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March 18th, 2009 Aaron Mesh And Henry Stern | News Stories
 

March Madmen

The NCAA tournament comes to Oregon for the first time since 1983. Don’t care? Too bad. These people do.

     
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If you have no interest in teenage pituitary cases wearing baggy shorts, suck it up: This week you are outnumbered.

March Madness. The Big Dance. One Shining Moment. Call it what you will, but the three weeks in March when 65 college basketball teams compete in a national single-elimination tournament may just be the most riveting, exhilarating, electrifying sporting event ever.

Forget the corporate trough that is the Super Bowl. Sleep through the World Series as the summer game drags into November (quick, name the two teams who played last year). Not even the jingoistic Olympics can compete with the breathless spectacle of 65 schools, from little-known North Dakota State to mighty Duke.

And now, for the first time since Michael Jordan’s sophomore year at North Carolina, Oregon will have a piece of the action.

On Thursday, March 19, and Saturday, March 21, Portland will host NCAA men’s tournament games at the Rose Garden. It’s the first time the men’s tournament has been in Oregon since 1983, when Corvallis hosted games, and the first time in Portland since 1975.

Hate it or love it, you won’t be able to ignore the mega-event when Mississippi State fans hit Portland’s streets clanging their cowbells. Or when Akron backers sing, Zzzip! Zip go the Zi-ips!” as they descend on the Rose Garden.

Sound alien? It is. But relax. We’ve got a handy guide to the teams playing here, and as the following profiles show, the real March Madness wackos are home-grown.

THE SCALPER:Justin Thompson

He was first in line a year ago to get NCAA tickets. Now, he’s first in line to sell them to anybody.

When the NCAA put its Portland tickets on sale online in March 2008 via a lottery, Thompson ponied up for a pair of ducats at $175 each. Seven months later, Thompson was laid off from his union construction job. He hasn’t been able to find work since. So he’s taking his tickets and at least trying to turn a profit.

“I hate scalpers,” Thompson says, “but at the same time, I’m hurtin’.”

Thompson listed his center-court seats, in upper-deck section 302, online at ticket-resale site stubhub.com and on Craigslist—where his ad is distinguished by photographs of his two children and a plea for help paying their school tuition. (“Look at how cute they are,” it reads.) He’s asking $2,000—about six times the $350 he originally paid, with fees, for the seats.

Ticket scalping is legal in Oregon and much of it has migrated online. One ticket for prime seating at all six Portland games is selling on stubhub.com for as much as $1,589, and more than 100 tickets are being offered on Craigslist each day.

Portland’s old-school scalpers aren’t discussing how much of a bite the Internet has taken from them. “We try to stay out of the paper,” said a cigarette-puffing man hawking Blazers tickets outside the Rose Garden last week.

Thompson has run into trouble. A Gonzaga fan bought his seats on stubhub.com Sunday night for $2,250—but she thought she was getting six tickets, not two. And Stubhub is trying to hold Thompson financially responsible. Thompson, flush with his apparent profits, drove to Longview, Wash., that night and bought two more tickets for $1,500. “Now I might be stuck with two sets of tickets,” he said Tuesday. “I’m sick to my stomach.”

THE BOOSTER: Drew Mahalic

Oregon Sports Authority CEO Mahalic has managed to lure some major sporting events to Portland in recent years—tennis’s Davis Cup in 2007, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 2005 and soccer’s Women’s World Cup in 2003.

But none compares to the NCAA Tournament returning this week to Portland for the first time in 34 years.

“In terms of the struggle to get it here, this ranks as No. 1,” says Mahalic, who has been at the sports economic development nonprofit since 1996.

Mahalic is used to competition: He played linebacker at Notre Dame and four years in the NFL. To bring the tournament to town, he first had to overcome the Oregon Lottery and the state Legislature. For years, the lottery had been offering Sports Action, a betting game that the NCAA said had to disappear before the tournament could return to Oregon. (See “The Killjoy” below for why at least one person thinks it was a crappy tradeoff.)

