My first Final Four was in 2011 at Houston’s Reliant (now NRG) Stadium, which is 1.9 million square feet, seats 72,220, has 20 escalators and rises 27 stories into the Texas sky.
The first semifinal featured the Virginia Commonwealth Rams and Butler Bulldogs.
VCU was an 11 seed that had to win a play-in game against USC just to reach the main bracket, then upset a 6, 3 and 1 seed en route to the Final Four. The head coach was 33-year-old Shaka Smart who, in their open practice in the cavernous stadium the day before the game, had his players do their “Ironman Drill” where they took a charge, dove headlong for a loose ball, then got horizontal to save a ball from going out of bounds — and then had the entire coaching staff do it, too, to “put our bodies where our mouth is.”
Butler, a small university in Indianapolis that plays in a fieldhouse built in 1928, had a 34-year-old head coach from Zionsville, Ind., whose “best birthday present I ever got” was a backyard hoop when he turned 8. Ten players on the roster were from the land of Hoosiers as well, from places like Ellettsville, Yorktown, New Castle, Kokomo, Muncie. The father of the star forward from Connersville was a mailman who received cash and checks from people along his route so he could get to Houston.
Forward Garrett Butcher, from a town of 5,078, debated in the Reliant Stadium locker room with center Emerson Kampen about whether he grew up on a farm.
Kampen: “If it has a tractor, barn and chickens, it’s a farm.”
Butcher: “We have a tractor and a barn but no chickens. We used to have chickens but we don’t anymore.”
Kampen: “That’s a farm.”
That’s also what defines the Final Four, what separates and elevates it, what makes it so special across the panorama of American sporting events, what captivates us. And what makes it so hard to miss this year at a time when we need that kind of entertainment and encouragement and escape the most.
Ordinary people in an extraordinary setting.
Little guys on a big stage.
Kids who grew up shooting on a rusted hoop nailed to the side of a red barn suddenly hoisting 3s in front of 70,000 and a national television audience.
Coaches who toiled in anonymity for decades, driving buses and sweeping gym floors at far-flung junior colleges, now diagramming plays in a football stadium with a retractable roof.
Or a 98-year-old nun in a wheelchair holding a news conference with 31 camera crews and journalists spilling out the door.
It actually happened in 2018, at San Antonio’s Alamodome, when 11th-seeded Loyola Chicago crashed the party and brought along Sister Jean, who delivers the pregame prayer at 4,486-seat Gentile Arena. I was in the back, peering through minicams, straining to hear her speculate that God “probably” is a fan of NCAA basketball more than NBA fan.
“Every morning,” Sister Jean said of her newfound celebrity, “I wake up and I say: ‘Is this real or is it a dream?’ And I say: ‘No, it’s really for real.’ … Everything just seemed to mushroom, and I could never tell you how that happens. It’s just like when students visit universities before they’re admitted, when they’re in high school. I always tell them that something magical happens.
“You don’t know what it is, but you know you belong there.”
My favorite memories from eight Final Fours, then, are the actors more than the stage, Sister Jean more than Coach K. The one shining moment when humanity and insanity intersect.
It is Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan facing Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski in the 2015 final. Both had four NCAA championships on their resumes, Ryan’s all in Div. III with the Wisconsin-Platteville Pioneers, Krzyzewski’s all in Div. I beginning in 1991 in Indianapolis.
Ryan’s first title had come two weeks earlier that year, 130 miles east at Wittenberg University’s New Gymnasium in Springfield, Ohio. Attendance: 2,379.
He was asked the difference.
“The training table meal was hot dogs,” Ryan said into a microphone on a dais above hundreds of journalists at a Final Four news conference. “The morning of the game, I had a cream doughnut and a diet pop. Now we have the best French toast, pancakes, omelettes. We have people cooking omelettes. What else do we have? Bacon, turkey, all the fruit you could possibly think about eating.
“I think there was one stringer from the Madison paper that actually showed up and covered the game. So you ask me, what was it like? It wasn’t like this.”
Four years later, it was Chris Beard from Texas Tech.
