Pretending to cover the NCAA basketball tournament

by Brian Clarey

The media compound at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum exists in a concrete bunker underneath the first level seats, with a couple acres of blue shag carpet thrown down for the occasion and more than a mile’s worth of table surface in long rows, sweatshop style.

On one side of a color-coordinated blue divider the broadcast techies sit in front of small pyramids of digital wonder; behind a matching blue curtain lies the press conference “room” and an elaborate port-a-john. The print journalism ghetto is on the other side of the divider, the mile or so of tabletops, all wired for serious power suckage; the cubbies filled with box scores, statistics, quotes, matchups and game notes in neat, short stacks; the occasional television set tuned to the basketball games in the four corners of the nation. There’s free candy and sodas, a popcorn machine, a freezer with some Dove bars in it and an internet signal coursing through the whole space that runs about $30 a day.

Out on the floor the Marquette Golden Eagles are suffering against the stingy defense of the Michigan State University Spartans, managing only 18 points in the first half to the Spartans’ 30. When the Spartans jog in a sweaty, thundering column to their locker room, the hallway teems with various NCAA hotshots, college and high school coaches, tall and well-dressed television types and their sexy assistants, newsprint plebians with recorders and slim notebooks, shooters with cameras strung around their necks like Mardi Gras beads and many, many security personnel.

I’m here pretending to cover the NCAA Tournament, but I’m also experiencing a Dickensian type of drama, a visit from the Ghost of What Might Have Been.

I worked briefly in sports journalism, a good nine months as a stat clerk on the sports wire my first year out of college on the eleventh floor of a Jersey City high-rise overlooking Lower Manhattan, back when the Twin Towers still owned that stretch of the skyline, in a room filled with quarrelsome fat guys and sports nerds from the outer boroughs on the phones until the box scores from the West Coast ballgames came in at three or so in the morning.

They might still remember me around there as the guy who accidentally credited American League pitcher David Wells with a late-game home run.

I suppose if I showed more acumen and diligence at my old job… if I had stayed in New York rather than moved back to New Orleans… if I had altered my career goals a bit… if I was able to navigate the currents of opportunity and success… I could conceivably have gone further in the world of sports journalism.

I could have been one of these guys I see in the bowels of LJVM wearing grooves in the blue carpet from coffee urn to workspace to bathroom or up on press row tapping out game write-ups as the action unfolds on the court in front of them.

Press row is so close to the action that members of the media sometimes catch stray basketballs that fly off the court. From it you can see how the stands have been steadily filling all day with shades of Carolina blue. It’s essentially a home game for the Tarheels, who have the added advantage of a top seed in the division against No. 16 Eastern Kentucky University. And the Chapel Hill faithful evetually pack the room, engaging in call and response cheering even before Michigan State finishes off Marquette. There are wild cheers when the overhead scoreboard flashes updates of Duke’s eventual demise against Virginia Commonwealth University up in Buffalo, NY. On press row they watch the killing blow, a jumper by VCU’s Eric Maynor made with 1.8 seconds left in regulation, as the Tarheels take the court in front of them.

The game starts ugly, with the score at 13:29 putting the Tarheels ahead 22-3. The Kentucky Colonels are outmatched against a faster, stronger and better-coached team – even their cheerleaders seem amateurish and weak compared to a UNC squad that throws backflips and towering lifts at will.

And the room, full of 12,000 or so blue-clad maniacs who may or may not have attended the Chapel Hill institution, has no mercy.

There are few things, by the way, more obnoxious than a drunken, smug booster whose team is 20 points ahead, cocky without reason, entitled without effort, slapping clumsy high-fives and calling to the players by their first names: “Take the shot, Reyshawn,” “That’s it Ty, play your game,” “Come on Tyler.”

Still the Colonels, behind strong play by junior forward Darnell Dialls and freshman guard Adam Leonard, scrap their way within four points of the Carolina juggernaut.

But it was not to be. With 5:51 on the clock, the Tarheels are again up by 21 points and on press row the workaday sports scribes are already writing their ledes. Then they’ll file like goslings into the curtained press conference room, record identical quotes to pop into the gaps in their stories for tomorrow’s sports pages and then hit the hotel bars until it’s time to do it all over again.