THE CHANT OF a school fight song isn’t what you expect to hear at the Marriott Marquis.
But that’s what woke me up one spring morning when I was staying at the swanky hotel in Atlanta. I was there to cover March Madness, and at 8 a.m., the sound of Michigan Wolverines fans singing “Hail to the victors” rang out in the hall outside my room.
Imagine if a Fortune 500 business conference and spring break had a baby. The NCAA Final Four is not as corporate as the Super Bowl but not as collegial as your traditional in-season college rivalry game. It’s an amalgam of wealthy alumni and struggling students. Concerts and fan festivals take over the weekend. School colours are splashed on every available surface. Fan bases flock together, wearing their colours around town, all day and all night.
Every spectator becomes a school ambassador—in 2013, for Michigan, Syracuse, Wichita State or Louisville—looking for a reason to show off how loud and proud they are. “Go Wolverines” replaces “Hello.” “Cards nation” stands in for “How are you doing?”
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The energy is astonishing. Three big-time basketball games take place in a sold-out football stadium. My cameraman, Chris Logan, said it best: “Basketball in a building that big shouldn’t work, but it does.” Jim Nantz put it in perspective for me: “As soon as I’m done calling the final, I drive straight to Augusta for the Masters. Only then do I come down from the high,” he said.
The difference is that at the Masters, the celebs are behind the ropes. At the Final Four, the A-listers are part of the show. Every year, the Naismith Hall of Fame candidates are unveiled on court—not at the NBA Finals but during the NCAA’s championship weekend. During the title game, the Michigan section was saturated with celebrity alums. To my left were Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson of the Fab Five. Chris Webber watched from a box, marking the first time the former teammates had all been in the same building since their days in Ann Arbor, Mich. A few rows up was Desmond Howard, jumping to his feet to cheer during every stoppage. Directly in front of him was Charles Woodson, screaming “defence” between claps of his Pro Bowl hands. In the parents’ cheering section sat Tim Hardaway and Glenn Robinson.
Four fan bases arrive, but only two get to see their teams advance. Given the lack of a consolation game, fans go from chirping each other to negotiating the best deals for their tickets when their team loses, all in the span of 24 hours.
The year I was there, Kevin Ware went from role player off the bench to worldwide celebrity, receiving a call from Michelle Obama after he broke his leg. Rick Pitino cemented his legacy, leading Louisville to his second championship. But what I remember above all from those games is how a stream of colour and enthusiasm took over a city that rarely gets excited for sports.
This story originally appeared in the June 2016 edition of Sportsnet magazine.