It was two days of large people wearing purple dog hats to the Rose Garden, dancing mascots, giant flags, indignant coaches, buzzer-beaters, heartbreak and VitaminWater. It was the NCAA Tournament—March Madness—returning to Portland for the first time in 34 years. WW was there.
First round: Thursday, March 19
I’m a little late getting started with my live-blogging before the first morning game in the quadruple-header: Turns out the NCAA, which will eventually squeeze every penny out of Portland as we thank them for it, charges media $16.50 a day for wireless access. I pony up.
A quick tour of the scene: Outside the arena, it’s a flood of purposeful walkers, with little packs of scalpers interspersed. People hold up their tickets if they want to sell; potential buyers call out the price they want to pay. (The price they want to pay, shockingly, is the face value of $65.) Inside, it’s quieter than I expected: The seats in the lower bowl are only half full for the game between Northern Iowa and Purdue.
I am seated between a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal and a sportswriter from an Iowa radio station. I ask if they will attend Merritt Paulson’s press conference the next morning announcing Major League Soccer is coming to Portland, since it has been scheduled to attract media covering the basketball tournament. There is actual laughter at this suggestion.
Western Kentucky mascot Big Red is in the house! Up close, he looks a lot more like a cross between Archie Bunker and a hemorrhoid than I expected.
The University of Illinois has some big-ass flags.
From the “Department of the NCAA is Micro-Managing and Probably Corrupt”: The “Media Hospitality” suite offers cans of Sprite and Diet Coke. But you can’t bring these cans courtside. Instead, you must pour them into officially sanctioned VitaminWater paper cups. This way, it will appear to the CBS cameras that everybody at the game is drinking VitaminWater, a tournament sponsor. Maybe this is the NCAA’s way of making it up to VitaminWater for declaring some flavors contain banned substances.
Western Kentucky beats Illinois! The bands play. The cheerleaders cheer. Big Red bounces in his amorphous hillbilly manner. The press corps covering Western Kentucky is not happy because being happy would be unprofessional. I will never understand sportswriters.
And the unsung winners of the NCAA Tournament coming to Portland? Panhandlers! Amid the crowds streaming out of the Rose Garden, a slightly ratty-looking young man with a guitar had planted himself at the edge of a crosswalk to serenade the visitors with an original composition, which began: “Dirty dirty street kid, where are you going?/ Dirty dirty street kid, where are you from?” I would have loved to learn where it went from there, but the light changed.
Second round: Saturday, March 21
There are a lot of Washington Huskies fans here. The Rose Garden is about three-quarters filled, and everyone is wearing purple and cheering rebounds far more lustily than seems proportional, especially since UW is losing to Purdue.
Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar is finding new ways to be flabbergasted and appalled by the officials. He just invented a very effective maneuver in which he tugs on his suit jacket while jumping up and down.
Three simultaneous dramas play out here, only one of which you can see at home. There’s a four-point contest between the hard-charging Huskies and the clinging-to-the-cliffside Boilermakers; there’s the ongoing question of whether one of Romar’s assistants will actually light himself on fire to protest the cruel dictatorship of the officials; and there’s the personal crisis playing out for thousands of Husky fans, half of them on their feet, trying to salvage their weekend in Oregon.
Also, Big Red has arrived, and is seated on the baseline in front of several Huskies fans whose memories of losing will now include a massive red plush creature.
Purdue wins 76-74. Out in the courtyards, Washington fans wander about with shell-shocked expressions. “Fuckin’ great,” a fratty Husky bitterly concludes.
Gonzaga’s Matt Bouldin draws a foul. The Western Kentucky fans behind me do not think it was a foul. “He walked!” opines one woman who has not shut up for more than 30 seconds since this game began. “He walked! He walked! He walked! He walked! He walked!”
Big Red spends halftime posing with fans from other schools (especially Purdue) who want to have their photos taken with their heads inside his enormous, froglike mouth.
Big Red’s commercial-break booty dancing coaxes the hint of a smile out of poker-faced Oregonian columnist John Canzano, who has a front-row view of his antics. Put your bald face in his enormous, froglike mouth, John! It’s cross-promotion!
OK, I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room now. Western Kentucky’s fan base includes a lot of black people. Gonzaga’s fan base does not include a lot of black people. Hell, Gonzaga’s starting lineup does not include a lot of black people. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I don’t think I’m imagining some racial tensions currently at play in the building. When one of Gonzaga’s large, white forwards goes to the free-throw line, a WKU fan yells at him, “Miss it, boy!”
I am reduced to clichés and gaping. Western Kentucky tips in a miss to tie it at 81, but nobody guards Zags point guard Demetri Goodson, who runs the length of the court to kiss a running jumper off the glass with nine-tenths of a second left. The building erupts; it’s euphoria. The Hilltoppers have no time for a real shot. The Zags fans lose their collective minds, the players mob Goodson, the entire weekend of occasionally dull basketball is fully justified. The Gonzaga fans, like me, don’t want to leave. It’s quite the turnaround from U-Dub fans fleeing three hours ago. Finally, everybody decides the Portland party is over. “Our work here is done,” declares a Zags fan. So is mine.
MORE: Read Aaron Mesh’s full NCAA diary here, here and here.