Road trips, whether to NCAA Tournaments, vacations, business trips or whatever, often turn up something bordering on the unusual.
Such was the case with my trip to the NCAA Women's Basketball Regional in Des Moines, Iowa, earlier this month.
The trip from Sioux Falls had started out ordinary - a 285 mile trip featuring a little Iowa landscape interspersed with some questionable driving from careless cell phone drivers and a quick stop for a sub sandwich. People on cell phones while driving are 21st century robots, without a clue about what is happening around them, and seemingly unaware that they weave from side to side. Imagine if you have a cell phone user under the influence of alcohol - talk about lethal.
Upon my arrival in Iowa's capitol city, the staff at the hotel did a bang up job and I had some good eats from Barrata's down the street.
Late that Thursday night, I finished replying to a couple of emails and Facebook messages and then closed the computer lid as I jumped up to grab a Dasani bottled water. Less than a minute later, with a rerun of the Big Bang Theory blaring away on the TV in my hotel room, I opened up my Toshiba laptop and the screen looked like some bug (big one at that) had made a kamikaze move, leaving a collage of colors and a crack down the center, one angling to the right.
At the same time, jumbled numbers and messages were spinning out of control. Feeling a bit unsettled, I hit the reboot button and thought "what the...?"
After restarting the computer, the spas-sing of technology continued, perhaps at a faster pace if that is possible. After a few choice words for the company that sold me this lemon, I hit the shutdown button, and whipped out my Blackberry to ease my Internet addiction.
As I pecked away on my cell, I was speechless about this computer mess. It was simply unfathomable that my computer had just gone rogue. I had simply closed the computer like I have done thousands of times over the years. No, I did not leave a pen or anything that would have caused the crack or bug mess. This was a new one in a long line of computer glitches. For the second time in two weeks my computer hard drive had gone haywire.
I had planned to use the computer at the NCAA Women's DI Basketball Regional. Now, plan B. Wait, I had left my other computer at home. So, a plan X was in order, that is finding another computer to use.
Well, I didn't have a lot of time to run to Best Buy and whine. In the morning, I eyed the computer, said a few unkind words, grabbed some breakfast and headed to Wells Fargo Arena for the off-day schedule, which included check-in, duties breakdown and press conferences for all four teams in the regional. I carried out plan X by gaining access to a Mac of a friend.
As the next four days rolled by, a few more odd things happened, but no reboot was necessary. It turned out to be an experience filled with memorable moments, some to treasure over time.
Rewinding on Regionals
This is the second time I have worked at a women's basketball regional in Des Moines.
Seventeen years ago, I experienced Georgia's run to the Final Four (1994-95 season). Head Coach Andy Landers, one of the top coaches in the game, had his third-seeded Bulldogs, playing at the top of their game. Led by the guard tandem of Kedra Holland and Saudia Roundtree, standout forward LaKeisha Frett and center Tracy Henderson, the Bulldogs defeated #7 seeded North Carolina, 98-79 in the semifinal. Then the #12 Bulldogs rallied from 10 points down as Holland scored 11 of her 15 points (three, three-point field goals) in the final 4:21 of regulation to upset #1 seeded and #2 ranked Colorado, 82-79. Directed by Coach Ceal Barry, Colorado brought a 25-game winning streak into the regional final as they finished 31-3. It was a team featuring standout guard Shelley Sheetz, 6-5 center Isabelle Fikalkowski and shooting guard DeCelle Thomas.
Over the years, I have been lucky to meet people (Mike Mahon, Colin McDonough, Rob Anderson and others) that connected the dots to make it possible for me to work at these events. The opportunity of sitting court side, working with area, local and national media, interacting with colleagues, and meeting top players and coaches never grows old.
I'll never forget when Jimmy King and Ray Jackson (two of Michigan's Fab 5) stopped by the media room at the Wichita regional (1994) in the Kansas Coliseum to ask me when I was doing. The ensuing 15-minute discussion ranged from basketball to Wichita to game notes. Yes, they had a few good-natured suggestions.
Jackson and King were part of what was the then Michigan's Fab 4 (Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard) as 1994 was the year after the Wolverines two-time run (1992, 1993) to the Final Four. The run included advancing to the 1993 title game which ended in misery following Chris Weber's memorable timeout call after the Wolverines were out of TOs in a 77-71 loss to North Carolina. Webber left the Wolverines program after that sophomore season and the other four stayed, leading Michigan to the NCAA Tournament. In the first/second round games at Wichita, King and Jackson helped orchestrate Michigan to wins over Pepperdine, 78-74, and Texas (BJ Tyler, Albert Burditt, Terrence Rencher). 84-79. They advanced to the regional final in Dallas where they lost to Midwest Region #1 seed Arkansas (Head Coach Nolan Richardson and players, Scott Thurman, Corliss Williamson), 76-68.
There have been numerous discussions with coaches, media types (Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe, Van Earl Wright of then CNN, a few ESPN dudes and others), and a few players (Georgia Tech's Jon Barry) at other regionals, but those two Michigan guys sat down and genuinely seemed interested in what I was doing. Most likely, they were bored.
