NCAA Tournament Notebook

In which one writer clears out the thoughts that rattled around his brain on a lost weekend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania…

I was full of anxiety as the trip started. All day, the news blared about the snowstorm that shut down airports on the East Coast. Was I going to make it Pittsburgh in time for Media Day? It's great for the Bear Insider to support the women's team by sending me to cover the Tournament, and I dreaded losing time stuck in some random airport, or worse, not making it to Pittsburgh at all.

Luckily, by the time my red-eye took off from SFO, the worst of the storm was over, and Southwestern Pennsylvania was not severely affected. So despite delay in Detroit (my lay-over) where they had to de-ice the plane, I got to Pittsburgh without much of a problem. But the hour delay meant that I couldn't go to the hotel; I had to go directly to the arena if I wanted to make the California press conference, scheduled at 11:20 AM.

So I jumped into a cab and asked the driver to hurry. "The Petersen Events Center, please. Do you know where that is?" "Sure," he said. "You going to the basketball tournament?" I was surprised that he knew about it. "Sure. I don't follow the women's game, but Agnus and the ladies are doing really well this year." Ah, everyone loves a winner. We became fast friends.

The traffic was clear and we sailed right along as he told me about Pittsburgh and how things have changed over the years, how Pittsburghers have resuscitated the city from its steel-town death. When he found out I was from San Francisco, he said that many people compare Pittsburgh to San Francisco because of its similar size and hilly terrain. As we entered a tunnel, he stopped his monologue and told me to keep my eyes open for my first glimpse of the Pittsburgh skyline. The view was fine, but I was more impressed by the pride in his voice. I had never been to Pittsburgh before, and in truth, had never considered visiting, but now I looked forward to exploring the different neighborhoods.

We pulled up to the front of the arena at exactly 11:20, and I rushed inside, luggage in tow. Unfortunately, I went to the wrong entrance and had to trudge back outside to find the media entrance. The friendliest folks greeted me there, all dressed in various shades of green. Oh, that's right, it's St. Patrick's Day!

Out of breath, I told them I was there to cover Cal in the Tournament and wondered if the press conference had started. They said it had. I asked if we could hurry, but unfortunately, they had to search my bags. My backpack took just a second, but my suitcase took much longer. And of course, in the meantime, lots of talk by my bag-inspector about how he's getting smarter just by being in the presence of someone from Cal. Very sweet and all, but I kept thinking, "Talk less, search more!" By the time I made it upstairs, the press conference had just ended. I shrugged; oh, well, I tried. But at least the media info folks assured me that transcripts would be provided.

While I waited for the Cal practice to begin, I decided to take myself on a quick tour of the arena. The Pete, as it's called, is a wonderful facility. It's a large arena, without being overwhelmingly huge. And everything was spiffed up for the Tournament. Lots of people milling about, ready to assist you. I think at the start of Media Day, there were more staffers on hand than media and fans combined.

Glimpses and snippets from Media Day and the rest of the weekend:

Viet Nguyen
Carolina stretches its heels

You Play the Way You Practice?: Teams approached the required open practice very differently. Some teams take the practice more seriously, looking at it as an extension of their own closed practices. Cal, for instance, ran drills for their guards at one end and for posts at the other. The Bears took lots of shots to get used to the feel of the rims and the court. North Carolina, in particular, was very intense. It all started with their stretching exercises, which required elastic bands and everyone getting on the floor, and continued to their high energy drills, where players went full-speed, whether it was for rebounding or for fastbreaks. Head coach Sylvia Hatchell was very involved in the practice, stopping her players mid-fastbreak to demand to know what they did wrong (in this case, brought the ball down before throwing outlet pass). Other teams viewed the open practice as just a precursor to their real practice. Notre Dame barely went through the motions, and as players left the floor, they could be heard arranging rides to "head over to practice." For Tennessee, it was more a public relations tool than anything else. As expected, the Lady Vols brought out the biggest crowd, and it seemed that much of their practice was played to an audience. Candace Parker, in particular, seemed very aware all eyes were on her every move, and while she never played to the crowd directly (she didn't dunk, despite fans' vocal encouragement), her expressions seemed meant to be read or photographed, and every comment to a fellow player or coach was loud enough to be "overheard" by an attentive fan. At one point, after a particularly competitive shooting drill, Parker and diminutive guard Shannon Bobbitt jawed at each other. Much friendly trash-talking and false accusations of cheating ensued before Parker and her losing team submitted to the punishment of doing push-ups. The fans, of course, ate it up. Coach Pat Summitt kept a watchful eye over the practice but then started signing autographs with about ten minutes to go. The players joined her with about five minutes left. Parker was the only one who remained on the court, taking extra three-point attempts. A little girl collected a stray ball and threw it back to Parker, who missed the shot. Parker then insisted to her assistant that she takes one more shot—"gotta get [the little girl] the assist." The girl got the ball, passed it to Parker, and sure enough, Miss Candace canned the three. She then pointed at the girl to acknowledge the assist, while the girl beamed. The Lady Vols clearly understand their role as ambassadors for the game, and they take this role seriously.