His first head coaching job was at Fort Scott Community College in Bourbon County, Kan., where the home gym shared a wall with a rodeo arena. He also worked at Seminole State CC in Oklahoma and a long list of nondescript Texas schools: McMurry University, Angelo State, Incarnate Word, Abilene Christian, North Texas. He plucked his lead assistant from juco in Big Springs, Texas.
But every year he scrounged up the money to attend the Final Four, once getting a part-time job cutting up cardboard boxes behind a grocery store. He’d go to the open practices and gaze down at Coach K and the others fortunate enough to be on the floor instead of the stands, and dream.
“You just beg one of your buddies that’s in Div. I to crash on their floor,” Beard said. “I’ve been in a lot of rooms where it’s two guys in each bed without the comforters because you got more people on the floor with the comforters, and then one maybe in the bathroom bathtub with the pillows. We put eight deep before in a Marriott Courtyard, I promise you.
“The problem is in the mornings with the towel situation, because I’m not really a big believer — I guess I’ll share a bar of soap if you wash it out really good — in sharing a towel with any other man, you know? We used to come to the Final Four and bring our own towels. True story.”
It’s less Virginia guard Kyle Guy making three free throws with 0.6 seconds left to beat Auburn 63-62 in the 2019 semifinals than Samir Doughty, who had the misfortune of fouling him (or being called for it). The NCAA mandates that locker rooms are opened to the media during the tournament, and Doughty sat there patiently and proudly as dozens of us spilled inside and crowded around him.
Answered every question. Looked everyone in the eye. Didn’t make excuses. Didn’t point fingers. Didn’t question what some viewed as a questionable call.
“That’s their job,” Doughty said quietly. “The referees don’t try to tell me how to put a basketball in the hoop, so I’m not going to tell them how to make the right or wrong call. We knew these were great officials out there. … That’s why they’re reffing the Final Four. They’re the best of the best. You have to trust them.”
It’s less Villanova forward Kris Jenkins making maybe the greatest buzzer-beater in college basketball history in the 2016 final against North Carolina — happened right in front of my courtside seat — than how he was out there to even shoot it.
His baby sister was born with health complications and died at 11 months. During that traumatic year, Felicia Jenkins asked the family of his AAU coach in the Washington, D.C., area to take him in. After Felicia got a job as a Div. II coach in South Carolina and Kris didn’t adjust well, she asked the Britts to raise him on a more permanent basis.
Villanova was recruiting Nate Britt Jr., and Jenkins asked to sit in on the home visit. Nate ended up going to North Carolina. Villanova reluctantly took the 6-foot-6, 280-pound Jenkins on the hope he would eventually get in shape.
That’s the guy who won the Wildcats the national championship.
It’s also Tim Henderson.
He grew up on 10 acres outside Louisville with a basketball hoop in his driveway. His best offer coming out of high school was from an NAIA school in southern Indiana, but all he ever wanted was to go to Louisville, where his father swam and his mother played tennis. So he started writing letters to coach Rick Pitino and his staff, begging them to take him as a walk-on.
They did. He barely played.
He had red hair and a baby face, and his teammates reasoned he needed a Mafioso moniker to harden his image. “Timmy the Tooth” was one. “Red Mamba” was another.
Then backup guard Kevin Ware broke his leg in the regional final, and midway through the second half of the 2013 semifinal against Wichita State, down 12, Pitino looked down his bench and motioned to the Red Mamba. He had made one 3-pointer since January.
Fifteen seconds later, he got the ball in the corner and launched a 3. Good.
On Louisville’s next possession, he got the ball in the corner behind the arc and fired another. Good.
That ignited a Cardinals run that ended in a 72-68 victory and a trip to the final they’d win two nights later.
Timmy the Tooth, NCAA champion.
Pitino later marveled that a walk-on guard “had the gumption to take them … that’s pretty darn big on this stage.” But the thing about his driveway court, Henderson explained, is that it dropped off steeply on the left side. You had to perfect shots from the right, or they’d bounce long off the rim and roll into the ravine.
Both his 3s against Wichita State were from the right side.
The right side of the court, and the right side of history.
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