It’s not even thankful for a bottle of water and a national anthem performed in less than three minutes.
It’s in a ghost town.
This is the eighth Final Four to be played here, dating back to 1980, when Louisville beat UCLA in the championship game in the old Market Square Arena with 16,530 seats. UCLA is back this weekend, but the 1980 team doesn’t exist in the NCAA record book. It’s one of many teams struck from the history books for being on the wrong side of the NCAA police force.
The last time the Final Four played here, in 2015, there were 71,149 spectators in this building for the Duke-Wisconsin title game. Chances are that overall participation in the 66 games that make up this championship (one was lost to the coronavirus on the first weekend) won’t be much more.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, there was no doubt that this tournament would be played. The lack of a tournament last year cost the NCAA nearly $ 500 million in television revenue. Losing ticket sales or concessions or parking can be a little bit damaging. Losing TV money is disastrous.
And even if this year’s event was just a TV show, it would happen. It didn’t matter that the players in the four finalists have been in Indianapolis for almost three weeks and are undergoing constant coronavirus testing and quarantines. It didn’t matter that her life wasn’t nearly normal to get to that point.
Last summer, Dan Gavitt, the NCAA vice president who runs the tournament, launched a weekly Zoom call with prominent coaches to discuss one topic: How can we keep the season intact through March for a legitimate tournament at 68 Teams can take place?
“Every decision we made was about making sure we could have a tournament,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who won three of his five national titles in Indianapolis. “Everything else was secondary.”
Last but not least, the Gonzaga-UCLA game went out of their way to create this three-week television extravaganza. Whenever it looked like the Zags were taking control of the game, the Bruins had an answer – even in the final seconds of overtime when they clocked the game one last time between 90 and 90 and double overtime.
And then, at one of the most notable moments in tournament history, Gonzaga freshman Jalen Suggs brushed off relegation and let go of a 30-foot run just before the buzzer that somehow led to an extraordinary 93-30 win, The Zags a win of one earned perfect season.
If not otherwise, Gonzaga and Baylor – the two best teams of the entire season – will play for the championship this season, with the Final Four being played in a near-empty city and arena.
But Duke is nowhere to be found, and no so-called blue blood cells like North Carolina – Dean Smith’s last Final Four was across the street in the Hoosier Dome – Kansas, Kentucky or Michigan State: the newly retired Roy Williams got his first Final Four here with Kansas in 1991; Tom Izzo’s national title was won here in 2000. No Final Four city has more history than this.
What makes this site great for an event like this is that it is all within easy walking distance of downtown. The dome is a short walk from most major hotels. There are great restaurants – notably the legendary St. Elmo Steak House, but a lot more – just a few blocks away. The convention center, which is usually where all of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and Fan Fest meetings and seminars take place, is just a few steps from the hotel, which houses all four teams.
Of course, the NCAA headquarters are also downtown. No place is perfect.
But there is no coaching convention and no fan festival. Usually on a beautiful Saturday like this, the streets are teeming with people and the traffic is about to stand still.
Instead, there were few people and fewer cars. There were no fans singing to each other, no crowds on the street corners. In the Circle Center Mall in the heart of downtown, few stores were open, but many places were closed – some for good.
When a Joker who had forgotten to pack his pants for the trip – it was his first business trip in a year – asked a security guard for directions to Eddie Bauer, she sadly shook her head and said, “You have closed business.”
In a normal year, someone who attended 40 Final Fours (with or without pants) would find it difficult to take five steps without encountering a friend or foe. On Friday night, my friend Dick Weiss, who was on 48 Final Fours, and I went to dinner five blocks from our hotel. We didn’t see a person we knew on the way. The same was true today when we went to the Circle Center Mall to pick up credentials.
This is what Final Four is supposed to be about: seeing friends you haven’t seen in a while and friends you see all the time. See John Chaney and John Calipari hug. I see Bob Knight and his coaching mentor Pete Newell walking down the street. Damn it, I see Dick Vitale haggling pizza. Or insurance. Or something else.
That’s all gone this year. The streets are empty, and the building where the games are played feels like the fourth quarter of a Washington Football Team game – only thousands of people don’t flee into the parking lots.
If more people had been in the building, they might have escaped during the Baylor Houston game. The bears led 45-20 at half time, and the second half was 20 minutes of garbage time. The final was 78-59 and it wasn’t even that close. The cougars hit four double digit seeds to get here. Baylor was a step up – several steps up, it turned out.
The NCAA filled the lower portions of the building with about 4,000 cut-outs that cost $ 100 each (proceeds went to charity) and filled the room with their many corporate logos – sorry, corporate logos – and myriad of trademarked idioms : “The last four,” March Madness “,” The Big Dance “and my favorite,” The Road Ends Here “.
The last one is on the floor directly across from the four rows of team benches so TV cameras can better record it. But there was no road this year. There was only the state of Indiana – six locations in the first week, four in the second week – and the basketball world that came together that weekend.
But most of the basketball world has had to stay at home – fans, media, coaches, even ticket scalpers. The man who created The Road to the Last Four in 1982 was a then-CBS executive named Len DeLuca. He’s not here either.
The games are still being played here. But that’s not really a Final Four.