Sunday, April 8, 2018
Beyond being the greatest stage in college basketball, the Final Four is also an incredible melting pot for fun, humanizing and quirky moments among players, coaches and fans. It's also the ultimate landing spot for little stories that have built their way up to the national stage throughout the month of March.
Surely, if given the chance, most KU basketball fans would take certain liberties in rewriting the script that ended the Jayhawks’ 31-8 season with a 95-79 loss to Villanova. But looking back, a Final Four run by a likable but at times shaky team that made it click in the end is an admirable achievement.
Here are a few of my favorite off-the-court stories and moments from the Jayhawks’ brief but eventful stay in San Antonio:
1: Bill Self meets Jay Wright in the hallway:
The greater the stage, the greater the amount of media obligations that the teams and coaches are involved in. To ensure that CBS and Turner get everything they need, the NCAA uses golf carts at the Final Four to shuttle the players and coaches from one interview to the next.
In this case, Self and Wright, arrived to a joint CBS interview earlier than the crew was ready for them. Stuck in the hallway with nowhere to go, the two started talking and cracking each other up in front of about 15 reporters and photographers. I’m not sure anyone witnessing was sure of what was being said, but the spectacle of the two coaching giants giggling like old friends made for great theater.
2: Dance party:
Just across the hall from where Self and Wright were sitting down for their CBS interview, the Jayhawks were center stage in what, on first glance, looked like a scaled-down version of a Rolling Stones concert set. CBS was using a studio space at the Alamodome to record footage for the team introductions that were broadcast before tipoff of the Final Four games. Basically, the KU starting five were on a lit stage and surrounded on all sides by fans and spotlights. Cameras on large booms were sweeping around the room as the players danced and high-fived the fans.
3: Sardines in a can:
At the Final Four, everything is bigger. Everything except the locker rooms, that is. And when the Kansas press corps combines with all the wire services and national TV networks, the locker rooms go from uncomfortable to intolerable pretty quickly.
It often seems pointless to me to try to battle the masses in search of a storytelling moment within a herd of storytellers. Usually, I’ll try to to wait for the room to clear out a little bit and hope for some player interaction in the final minutes while they’re still open to the media. In this case, with the room as packed as it was, it became pretty clear that things weren’t going to get any easier.
I quickly abandoned the idea of getting a clean image of any player interaction and just focused on trying to document the chaos of the Final Four. Sometimes I’ll find a chair to stand on to get above the tree line, which usually works well, but not as well as the view Jeff Jacobsen of KU Athletics got when he climbed on top of the lockers with a fisheye lens and slid his way to a position above where Devonte' Graham was sitting. I never got to see the picture, but I’m sure it looked pretty cool.
4: A warm welcome:
Little stories become big stories in a hurry as the tournament moves along. There was the lovable Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt of Loyola-Chicago for instance, who became an overnight sensation as the Ramblers heated up. Kansas had its own heartwarming little story — the arrival of center Udoka Azubuike’s mother, Florence Azuonuwu, who traveled from Delta, Nigeria to see her son play for the first time. The mother and son had not seen each other in six years.
Up until just before the Villanova game, no media members had seen Azuonuwu as her plane arrived in San Antonio late the night before. When she made it to her seat at the Alamodome, she was quickly welcomed and hugged by the KU fans and the other players’ parents seated behind the team bench. Just another example of the emotions the Final Four can stir.