Today everything is more organized and players rarely go about their own way. Handlers and the like prevent interaction between volunteers and players from occurring. It is likely a good thing but they are missing a rare opportunity to interact with some unique personalities (yes like me).
One of the constants in these tourneys is the organizational efforts orchestrated by host universities and city sports authority groups. From scheduling hotels for teams and fans, making sure the meals are taken care, practices times are met, and more, it all takes a a big effort. An army of unpaid volunteers supplements those paid individuals tasked with carrying this event off.
My job has always revolved around media relations work, ranging from quote taking to handling game notes, photo coordination, serving as a moderator and a locker room liaison. All those tasks obviously varied in duty but always provided some new experience or interaction.
Can't Miss Opportunity
A week before heading to Des Moines, I had expected to work the men's regional at Omaha. However, I picked up the worst flu I have had in years, which caused me to miss that tournament, and you know, one the biggest upsets ever when #2 Missouri was stunned by #15 seed Norfolk State. Booyah!
So, I wasn't about to miss the opportunity to see one of the most unique players in women's basketball history in Baylor's 6-8 center Brittney Griner, as well as observe Tennessee's Pat Summitt, a coach I have long admired and one that deserves credit for pioneering women's basketball in a high profile sport. With eight championships and a 1,098 wins, the coach had her Tennessee team fighting for another Final Four berth even as she continued her battle with early-onset dementia. Plus, Baylor entered the tournament unbeaten in search of the first 40-0 season in NCAA DI history by either a men's or women's DI team.
As the pressers unfolded on that Friday, Kansas's head coach Bonnie Henrichsen showed her unquestioned appreciation for Summitt while focusing comments about her team's readiness to meet Tennessee. Kansas, led by the dynamic Angel Goodrich, had lost its best player early in the season but rebounded, upsetting #3 seed Delaware and All American forward Elena Delle Donne in the second round. Georgia Tech's MaChelle Thomas talked about how her young team had grown and might be ready to throw a surprise against Baylor. Anything can happen, she suggested. Baylor's Kim Mulkey talked about how her unbeaten team liked the favorites' role, accepting the expectation of winning.
What you didn't see was Summitt at the mike. Due to her health condition, it was deemed in her best interest not to talk at pressers, due to the memory lapses that come with early-onset dementia (as well as other factors). Associate head coach Holly Warlick took over the press duties. She talked about how Tennessee players (and coaches) have continued Tennessee's tradition of winning this season, even as they respectfully dealt with the delicate situation of their legendary head coach.
On game-day Saturday, before the opener of Tennessee and Kansas, I was trying to get things in place before a noon start to hoops. Rushing back to the arena floor with a different printer cord, I had to stop and wait for Summitt and her Tennessee Lady Vols to make their entrance into the arena with opening tip just a couple of minutes away.
In that moment, I caught a glimpse of basketball that many people don't see. In those moments before they take the floor, you hear teams voice a little passion, use that uniquely player jargon, and whistle tunes like "Rocky Top," as anxious players and coaches release a few stress-filled breaths. With their hoods up in honor of the late Trayvon Martin, they gather together, belt out a few motivating yells and head to the floor where supporters and others welcome them with fist-waving cheers and uniquely Tennessee sounds. I could feel a rush of adrenaline go through my body.
A minute later, I was seated in the press row behind the Lady Vols bench where I still felt that rush of emotion stirred by the environment and passion for basketball in that arena.
As the games roll on, NCAA contests are filled with rallies, shifting momentum, great plays and a lot of passion. In Des Moines, I also felt the community's pride for the event as nearly 18,000 people (about 9K per game) filled Wells Fargo in the two sessions. It was easily the biggest crowd totals of any regional in the country (by at least double). It reminded me of the passion felt in Sioux Falls during the Summit League Tourney. Must be something in the Midwest's water or makeup, because they show their support in a big way.
After a horrible start to the semifinal, Summitt's Lady Vols rally from a 14-point first half deficit against Kansas to post an 84-73 win, despite 23 points from talented KU's Goodrich. Tennessee guard Meighan Simmons scores 22 points to lead the Lady Vols. In the second semifinal, Baylor has little trouble with the ACC's Georgia Tech, seeded #4 in the tournament, by rolling to an 83-68 win. However, Georgia Tech unveils a talented freshman in Sydney Wallace, who scores 32 points, including 8-of-12 from three-point range. Griner is a force with 35 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks as the Lady Bears have a 54-16 advantage in the paint.
Baylor and Tennessee
During the off-day on Sunday, press conferences take up a little time but not all. A trip to an Italian restaurant provides some good eats. The next day lunch takes me with a couple of colleagues to a Des Moines' dive, Kelly's Diner, which offers up the largest pork loin sandwich I have ever seen. Plus, the door leading into the business has a sign - "No Weapons Allowed." Unusual maybe - interesting absolutely. (Note - the place's bathroom reminds me of a drive-in/fast food stopover in Manilla, Iowa, which I thought was the smallest rest area in the world).