The Oregon House voted unanimously in 2005 to abolish Sports Action in hopes of satisfying the NCAA. But the measure got trapped in the Senate, out of concern over lost game revenues that had gone to college sports in Oregon. The knot was unsnarled only after lawmakers legalized electronic slot machines in Oregon, with a portion of those proceeds going to colleges.

Mahalic, naturally, says it was the right move, given the tournament’s estimated $10 million economic impact and Oregon’s chance to land it again in future years.

And Mahalic isn’t resting on his laurels. He now wants to bid on an NCAA regional in 2011 or 2012, hoping for even higher-profile Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight games in the Rose Garden.

“This has been a long time coming,” Mahalic says. “Once we get a taste of the first and second rounds, there’s going to be an appetite for more.”

THE KILLJOY: Robert Whelan

Ask Whelan about March Madness, and he doesn’t cheer. “I gotta get some aspirin now,” he says.

An economist with the consulting firm ECONorthwest, Whelan has sporadically crunched numbers for the Oregon Lottery for 15 years. That, he claims, is how he knows the price of getting the NCAA Tournament is a bad deal.

Whelan views it this way: The Sports Action Lottery game generated more than $2.3 million in net revenues each year for state intercollegiate athletics. But that’s gone now. In its place is the tournament, which he says will generate no more than $258,000 in tax revenue—he says the rest of the predicted $10 million economic boon will either trickle out of state to the NCAA and TV networks, or go to local businesses that would have earned it anyway. Plus, Whelan says, who knows when the NCAA will be back?

“The state’s net loss in this is $2.4 million a year,” he says. (He adds lottery retailers’ lost income taxes to his totals, and estimates the tournament will show up only once every three years.) “And it’s crazy. It’s like saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want people to sell fried chicken in restaurants anymore; you have to use Swanson’s frozen dinners. It’s that stupid. It just reduces the amount of activity the state gets. It doesn’t make any damn sense. I mean, what if they told you to shut down the state parks—’cause they were going to bring in $10 million?”

Whelan says losing Sports Action means dropping a reliable consumer base: “Ninety percent of them were people who didn’t play any of the [other] Lottery games.” (Though, he notes, “You do have your crazy, pathological people that would bet on cockroach races.”)

“Oregon sometimes amazes me,” Whelan concludes. “They come up with some brilliant ideas, and then they do douchebag things…for the sake of having a freakin’ basketball game in town. Yip-de-doo. I’m sure the people in La Grande are real happy. They can now drive five hours to see the damn basketball game. Of course, they can’t get tickets without a scalper. So it’s just idiotic.”

THE HUSKY FOR A LIFETIME: Brandon Roy

Roy’s Rose Garden locker is cluttered with bath slippers, Bodyglide anti-chafing skin protector and a selection of 30 gold cuff links. There’s one gray T-shirt draped from a hook, waiting for a guy who makes $3 million a year. It reads: “University of Washington.”

Before he was a Trail Blazer, an NBA Rookie of the Year, or a two-time All-Star, Roy was a Washington Husky, leading his team to back-to-back NCAA Sweet Sixteens in 2005 and 2006. As far as he’s concerned, he’s still a Husky. “Once a Dawg, always a Dawg,” he informs the scrum of media gathered around his locker after a recent win. “I’m a Dawg forever. I’m never long gone.”

Unfortunately, when the Huskies play Thursday in Portland, Roy will be watching them from Cleveland, where the Blazers will be in the middle of a five-game road trip. He was hoping to attend the NCAA games, until he realized the Blazers’ road swing was timed to clear the Rose Garden for Big Dancing.

Roy remembers his own Sweet Sixteen trips as something out of a Johnny Cash song. “I’ve played in like three tournaments,” he says. “I’ve been to D.C., San Diego, Boise—I don’t know, I’ve been everywhere.” He pauses to recall the more obscure locations: “New Mexico. Ohio.”

