It's surrealistic," Utah coach Rick Majerus said last week of
being in the Final Four, and that was before a Stanford
sophomore in a Kevlar-and-rayon tree costume was chased away
from the Alamo by gun-toting Alamo Rangers. "We have bylaws,"
drawled one law-enforcement official on the scene. "I mean, look
at him. He's in a coonskin cap."
While it's true that the Tree was wearing a stapled-on coonskin
cap at the time, not to mention complimentary Air Jordans, per
his endorsement deal with Nike...well, perhaps we should revisit
this incident later. Suffice it to say that everything is
surreal at the Final Four, the only basketball gathering in the
world at which even the coaches suffer multiple floor burns and
a reporter can earnestly ask a tree, "If you were a person, what
kind of person would you be?"
First, about the floor burns. In San Antonio last week, coaches
slept four or five to a single room at the Hyatt, which was
hosting the annual convention of the National Association of
Basketball Coaches (NABC). This didn't approach the record set
at the 1989 Final Four in Seattle, where 15 cheap coaches
bivouacked on the floor in a room at the Sheraton. Still,
countless coaches awoke last week to see Nikes sticking out of
sweat suits sticking out from under scores of lumpy blankets on
the floor, so that hotel rooms looked uncannily like the
headquarters of the Heaven's Gate cult.
As for the sweat suits and sneakers, everyone is in a sweat suit
and sneakers at the Final Four. The Final Four is Sweat Suit
Nation. The rank and file of the NABC are low-salaried high
school and college coaches happy to wear whatever complimentary
apparel is handed out by shoe companies, which were omnipresent
in San Antonio. Thus the corollary: The larger the salary, the
more lavishly attired in nonsweat-related garb a coach can
afford to be. So prominent coaches wore manifold accessories,
which sent the same swaggering message that points do on deer
UNLV coach Billy Bayno sauntered along San Antonio's famous
Riverwalk after dark in crushed-velvet loafers with gold
buckles, no socks, triple-pleated chenille trousers, silk
T-shirt, royal-blue sport coat, multiple gold-rope necklaces,
bracelet, cigar and cell phone. ("We didn't get any looks
tonight," North Carolina forward Antawn Jamison said after the
Tar Heels lost to Utah last Saturday night. Maybe not, but Bayno
must have gotten plenty of them all week.)
Like those Heaven's Gate cultists, conventioneering coaches were
all looking to "go to the next level"--in this case, from
Division II to Division I or from Division I to the NBA. The
NABC convention is a job fair for career-climbing coaches, who
"do the lobby" (coachspeak for networking in the Hyatt) while
giving one another the "Division I stare," which is to say,
looking past a colleague while shaking his hand and scanning the
room for more powerful people to suck up to.
This leads to all manner of dubious bonhomie. "I saw
[Northwestern State coach] J.D. Barnett and [Purdue coach] Gene
Keady in a bear hug that neither one wanted to be in," said a
15-year veteran of the NABC, shuddering at the recollection.
"People were actually turning the other way in the lobby. They
Trouble is, everywhere one turned in the lobby, he--and we do
mean he; the Hyatt lobby was an all-male preserve of cigar smoke
and Aqua Velva fumes--ran into something more unsavory, like one
of the 100 or so ticket scalpers staking out the hotel.
NABC coaches with at least 17 years of membership under their
belts were eligible to purchase a pair of Final Four tickets at
their $50 face value. Many, if not most, coaches resold these
tickets immediately to scalpers, who then reresold them on the
street. "Wink at me when you're ready [to sell], then meet me in
the bathroom," a scalper said mischievously to a coach who had
just picked up his tickets last Saturday morning. The deal was
consummated in a Hyatt john. Though scalping carries up to a
$2,000 fine in San Antonio, most transactions were made brazenly
in broad daylight. One man wore on his T-shirt a HELLO MY NAME
IS sticker on which he had written I NEED FINAL 4 TICKETS.
Either the guy was a scalper or he had the best and oddest name
in the entire tournament, with the singular spectacular
exception of UConn's Monquencio Hardnett.
Last Friday evening, mercifully, students began arriving in San
Antonio, and this grim pursuit of jobs and tickets--March
Bidness--gave way, at last, to actual March Madness. Which is
where the goofy-looking Tree came in. "Somebody once said the
Tree is everybody's hypothetical drinking buddy," said the guy
in the Tree suit, a Stanford sophomore named Matt Merrill.
"Well, this week, it's been more than just hypothetical."
The Tree is Stanford's sports mascot, a kind of antimascot who
dances manically and incessantly for the duration of all public
appearances. Why a tree? Because Stanford's nickname is the
Cardinal, and it's hard to rally around a color. And there's a
California redwood in the school logo. And Palo Alto--where the
school is located--is Spanish for "tall tree." All of which is
to say that it didn't seem inappropriate for the Tree to visit
the Alamo, which is itself Spanish for "cottonwood."
