Looking for Cinderella at the Final Four Tourney

by Brian Clarey

The NCAA Media Guide for the 2008 Men’s Basketball Tournament is a fascinating document, brimming with useful information for the sports journo like how to obtain credentials, good places to park, how to catch an internet signal and what time the media buffet opens.

Also within are the rules for postgame locker-room interviews (30 allotted minutes after a brief “cooling off” period”), blogging (maximum five posts each half and one at halftime) and on-court microphones (no way).

And in the back, there’s a list of tournament records, categorized and ranked for easy reference, going back to 1951, when St. John’s out-rebounded UConn 56-21 on March 20 for the second-largest margin ever. The biggest was in 1958 when Notre Dame grabbed 86 boards to Tennessee Tech’s 44, by the way.

I’ve always said sport is easy, journalistically speaking. You’ve either got a favorite and an underdog or two evenly matched competitors; the entire conflict is played out over an actual contest right there on the arena floor. And always there’s an athlete or team with a compelling backstory that’s good for a few hundred words.

At a big-time tourney like this, you don’t even have to do any reporting. After every contest, NCAA press people file box scores, play-by-play, game notes and quotes from players and coaches. A solid game write-up, if you’re typing during play, can be filed within 20 minutes of the final buzzer if you’re not afraid to phone it in, which many sports journalists aren’t.

The first real money I ever earned in this business came from sports, when I spent nearly a year as a reporter (“stat clerk” was my official title) for SportsTicker, a wire service owned at the time by Dow Jones, just after college. I thought I liked sports then, but compared to the others in that cubicle farm in Jersey City, high above the banks of the Hudson River, I was a piker.

And compared to the others milling around the media areas this afternoon, I still am.

Never mind what I’m doing here, why I’m watching Georgetown close the deal against the University of Maryland Baltimore County from press row, close enough to the Hoya bench to steal a towel if I wanted and, during breaks in gameplay, to see the shading of cellulite on some of the cheerleaders’ thighs. Never mind that I’m not technically a sports journalist, and that my father is wandering around the television crew pits trying to look inconspicuous.

He’s a huge college basketball fan, my old man, and when I realized his visit to North Carolina coincided with my annual scouting trip to the Final Four, I knew I had to place his name on the other credential.

He’s never seen anything quite like this, the media circus surrounding the most exciting tournament in sports – eclipsing the World Cup, even, because the action is so tight and confined, and because losses on the hardcourt mean elimination from the proceedings. I can tell he’s fascinated by the ebb and flow of reporters from the arena floor to the press rooms; the radio guys recording dispatches from the hallways; the wealth of free soft drinks, snacks, notebooks, team programs, electrical sockets, parking spaces, concierge service and general mobility afforded to the working press at these things.

“They used to give you booze, too,” I tell him, as nonchalantly as I am able as we wend through the bowels of the RBC Center amid ESPN personalities, prominent sports writers and college basketball notorieties.

And though I’m not the biggest college basketball fan myself, it’s hard for me not to be impressed when I take a leak next to former Georgetown Head Coach John Thomas, who, as my father says, looks a lot bigger when he’s not surrounded by six- and seven-footers.

It’s afterwards that I watch his son, also named John Thomas and Georgetown’s current head coach, lead his team through a tough first half against UMBC. There’s a nice moment at 9:04 in the first half, when the son of Thompson Sr.’s star player, Patrick Ewing Jr., makes a steal in the defensive court, fast-breaks across the mid-court line and slams an authoritative dunk.

But the most exciting play comes at 17:06 in the first, when UMBC’s 5-foot-5 guard Jay Greene pulls in a foul-shot rebound while outpositioned by Georgetown’s 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, Cinderella-style.

That’s what I’m in it for, me and about half of the people who watch this tournament like it’s their religion: Cinderella. I’ve already missed Davidson’s historic advancement after a big beat against Gonzaga, and I will sit out their triumph against Georgetown on Easter Sunday two days hence, mistakenly believing the anniversary of Christ’s resurrection to be more important than hardwood redemption.

I won’t make the mistake of taking my eye off the ball next weekend in Charlotte, where I have a feeling UNC will get its compeuppance.

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