Viet Nguyen
Coach Cooper

What a Pod: When the brackets came out, the Pittsburgh Pod instantly became one of the most attractive to fans. In Tennessee and North Carolina, you had half of the number one seeds in the Tourney (the others being Duke and UConn). You have another former National Champion in Muffet McGraw and Notre Dame. Then you had homecoming connections (Cal's Joanne Boyle, Notre Dame's Charel Allen). Even the 16 seeds had their own built-in story lines: Drake with its losing record and Cinderella run to win its conference tournament, and Prairie View A&M with legendary Cynthia Cooper-Dyke as its head coach. When she was in high school, Drake's head coach Amy Stephens was recruited by Tennessee assistant Holly Warlick, who was then at Nebraska. Hatchell coached Cooper-Dyke on USA Basketball. One of the most emotional moments occurred when Candace Parker was asked about Maggie Dixon, the former Army coach who died unexpectly last year, and whose brother Jamie is the men's head coach at Pitt. Dixon had developed a relationship with Parker when she recruited her for DePaul. "Maggie Dixon and I have been friends for a long time," saidParker. "I have a lot of memories of Maggie. She's a great coach, but she's a better person. She's an even better person. She's greatly missed, and I feel like just coming here and the irony of her brother being the coach here, it's just really gotten my mind on Maggie."

The Fans Make the Game: For most of the day, during the open practices, right behind me were a bunch of African American girls ranging in age from about 11 to 16. Their chaperone was clearly a coach and the mom of one of the girls. They provided running commentary all day about the teams and the players. Mom/Coach would point out to the girls how a player would box out or square up for her shot, or she would encourage the girls to go get an autograph, "and make sure you stand right next to Ivory Latta, so I can know once for all how tall she is!" The girls would vacillate between too-cool-for-school "I don't really like anything about this team," to wide-eyed idol worship: "Ohmigod! It's her!" Similarly, opinions were split on Devanei Hampton's hair. In any case, to hear their excitement grow throughout the day and to watch them shift from being too shy to approach the players to jockeying for position among the autograph hounds brought home how important this kind of event is to young women everywhere.

Viet Nguyen
The legend, the coach, the cheerleader

Wisdom from the Top: The perspective from the women's game, from the grand-dame herself, Pat Summit, "We went to a lot of empty arenas, we went to press conferences with a couple of people there," said Summit, reflecting on the early years of the NCAA Tournament. "It's been quite a journey for women's basketball and to be a part of it, having coached at Tennessee throughout all those years, I've seen a lot of changes. And it's great to see what's happened in women's basketball. Now we're talking parity. We didn't talk parity back then. We're talking about the excitement, the arenas, the sell-out crowds, sold-out Final Fours. It's something you can sit around and dream about."

The Not-so-wide World of Sports: Besides many of the participants having roots in Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania, there were other connections as well. Athletic Director Sandy Barbour was at Notre Dame before coming to Cal, and she made sure to come out to visit her old colleagues during Notre Dame's practice. "I know I'm not supposed to be here," shielding her eyes from the court in jest. Big hugs all around, and Barbour spent the most time with Irish Assistant Jonathan Tsipis.

The Not-so-wide World of Sports, II: Shavonte Zellous, a starter for Pittsburgh, was a high school teammate of former Bear Jessica Lawson at Jones High School in Orlando, Florida. "That's my best friend!" Zellous smile lit up when asked about Lawson, who transferred to Big East rival South Florida last year. Had Lawson remained a Bear, the pair might have reunited at the Pete. "It would have been nice to share this experience," said Zellous, who said that she and Lawson are in touch and saw each other when Pitt played South Florida this season. Zellous leads Pittsburgh at over 19 points a game, up from 6.9 ppg a year ago and was named the Big East Most Improved Player this year, beating out Notre Dame's Charel Allen. She was also named to the All-Big East First Team.

