Vice, competition and inequity at the Final Four
Down on the ground level of the Greensboro Coliseum, a college basketball fan is fuming. Not literally — in fact, it’s his inability to light up that’s getting him so hot. “I’m sorry, sir,” says the lady in the blue blazer and gray pants. “This is a no-smoking facility.” She’s got her arms extended and is physically blocking the glass doors that lead to the coliseum’s smoking section, an enclosed patio with tall tables and ashtrays, which still stand there just behind the glass. “That’s bullshit,” the guy is saying. “I was smoking out there a month ago.” She calls out on her radio, possibly for reinforcements, and continues her enforcement role. “I’m sorry, sir. It’s NCAA policy.” “I go to these every year,” says a woman from the crowd that is beginning to gather. “They always let you smoke.” Still no dice. And the arena has a policy of no re-entry, so our smokers must decide what is stronger: a nicotine jones or the biggest college sporting event of the year. “How about this?” the angry guy says to the bejacketed security guard. “I got an emergency out in my car. You gotta let me back in.” She’s not going for it. It’s halftime of Thursday’s first game, a Round 1 matchup between LSU and Butler University, and the
Tigers are up 35-29 after a late-half barrage of threepointers from Butler. The LSU band, however, has bested Butler’s efforts at every turn with a configuration that’s heavy on the brass, including three sousaphones. LSU also sports the best-looking dance team in college sports. At least, that’s one man’s humble opinion. If the smokers were surprised by the decree outlawing their addiction, the drinkers were not much happier after realizing that you could not buy any beer in the concession ring outside the arenas — also an NCAA stipulation. You couldn’t even buy a glass of wine. Apparently there’s no room for vice at the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the most gambled-upon series of games in the nation. But upstairs in the Carlyle Club a different story plays out. Three bartenders pop beers and pour measures of alcohol as soon they are legally able, serving Greensboro’s college basketball cognoscenti as they not so patiently waited for UNC’s tipoff against Radford. If only the hooples wandering around the concession ring knew what was taking place in this insular aerie, the only place you can buy a drink in the whole complex, they might have stormed the gate. My father, for one, is glad to be here up in the rarified air. He’s flown down from Long Island for the games, and though he hasn’t had a drink in a good long while, he appreciates the clean, open space, the unoccupied bathroom and the buffet spread, which gets updated every hour or so. Seriously, there must be six kinds of cheese here. I can definitely pick out a smoked gouda, a port salut, a high-end cheddar-colby mix and this funky semisoft number with a deep rind and pungent flavor, a bit less creamy than brie and a touch more mild. Dad digs the cheese and the assortment of cakes and cookies, and he also marvels at the political presence up here in the only bar in Tournament Town. I show him former City Manager Mitch Johnson, nursing a Heineken by the bar. I introduce him to Sen. Don Vaughan, former UNC cheerleader, who begins working the room in a counterclockwise circle around the buffet. Later we’ll corner Rep. Pricey Harrison at the bar after she’s talked her way into the Carlyle Club with a coterie of denim-clad constituents. But until then there’s a lot of basketball to watch. LSU takes their game over Butler, and afterwards UNC makes short work of Radford on their way to the Sweet Sixteen. But my father and I are particularly interested in Duke’s evening game against Binghamton, a State University of New York school not too far from Albany, where he grew up. I’m also pulling for Binghamton, because it is the only school in the entire NCAA tournament into which I was accepted. Neither one of us, though, is foolish enough to have chosen the tourney first-timer in our brackets. After the first session, the coliseum is the scene of a crush of humanity, milling along like cattle working through the chutes. The throng disperses into the surrounding neighborhoods to load up on drink and smoke before the evening rolls around, a night which will see Duke emerge victorious against its smaller, weaker foe and Texas beat up on Minnesota before succumbing to the Blue Devil machine. I’ll forego my Saturday ticket and send my oldest son in my stead — it’s about time he went to a sporting event with his Grandpa Bob, who knows a thing or two about basketball. And because my 8-yearold doesn’t smoke cigarettes or drink beer, he will have little to complain about.