He doesn’t have March Madness bragging rights in the Blazers locker room, however: That honor belongs to fellow guard Steve Blake, who won the championship with the University of Maryland in 2002. Roy’s prediction for this year’s Huskies? “I don’t want to put a limit on it,” he says. “I’m [rooting] for them to go to the Final Four. You never know. It’s the tournament.”

THE FANATIC: Les Smith

Smith is crazy. The lawyer may not appear that way to his partners at Bullard Smith Jernstedt Wilson. But start talking to him about college basketball and the Duke University graduate (’62) starts to reveal his inner, passionate loon.

Smith, president of the Duke Club of Oregon, can recall every bad bounce and last-second game-winner from Blue Devils victories and defeats dating back a half-century to his college days.

“There’s nothing I like more than a blowout,” says Smith, who has a miniature version of Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium in his Portland office and who flies a Duke flag outside his home. “I don’t like to win nail-biters.”

The cherished wins include what he calls his “greatest sports moment,” when Duke stunned heavily favored University of Nevada-Las Vegas in the semifinals of the 1991 Final Four in Indianapolis (Smith took special pleasure in buying a “national championship” UNLV T-shirt as a souvenir of the Running Rebels’ premature coronation). The Blue Devils went on to beat Kansas in the final. One of his worst came in St. Petersburg, Fla., watching Duke lose the 1999 title to Connecticut. “I was staying in the UConn fans’ hotel,” Smith says. “Oh my God. That was awful.”

Smith, a widower since 2006, heads the local alumni chapter for the school that—like baseball’s Yankees or pro basketball’s Lakers—college basketball fans either love or hate.

Prone to punctuating his points with “Jumping Judah,” Smith—a board member of the Oregon Sports Authority—will attend this year’s first-round tournament games seated in the lower bowl of the Rose Garden,even though Duke will be playing far away in Greensboro, N.C. But his heart, as always, will be with the Blue Devils.

“To be in Cameron and look up in the rafters and see three national championship banners...” Smith says, his voice trailing into his heavenly playground.

THE COMPUTER GEEK: David Mihm

The NCAA Tournament’s rise in popularity is like pornography: It has tracked the growth of cable TV and the Internet.

David Mihm may not be a porn magnate, but he runs a very popular fetish site. Not surprisingly, it deals in fantasies.

Mihm is a 26-year-old Web search-engine optimization consultant in Portland whose bracketography.com website forecasts which teams will get which seeds and go to what venues. (The better the team, the better its seeding. A top team gets a No. 1 seed, while a tiny weakling gets a No. 16 seed).

This arcane forecasting skill has spawned its own cottage industry among college hoops obsessives hungering to read the latest guesses from folks like Mihm and ESPN expert Joe Lunardi about whether they’re in or out, and whom they’ll play.

“The more you do it, the more you get a sixth sense for it,” says Mihm, who studies the tournament committee’s guidelines for selection and looks at the NCAA’s history of who went where and why.

In the final run-up to Selection Sunday, Mihm’s site gets as many as 100,000 unique visitors a day.

Not that any of what he does translates to much money. He estimates his annual revenue from the site at no more than $1,500, small change for the five games he watches each week in the season and the 40 hours he puts in during the week before Selection Sunday.

Mihm calls what he’s doing a “labor of love.” He grew up in Illinois as a fan of Fighting Illini basketball and found when he got to Williams College that a lot of classmates were passionate fans of East Coast powers Connecticut and Georgetown. Voila. Bracketography was born on a campus server.

THE GOFER: Joe Waltasti

As a journalism major at Ohio University, Joe Waltasti dreamed of covering the NCAA Tournament as a reporter. He graduated last May—only to realize nobody was hiring sportswriters.

