THE 2001 NCAA BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT, BOISE IDAHO
Maryland playing Georgetown will be the most important story we can get our hands on next week. But the best story of this week, here or in any other region, was Idaho's love affair with Hampton. It might be the warmest, fuzziest, feel-good relationship I've seen develop in 20 years of covering the NCAA tournament.
Thursday night, a house full of people at The Pavilion (11,250) fell in love with Hampton's underdog of a basketball team, its foot-stompin', head-boppin' band, and its cheerleaders who say to hell with stunts, let's dance. Hampton is a historically black university; Boise is 98 percent white. Their two worlds -- trust me on this -- have never ever intersected. Until here and now. The basketball team brought Boise and Hampton together, and because the house was full to the rim, the band played on. The people of Boise, who bought all the tickets for this event months ago, stayed and partied.
They were so taken with the Hampton people, they invited the band to play between periods of Friday night's Idaho Steelheads West Coast Hockey League game at Bank of America Center. Carpet was rolled out so the cheerleaders could dance . . . on the ice. Another full house, 5,800, greeted Hampton's band -- called The Force -- and made them stay and play on, and on. Folks quite literally danced in the aisles. When the arena cleared, band director Al Davis took his band members across to The Grove Hotel, where they started another set.
It seemed as if all of Boise was there, boppin', swinging. Hampton turned Boise into Bourbon Street on Friday night. People came in off the street to hear the band play.
So Saturday afternoon, in the middle of the Maryland-Georgia State game, the damndest thing happened. This mighty roar went up as the Hampton band members, sans instruments, walked to their seats in the stands. When the Hampton team was introduced to the crowd at Boise State Pavilion, it was as if the old Celtics had walked into Boston Garden. The Hampton cheerleaders held up signs that spelled out, "We Love Boise!"
Asked to talk about this instantly formed relationship between this Northwest city and Hampton University, guard Marseilles Brown said emotionally: "No words, man. . . . Sorry."
Merfeld, clearly stunned by everything that had happened here this weekend, from the upset of second-seeded Iowa State on Friday night to the reception his team got before, during, and after the game against Georgetown, had some words.
"The recognition people gave us has been very, very special," he said. "It's very obvious to us why the tournament is in Boise, Idaho. We didn't know that when we were assigned this region, but we do now. Thank you."
People in Washington and New York and Philly hear Boise, and they laugh. They wonder why the NCAA would put first- and second-round games here. They don't know how The Pavilion was filled to watch Shaq and Alonzo Mourning play their final college games here in 1992, or how the house nearly fell the afternoon UCLA's Tyus Edney drove the length of the floor with 3.5 seconds left in 1995 to beat Missouri at the buzzer, or how nuts it was in 1998, when West Virginia's Jarrod West beat No. 2 seed Cincinnati with a heave at the buzzer.
There might not be another place where these games are likely to be so appreciated, and there probably isn't a school more appreciative in return than Hampton, which will take back home to Virginia memories so fond they could make a national champion jealous.
Reader's View - William
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