By Bill Barrow
Mark Maloney stood outside the Final Four Bracket Town fan bonanza decked out in his Florida Gators baseball cap and a Fighting Illini windbreaker from his home state University of Illinois.
Funny thing, though: Florida and Illinois aren't playing basketball this weekend. But Maloney doesn't mind standing out in a sea of Louisville Cardinals red, Syracuse orange, maize and blue from Michigan and the Shocker yellow of Wichita State.
"We come every year," Maloney said, flanked by a half-dozen of his Chicago friends, including a few high school basketball coaches. "Usually, we don't even have tickets."
Indeed, the final weekend of the NCAA men's basketball tournament is a pilgrimage for super fans like Maloney and his friends right down to the passionate fans of the four participating teams. Whether they're first-timers — a likely scenario for fans of a Wichita program that hasn't made it this far since 196 — or looking to repeat past glory, Atlanta is welcoming tens of thousands of fans who want to watch their teams cut down the Georgia Dome nets Monday night.
Mayor Kasim Reed estimates the event, combined with the Division II and Division III championships on Sunday, wild draw more than 100,000 visitors to the city. More than 74,000 tickets have been issued for the Division I semi-finals Saturday and the championship two nights later. That the championships now are won only in gargantuan NFL stadiums, configured with a basketball court in the middle of the arena, is a testament to how popular the game has become.
"I'm just in awe of this entire scene," said Syracuse alumnus Sean Kelley. He had just emerged from watching Syracuse in Friday afternoon's open practice, the first chance for fans to see their teams on the Dome floor. "This is my Christmas," he said.
For Wichita fans, it's a chance to prove their Shockers aren't just some unlikely group of Davids amid Goliath programs with multiple national championship banners. Wichita won the West region as a No. 9 seed, one of the lowest seeds ever to advance to the final weekend. Their reward is a semifinal matchup against tournament favorite Louisville.
"We aren't Cinderella," said Marvin Hesket, a Wichita resident who has followed the team for years. "We play good basketball and we have a good following. This is not just some bandwagon group that's here because we happen to be winning. ... It's going to be a great game."
The only disappointment going into Saturday, Hesket said, is that Kansas isn't also playing. "That would have been a dream to see the two play," he said, clarifying that he is among the Wichita fans who don't hate the blue-blood Jayhawks program. "It's the younger generation" at Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita, he said, "that hates each other on the court."
Some fans view the trip as a way to erase painful memories. Michigan classmates Brian Burns of Chicago and Benjamin Goodsell of Austin, Texas, were undergraduates the last time the Wolverines played in the finals. But they lost to North Carolina in a game remembered for Chris Webber calling a timeout that his team didn't have, drawing a technical foul and sealing the game for the Tar Heels.
"I was on the third row," Goodsell recalled. "You could hear the players talking on the floor. That was amazing. But it was also awful. I was right in front of the time out. That's the longest walk out of a stadium I've ever had."
Louisville fans can't call themselves underdogs, but in their home state they are still in the shadow of the great Kentucky program whose eight championships are second only to UCLA's 11 banners.
Larry Park is Kentucky and stood outside Centennial Olympic Park on Friday sporting his Wildcat blue and exclaiming, "We're still the champions." Park isn't a Kentucky alum. He isn't a Kentuckian. He's from Edmonton, Ontario in Canada.
He's part of another annual Final Four traveling group, this one with tickets. "I adopted Kentucky when Rick Pitino was there," referring to the coach who now leads Louisville. Park added, "I hear he coaches at another school now."
Park said he doesn't have it in him to pull for the Cardinals. "Syracuse, that's my team," he said. Why, he joked, "They're closest to Canada."