For our next #iwasthere, we hear from Alejandro de los Rios, who spent 12 hours in New Orleans Arena during yesterday's first round, when Notre Dame went down and Kentucky brought Steve Zahn for moral support.
Unlike the multitudes of people on this site that have so many fond memories from March Madness, I've never been to a NCAA tournament game. Growing up outside D.C. inherently meant that I rooted for Maryland and Georgetown but even then I was aware that cheering for a team on television and actually going to a school in the tournament are two different things. Then I went to D-III school that's far from a basketball dynasty.
Suffice it to say, if it wasn't for having lived through Lombardi Gras, I probably wouldn't have been ready for all I witnessed over 12-hours at the New Orleans Arena Thursday.
First realization: It takes a special type of diehard fan to make plans and follow your team with less than a week's notice on exactly where you're going to cheer your school. Second realization: there's an even rarer breed: the ones that make the trip and also take the time to put on elaborate costumes and generally look silly in front of millions of people.
The first ones to catch my eye were the three Old Dominion Fans sitting directly behind my press row seat. Steve Taylor, the man farthest towards the left, said his group booked their tickets to New Orleans the minute they ODU was placed to selected to the East Regional. They then realized after they booked their tickets that Wednesday was St. Patrick's Day, and so they re-booked so they could get in earlier.
"We got in at three and got started around five," he said, mentioning that they had gone up and down Bourbon Street their fair share of times.
How about that for a St. Patrick's Day? Fly into New Orleans, start drinking, wake up the next day and see your Alma Mater upset the Fighting Irish in the NCAA tourney. And they got to do it in New Orleans, this great backdrop of a city that's home to the widest arrangement of costumed characters in the country. The only city in the U.S. that could prepare you for this:
That's Dean Sandifer, the a Baylor grad "from about 30 years ago" and who's terrifying getup was on display in the stands while Sam Houston State players filed in to watch the Notre Dame-ODU game.
Sandifer grew up in (of course) Louisiana and said he began his habit of face-painting for LSU games and took it to another level with Baylor because, as he said, "we usually don't have that much to cheer for."
He said his attire does have a voodoo influence, but insisted that the fact that he had tickets behind where Sam Houston players sat in the stands before their game was just a coincidence. (With Baylor and ODU advancing and facing each other in round two, I can't wait to see who will win the battle of elaborately dressed fans.)
In the early games, Fighting Irish had the only fanbase without a member willing to don body paint. Sam Houston State University represented with the obligatory bare-chested college students spelling out their school letters. Just one section over from Sandifer and directly behind the SHSU band was (from left to right) Chris Caverretta, Peter James, Colton Cornett, and Matt St. Amour. They made the seven-hour drive from Huntsville to New Orleans on Wednesday night, arriving Thursday morning in time to paint up and visit Bourbon Street before attending the games.
"You know, all the things college kids do," Caverretta said.
Then, exposing that it's been longer than I thought since I've been to college, I asked if their teachers minded that they were missing classes to come to New Orleans.
"Spring break, baby," they exclaimed.
Caveretta then mentioned that he did have a test that coming Tuesday that he hadn't studied for and St. Amour mentioned something about a paper he hadn't started yet.
"What's up with that?" he exclaimed.
Yea, I miss college.
But then it all sort of settled down after that. Kentucky, of course, packed the house (much to the chagrin of whoever was in charge of the jumbotron judging from all the Christian Laettner clips they kept playing). It seemed almost cruel to anyone associated with East Tennessee State in attendance. Kentucky had larger players, a larger support base and, in the end, finished with the largest margin of victory on the day.
In the search for the most standout fan, I came across a father and his son wearing matching blue wigs (is that was passes for oddball in Kentucky?) and snapped a few pictures when a Kentucky fan sitting next to me asked who I shot for. He then pointed out Steve Zahn sitting a few rows up. Not Ashley Judd but what the hell?, I figured, Kentucky is up by 30 points, I'll go talk to Steve Zahn.
But, that didn't work out as well as I would've hoped. All my questions about his role in the upcoming HBO series "Treme" were second fiddle to the action on the court, score be damned. Kentucky basketball is serious business.
And it hit me for a second: maybe these big-time college basketball programs take themselves a little too seriously. For all the Kentucky fans there, I didn't see a single one looking like this. Maybe Kentucky fans don't believe in bringing out the big guns against a 16th seed (not like that stopped the Kentucky team from doing that on the court).
Oh but what about Wake Forest and Texas? Well Wake definitely had the most vocal fans of the night (not a surprise from an ACC school) and they all matched in their tie-dyed shirts, but again, it seemed like their fans were still holding back (these guys were not in attendance).
As for Texas, well, I dunno. I actually gave up on the night when the Longhorns were down by 12 in the second half and headed home to upload pictures because I didn't want to pay the NCAA to access their WiFi. Nuts to that, I thought, this game's over, I'll watch the rest at home.
Clearly, I haven't learned a thing.