Hospitable Hosts: Pitt head coach Agnus Berenato and her players Zellous, Marcedes Walker, and Xenia Stewart took the extra step of walking around and meeting everyone in the media room. They introduced themselves and welcomed us to their city before sitting down for their press conference. It was an unexpected and gracious gesture and it was emblematic of the treatment we received all weekend from the people at the Peterson Events Center.

On the Other Hand: I'm never one to turn down free food, but the grub at the Media Buffet was not the best I've had. Not a lot of choices, and what was provided was not very adventurous—think not dogs and burgers. Even the brownie—the standby—was not moist or chocolaty enough. There was plenty to drink, but if you wanted to take it courtside, you had to pour whatever you had into an NCAA-sanctioned (read sponsor-logo'd) cup. Not to be ungrateful, just trying to give you readers the full experience here.

Tall Tar Heels: When you watch a team in practice, sometimes you get a fuller impression of a team than you do watching a game. For instance, when you watch North Carolina run drills, it becomes clear what kind of player Sylvia Hatchell recruits—long, lean, athletic wings and forwards who can run and create their own shot. It seems that half her team is 6'2 with long, telescoping arms to grab rebounds and springy legs to get to the rim. Think of a more polished (and a bit shorter) Rama N'diaye. Then multiply that by seven. Scary. Wow, look at freshman Jessica Breland slash to the basket. Or was that Rashanda McCants? Camille Little or Iman McFarland? Or was it LaToya Pringle? Martina Wood? Christina Dewitt? No wait, that one I know, because other players are just bouncing off of her, and she's actually only 6'1. That monster down low is Erlana Larkins.

The Media Say the Darndest Things: When you have writers from all over the country in one place, it was uncommon for someone not to be so familiar with all the participating teams. Players' names are routinely mixed up or their names are mispronounced. And there is always talk in the media workroom about the exact wording of a quote. "Did you hear her say ‘actually'?" "No, I think she said ‘usually'?" The official transcripts don't always help, as they often contain errors… And I suppose a mark of a good reporter is not to be afraid to ask any question, like this one, asked of Joanne Boyle: "You went inside a lot in the second half. Was that something you were planning?"… Fran Fraschilla, ESPN Analyst, to a fan who wondered what happened to him since he was tearing it up at Manhattan and St. John's, "Well, after St. John's, I was in the Witness Protection Program out in New Mexico."

Rocky Top High: One of the highlights of the weekend was meeting Maria Cornelius, who covers Tennessee for the Scout network. I have always admired her work, which provides fans of the Lady Vols and of women's basketball in general a true insider's look. She provides a model of what women's basketball coverage can be and should be. Even better, she turned out to be a really nice person. Unlike many writers, she's also a fan, and she was excited to see the Bears play. Cornelius mentioned how impressed she's been with the job Boyle has done to turn the program around.

Iron City Mini-Travelogue, or The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: Due to Cal's early exit, I had a little more time on my hands and got to explore the host city a little bit. First of all, I must say that I found Pittsburghers to be almost uniformly super friendly and helpful. On Sunday night, after finally filing the game story, I consoled myself by finding something to eat in Oakland, the neighborhood next to the University. I walked into the first place I saw, Primanti Brothers, and asked what I should order. I was told to get the pastrami sandwich. It came with coleslaw and French fries stacked on top of the meat, between the slices of bread. Legend has it that when the first Primanti Brothers opened years ago, truckers loved their sandwiches, but found everything too unwieldy. So they began to ask to have everything stacked altogether, so they could eat and drive at the same time. I'm glad they did, as it was one of the best sandwiches I've ever had… Everyone I asked told me to head down to Station Square and ride the Incline up Mount Washington for the views. So on Monday, I headed down to Station Square, which was basically a mall converted from an old train station. Just lots of chain restaurants and stores, nothing you would go out of your way for. The Incline was cool, though, all clanging and rickety as it climbed up the mountain. The view would have been great, I'm sure, but on this day, the rain and fog took away anything I wanted to see… Better bets than Station Square: Squirrel Hill and Southside. Squirrel Hill is the Jewish neighborhood with a terrific stretch of unique stores on Murray Avenue. Or go along East Carson in Southside and have your pick of bars and restaurants. I chose Tuscany, a café/bar with good food and 100 martinis on the menu. Even better, they had a jazz trio playing standards and original tunes about heartbreak. On a rainy Monday night, in a strange town, when your team has ended its season in disappointing fashion, there are worse places to be. Thanks, Pittsburgh.


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