers of Conference USA and the North Carolina State Wolfpack of the Atlantic Coast. A large percentage of the American workforce, suffering from an untraceable strain of 48-hour flu, looked on via their televisions and computer screens. The paint behind the endlines told them exactly where they would be spending their Friday afternoon: Worcester, Massachusetts.
Municipalities who are granted the right to host the early rounds usually use the Tournament as an excuse to go basketball-crazy, declare a long weekend and throw a big hoops party. Last year, for example, the four normally-empty square blocks around Kansas City's Kemper Arena were converted into a boisterous commercial tent-town. Bootleg t-shirts were sold, beer flowed by the keg, and there were plenty of balloons for the kids.
But just outside the quickly-aging arena formerly known as the Centrum, a casual passerby would likely have no idea that there was any special event in town, that March Madness was in the air. Downtown Worcester is the rotted, dying core of a city - cold winds whistle through dusty brick alleys, entire blocks sit forlorn and shuttered, civic projects lie unfinished behind the ambitiously-worded placards that detail their eventual completion.
Before, between and after Friday's sessions, 15,000 fans roamed the grey streets of Worcester in weary red and green and yellow packs, looking vainly for places to eat and drink and socialize. Many were able to resist overtures by over-enterprising bars and pubs with steep cover charges, and were stymied by luncheon restaurants that faithfully lock their doors after two o'clock - even on days when Worcester gains thousands of temporary citizens. The local CVS drug store, a 24-hour enterprise in most places, holds unwieldy bankers' hours, so it was tough to find the smallest or quickest bites to eat.
Like the protagonists of Luis Bunuel's The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, many simply could not find a table. Some intrepid souls found a failed downtown mall two blocks from the arena, its storefronts filled to 25% capacity, where the food court had been reduced to a single Subway. The line there was 50 deep, with two flustered Sandwich Artists furtively trying to keep up with the ferocious demand for Cold Cut Combos.
So Worcester has failed in a rare opportunity to put its best face forward, and it hasn't convinced many of this weekend's tourists to spend a future vacation or honeymoon there. However, this weekend will be seen as an unqualified success - so long as the CBS cameras don't linger on the dingy far walls of the DCU Center, its dim and foul-smelling concourses, its two cramped restrooms per gender, and the dead spots on its undulating hardcourt. What matters is that the place is full.
But thankfully, the Tournament will likely never visit this city again, and neither will the thousands of fans who descended upon it for one weekend in March. The announced first-weekend octets for the next two years are sets of basketball capitals and locations of past successes.
It's a bind, it really is. The NCAA has acknowledged that choosing first and second-round sites: when there are no local teams, it's a tough local sell. Pod systems and favored-site rewards are designed to prevent a first-weekend problem that plagued the event in the mid-Nineties: apathy and poor attendance. But as March Madness - as a brand - continues to sell itself to fans who more interested in seeing championship basketball than a specific team, it will never have to settle for Worcester again.