But Waltasti found a place on press row. When the first game tips off Thursday in Portland, the 25-year-old wannabe reporter will be an intern with the University of Oregon athletics department’s media services. And he will already be two hours into an 18-hour workday—distributing the stats that are the basis for every graphic displayed by CBS Sports, and proclaimed by radio broadcasters.

If he gets one free throw wrong, he’ll know. “TV people are just totally bonkers,” he says. “When you’re live, you can’t spell somebody’s name wrong on a graphic, or give the on-air talent guys some wrong information. Everything has to be right 100 percent of the time. [Producers are] screaming at people in the truck—they’re stressed-out guys.”

For all the broadcast technology flooding the Rose Garden this weekend, coverage still relies on host school U of O providing updated game statistics—points, rebounds and free-throw percentage—via television monitors and hand-delivered printouts.

Waltasti, who has run numbers for every Ducks basketball game this season, will juggle that duty with wrangling players to stay on the court for an interview.

He knows from experience how much hinges on the human factor. Last spring, he worked the same job when Ohio University hosted the Mid-American Conference tournament—and lost.

The Bobcats’ star center, Leon Williams, refused to give interviews after the defeat that cost them a trip to March Madness. Waltasti followed him out of the locker room and onto the court, where he was talking to his parents.

“In front of his parents, I told him, ‘Leon, please, just five minutes—just give us a little bit of time,’” Waltasti recalls. “And he said no again. And his mom turned and looked at him, and she said…‘Leon. Go. Now.’ He did the interviews, for sure.”

The Teams In Motion

Purdue:

Northern Iowa:

Washington:

Mississippi State:

Illinois:

Western Kentucky:

Gonzaga:

Akron Zips:

The Bradley Effect

This isn’t Portland’s first time on the Big Dance floor. Long before March Madness required mega-arenas to accommodate all the fans traveling cross-continent, Portland’s Memorial Coliseum actually hosted a Final Four.

UCLA won that 1965 national championship, its second in a run of 10 in 12 years. But the tournament arguably was more memorable for Princeton’s Bill Bradley earning “most outstanding player” honors despite not playing on the winning team. Bradley went on to get a Rhodes Scholarship, play for two NBA title teams with the New York Knicks and serve three terms in the U.S. Senate representing New Jersey. He also ran unsuccessfully for the 2000 Democratic presidential nomination against Al Gore. But for all those life experiences, ask the 65-year-old Bradley about 1965 and he needs no prompting to remember details, pleasant and painful, of the Final Four in Portland. Amaze your friends with this trivia.

The Tigers lost in the semifinals of the Final Four to Michigan, after also losing to the Wolverines in the regular season. Where was Bradley at the end of each game?
On the bench. “We were ready for the rematch,” he says, “but we lost and I fouled out again.”

In the consolation game that then existed for semifinals losers, Bradley scored a then-tournament record 58 points against Wichita State. How’d he score so much?
Bradley says his teammates would pass him the ball as soon as he’d pass it to them. “I thought that was weird until our coach called time out and said, ‘Bradley, shoot the damn ball.’”

Where did Bradley and his teammates stay in Portland?
“This may be more of a comment on Princeton’s flintiness,” he says. “But we flew in the day before the game and we were staying at some sort of Howard Johnson’s. My roommate and I didn’t have beds, just two pullout sofas.”

—Henry Stern


Portland State made the tournament for the second straight year and will play Xavier on Friday in Boise. Last year, the Vikings lost their first-round game 85-61 to eventual champion Kansas.

Trail Blazers TV broadcaster Mike Rice’s son, also named Mike, coaches tournament participant Robert Morris University.

Don’t worry about law enforcement busting up your office pool. When the city is talking about consolidating police precincts, cracking down on office-pool gambling is far from a priority, says police spokeswoman Detective Mary Wheat.

The FBI and Oregon Attorney General’s Office say they only take an interest in tournament gambling if it affects the refs, players or coaches. Otherwise, says the AG’s office, they’d only investigate if the pool was “extremely high stakes” but would not define high stakes.

 
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