Except that the Alamo Rangers thought he looked too goofy, and
he got the bum's rush from the property, much as he was ushered
away from the St. Louis Arch by national park rangers during the
Midwest Regional. It seems the Tree lacked sufficient gravitas
to visit famous U.S. monuments, including the Alamo, in front of
which were parked satellite trucks and Slurpee stands. The
Budweiser blimp hovered overhead.
Inside the Alamo a plaque that was dedicated on March 2, 1927,
reads THAT THE SACRED SHRINE BE SAVED FROM THE ENCROACHMENTS OF
COMMERCIALISM. Few such encroachments have been made, if you
discount the Alamo Strip-A-Dancer, Alamo Sewer Service, Alamo
Pawn Shop, Alamo Escorts, Alamo Funeral Home, Alamo Bail Bonds,
Alamo Eviction Services, Alamo RV Center, Alamo Wigs & Things,
Alamo Meat Market, Alamo Urology Associates and roughly 500
other nearby businesses that have taken their names from the
shrine in whose flourishing gift shop the Tree had purchased his
coonskin cap in the first place.
So the Tree had to make do performing on court last Saturday at
the Alamodome. "I can't believe we're here," Stanford alumnus
and erstwhile NFL quarterback Jim Plunkett confessed to the Tree
when he happened upon him. Well, who could? After all, it was
Stanford's first Final Four appearance since 1942. "I couldn't
have picked a better year to be Tree," said Merrill, before the
Cardinal's heartbreaking overtime loss to Kentucky. The game
marked the end of his one-year term as Tree, an office he will
vacate this week. As he reflected wistfully on the past 12
months, a tear appeared to form on his bark. Though, truthfully
speaking, it may have just been sap.
But you get the point. Tempus fugit. Time flies. No one knows
this better than Jim Wilcher, who--along with his wife,
Robin--occupied the two worst seats in the Alamodome last
weekend. Section 315, Row 27 is actually behind the blue curtain
that separates the court from the rest of the cavernous arena.
"I work for Louisville National Cemetery," said Jim, a Kentucky
fan. "I'm in the death-care business."
Whereupon two eavesdropping men seated directly in front of him
turned and said cheerily, "We're in the funeral home business!"
John Mitchell (Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home of Baltimore) and
Michael Marzullo (Marzullo Funeral Service of Upperco, Md.) had
found a new friend for life--and possibly beyond. That,
ultimately, is what the Final Four was all about.
For some reason, the fleeting nature of life was on everyone's
mind. You have never seen so many diems being carped as you did
in San Antonio. Utah forward Britton Johnsen strolled the
Riverwalk in a T-shirt that read, WE MAY NEVER PASS THIS WAY
AGAIN. (North Carolina guard Shammond Williams should have worn
a shirt that said, I MAY NEVER PASS AGAIN, but that's another
story.) Majerus said, "I don't know if I'll ever get back here
again. Probably not." Kentucky star Jeff Sheppard, asked about
his NBA prospects, said, "Coach has taught us to live in a
'precious present.' I'm a college student right now and enjoying
Well, amen. The NBA will never be like this: At 1:30 a.m. on
Sunday, after his team's loss to Utah, Antawn Jamison, the
National Player of the Year, sat with his family on the empty
deck of a Riverwalk restaurant while, 20 feet away, Utah
cheerleaders loudly celebrated inside, singing and dancing to a
Polynesian wedding song. Jamison had just been watched on
television in about 11 million households, but now he went all
but unnoticed, in a backward baseball cap, slumped in a seat,
looking Carolina blue.
But his little brother, 11-year-old Albert Jr., sat next to him,
and he appeared to remain resolutely a fan, what with his still
wearing a number 33 ANTAWN JAMISON Carolina jersey and all.
After the Tar Heels' 14-point loss to North Carolina State in
February, Albert Jr. had burst into the team's funereal locker
room, surveyed the scene and shouted, "Hey, y'all! Get your
heads up! Stop sittin' there all quiet and all! You're still
goin' to win the national championship!" And the locker room
busted up laughing at this smaller, rounder, more impertinent
Jamison, who has the same iron-filing eyebrows as his famous
So again on Saturday night-Sunday morning in San Antonio, at the
Rio Rio Cantina restaurant, Albert Jr. tried to make his big
brother's eyebrows dance a little bit with laughter. Sure, a
national championship was no longer possible. But Jamison, a
junior, did seem to want to seize the night. He had the presence
of mind to kiss the court at the Alamodome when the final horn
sounded, for no other reason than he may go into the NBA draft,
and he had a sudden awareness that he may never pass this way
Sure, he will come to San Antonio on NBA road trips. But it's
likely he will never feel so empty in the NBA as he did on this
night. There will be nothing as interesting or intense, as
weird, awful or all of the above, as college basketball's Final
A waitress walked over to Jamison in the darkness and
apologetically asked him to pose for a photograph. He stood up
wearily to his full 6'9", and she nervously climbed onto a
chair, so as to appear in the same frame. As the Utah
cheerleaders sang on, Jamison put his arm around the waitress.
Someone said, "Say Cheese." Antawn Jamison obliged with a smile.