By Thad Mumau
The Final Four is probably the most festive weekend in all of sports. Sure, there’s the Super Bowl with all its glitz and glamour. But for sheer excitement, enthusiasm and theatrics, it’s hard to beat the Saturday and Monday that decide college basketball’s champion.
You’ve got four schools with four pep bands, cheerleader squads, and hordes of fans – all decked out in T-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, baseball caps and other assorted headgear of their favorite university. Sitting together. Living and dying together with each made jump shot and missed free throw.
It is, as they say, what it’s all about.
Four groups check into hotels and motels in and around whichever city is hosting the Final Four. The euphoria of all four is unbelievable right up until tip-off time on Saturday. By midnight, two of the four have turned into pumpkins. Less than 48 hours later, only one is left standing. Masses head back to wherever home is, mumbling about the errant pass or bad ref’s call that was the “game-changer.”
Over a career that allowed me to watch and write about games for a living, I was fortunate to take in several Final Fours. Three are memorable, for very different reasons.
In 1971, I traveled to Los Angeles to see UCLA win its sixth national championship in a row and eighth in nine years. It was the first of back-to-back 30-0 seasons for the Bruins. John Wooden and his players were machines.
It was all so business-like watching them that I thought I might be on Wall Street.
In 1981, I was in Philadelphia. On Saturday, I saw Al Wood throw in 39 points as North Carolina beat Virginia in the semifinals, while Indiana downed LSU. On Monday, I sat in my hotel room in shock after learning of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
There was talk of that night’s championship game being canceled, with the Tar Heels and Hoosiers named co-champs. But the games (there was also a third-place contest back then) were played following delays. Indiana defeated UNC.
It was all so numbing that I didn’t even feel like I was at a ballgame.
In 1983, I was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Final Four was played in a place called The Pit. Houston was expected to stage a dunking circus with its Phi Slamma Jamma aerial act.
Instead, Jim Valvano, Lorenzo Charles and the rest of the N.C. State Wolfpack grabbed the championship trophy and slipped out the back door before those Houston cats could come down from the clouds.
It was all so miraculous that I couldn’t stop laughing.
Such are the theatrics that take place at the Final Four.