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ATLANTA – Here is what you find during a Final 4: equal parts Mardi Gras, Derby infield and Times Square, mixed with an overture of basketball and warmed slightly by the fervor that only well-funded and sometimes well-oiled fans can generate.
Here is what you will not find during a Final 4: calm and apathy.
I went to Atlanta on Saturday to investigate the phenomenon that is the finish to March Madness, the combustible moment in sports when the best four surviving college basketball teams in the land – note that “surviving” is a key word in that sentence structure – convene to determine a true champion.
The Final 4 is everything that the Super Bowl thinks it is and everything college football wishes it could be. Swallow hard, foaming football faces. This is a championship’s championship.
The Final 4 is where the greatest fun in all of college sports intersects with every human emotion. And although there is plenty of rock and roll around, we imagine drug and sex aren’t far away either, based on the some the characters who were near the Georgia Dome if not exactly inside watching games.
I type this from the perspective of having attended a couple of Super Bowls, a handful of World Series, a Summer Olympics and myriad other sports events ranging from, oh, a No. 1 team in a Sugar Bowl to a Bassfield, Miss., girls basketball game in which six players were on a side (I mention that because of the edification that it brought to my life).
But this was my first Final 4, an event I had longed to attend since I was aced out by a self-induced budget cut from a trip to the historic conclusion in 1983. Thirty years later, I found myself attending on a whim, a prayer and a platinum card, all orchestrated by my superfan wife.
Clearly now I can say without a doubt that this one surpassed most anything I could have imagined, largely because of great basketball played by four exemplary teams in front of incredibly spirited and mobile fan bases that had followed them across state after state and not lost a step of enthusiasm.
Oh, and perhaps it’s about here at word 300 that I should mention that the University of Louisville again brought home the big prize to the best basketball state on the globe, beating Michigan, 82-76, in a championship game that was a perfect coronation of a champion.
But what else did we expect at the final buzzer to end a 3-week melodrama that peaked with two outrageously entertaining games on Saturday, a weekend made of spectacular plays, heroism and uncanny performances by players who looked like guys who used to play in your hayloft? Come on: Tim Henderson? Spike Albrecht? Even Luke Hancock, the hero of the day? They look like wooden-backboard guys who never worried if they couldn’t afford a net to hang on the rim. They just shot the ball and knew where it was landing. Every time.
The focal point for me, of course, was that Louisville-Wichita State game, a spectacle unto itself, given the thousands of red-clad fans in the northern end of the stadium and the wonderful joy witnessed of the Shockers out of Wichita, who last played in a Final 4 the year before Mike Casey led Shelby County to a state title.
And this was where the crutch-laden and effervescent fallen hero Kevin Ware exerted his heavenly connections, plunking out to a huddle for a moment of encouragement when the Cards seemed in danger of being chased from the title hunt and burying his head in his jersey in prayer when the tenseness was at its apex.
Perhaps those prayers were why Henderson became Saturday’s savior, the second-most-famous alumnus of Christian Academy of Louisville playing in a semifinal – Shelbyville’s Antonita Slaughter would be the more well known, to be sure. No matter, each of the CAL alums buried key 3-pointers to help their teams advance, with Henderson’s effectively reaching down and pulling his mates from the troubled waters of a 12-point deficit. Only at the Final 4, where headline acts emerge from every corner.
That goes way beyond the basketball. You don’t have to be a fan of Louisville and you don’t even have to love basketball to enjoy the party that surrounds three games in three days (or five, if you want to throw in the Division I and Division II undercard now played on Sunday afternoon) to enjoy this wondrous spectacle.
You might be a fan of Ludicrous or Flo Rider – pronounced, I am told, as Floe RI-duh – and that would be useful outside the Georgia Dome, where the concerts are held and the rush of spectacle is at its height. There was something for everyone, a connection for every interest, a message for every heart.
In fact, about 90 minutes before tipoff Saturday, a man holding aloft a Bible told fans en route to the dome that it was time to repent and find Jesus as the only path to salvation and everlasting glory, or words to that affect.
The Louisville fans must have taken heed.
Although the repenting part remains unclear, the Cardinals and their flock in 2013 truly have found everlasting glory at the glorious Final 4.