As the championship day unfolds, there is a lot of orange and green in elevators and the hotel lobby as well as sidewalk leading to the arena which is only a block away. On my way over to the arena, I meet a retired former special forces Army chaplain (yes, a guy who jumped from planes) supporting Baylor in his green cowboy boots and pipe. I see interaction between Tennessee and Baylor faithful and it is respectful. I meet a North Dakota native now living in Tennessee, having become a big-time Lady Vols fan. I also interact with Tennessee star forward Shekinna Stricklen's family, getting a taste for the passion they feel about the Lady Vols. Each dons her uniform number in Tennessee gear. Some are a little perturbed that Tennessee has to face Baylor in the regional final, hoping that it could help in the Final Four. They talk at length about Summitt and how great the team is playing, even though I think they know the run ends later that night.
A bit more prepared, I am in the arena 65 minutes prior to the start of the 6 p.m. game. After a little media food, I have a bottled water, which must be poured into a cup per NCAA rules, and my computer and printer ready to go for game notes.
I watch security redirect a Tennessee fan with a video camera to where he can leave his device as CBS rules prohibit video footage being shot in the area behind the bench. As I look up, there is a bird in the arena, capturing the attention of a lot of fans and a number of arena officials. One guy beside me asks, "How does a bird get into this place?" Valid question.
Soon, the Tennessee band is playing a little "Rocky Top" as Tennessee comes onto the floor with Pat Summitt surrounded by coaches and staff. The Baylor group, led by Griner, hits the floor, and you feel a lean toward Tennessee by fans in the arena. A few moments later Summitt and Mulkey meet and share a hug at midcourt.
Stricklen knocks down a three-point shot for an early 9-4 lead for the Lady Vols. The Tennessee section is going nuts, even as they harp about officiating and Griner.
A few calls go against Tennessee and the Lady Bears take advantage. This Baylor team, which will later win a national title in a 40-0 season, end the half on a 31-9 run for a 35-20 lead. Tennessee, behind Stricklen's 22 points and 11 rebounds and Glory Johnson's 19 points and 14 rebounds could not crawl any closer than eight points in the second half.
The Lady Bears are led by sophomore point guard Odyssey Sims' 27 points, including 5-of-8 from three-point range, and Kemetria Hayden's 18 points (3-of-3 from deep), plus Griner's 23 points, 15 rebounds and nine blocks. Inside and outside, Baylor dominates the Lady Vols.
No Buzzer Beater But Dunk, Scuffle and Setting Memorable
The three games of this tournament did not provide that memorable last-second shot. It did provide a few memorable moments, including Griner's two-handed slam dunk on a break during the Georgia Tech game. It is a highlight clip that became a favorite for ESPN in packages on Sportscenter as well as a build-up for the Final Four.
You recall that tense moment when Stricklen and Sims go down in a heap and a scuffle erupts in the final minutes of the regional final. The interaction draws players from both teams off the bench. Three Baylor players (Griner, Terra Conrey and Jordan Madden) are ejected, and a double technical foul is called on Sims and Stricklen. A second technical should have been blown on Baylor but it was missed. And, the two players from Tennessee that left the bench are not reprimanded. So, maybe everything worked out in the end, even if the officials were a bit off their game on the night.
As the ejected Baylor players leave the arena , the speculation raged for a few moments about their eligibility for the Final Four, as well as if they could participate in the region championship presentation that night. Soon, the NCAA announces to tournament officials and media that they can join the post-game party. And, yes, they are eligible for the Final Four.
As I frantically finished up the game notes, I couldn't help but take in the environment, reflecting on what I witnessed. As Summitt leaves the floor, entourage in tow, I wondered if this game was it for her. Two victories shy of 1,100, will she will be back to get those two wins and then hand the reigns full-time to Warlick? Or,will she try and coach again? Is this the end of Summitt's remarkable career in basketball? That question still remains unanswered.
As for Griner, I was amazed by how big, athletic and dominating she was and is. Named tourney MOP, she accumulated 58 points, 25 rebounds and 15 blocked shots in two games. She completely dominated the lane against both Georgia Tech and Tennessee. Until you see the Baylor center in person, it is hard to appreciate how good she is. A team-oriented player who can shoot, rebound and run, she seems to be a fun-loving sort. In post-game pressers, Griner takes on the team leader role, thanking her teammates and saying that she wouldn't be able to do what she does without them.
I have a tremendous respect for Griner, even as she deals with those callous remarks about her gender and other irresponsible takes. A junior, she has been selected the AP Player of the Year, deservedly so. With graduation claiming only one senior, Baylor will be the pre-season #1 even if the program has a few probation things to deal with after an NCAA and Baylor investigation turned up major violations.
As I left the gym, I saw those Tennessee supporters again and talked hoops for about an hour. We discussed Summitt, Stricklen's WNBA possibilities and whether it was right that Tennessee was placed in Baylor's region.
As I left the group and bid adieu, I hit the bed thinking that there was a lot to like about this trip.
I love to see basketball live and to experience the win and advance environment of the NCAAs. And, I believe the magic of the tournament is the unknown which fosters something unexpected, or unusual, every time they lace 'em up.