*The national media came in droves to San Jose to cover the games. Among the media attending were Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post and ESPN’s widely popular PTI (Pardon The Interruption), Lisa Olson of the New York Daily News, John Walters of NBCSports.com, Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated, Joe Lago of Yahoo Sports, Bill Frieder of CBS/Westwood One Radio Sports, Brian Costello of the New York Post, and Ric Bucher and John Gustafson of ESPN The Magazine...I sat next to Walters on press row, who writes columns and blogs for the Web site. He was constantly blogging on his computer, while sharing with me his passion for his job and inquiring about my work. He was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and I truly enjoyed hearing his experiences from his previous job with Sports Illustrated (he worked there 14 years) and now at NBCSports.com.
*I was flooded by Bruin fans sitting behind me during the UCLA- Pittsburgh (Sweet 16) game on March 22. I found time to chat with some UCLA boosters about Bill Walton, the basketball Hall of Famer and former Bruin great, whom I see sitting in the fourth row behind the UCLA bench on the opposite side of the court. Kevin Rudrud, a 2000 UCLA graduate and Bruin donor, told me his wife, Alison, gave Walton a lei before the game. So I turn to Alison to get the scoop.
“One of our friends is friends with Luke Walton (Bill’s son, who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers),” she said. “My buddy lived next door to them growing up in San Diego. When I saw Bill before the game, I had a lei and he was wearing all blue. I thought he needed some yellow. He’s a good guy, and we love him. He seems like a pretty jovial, happy guy. A good Bruin.”
Yes, I could see Walton cheering during both Bruin victories over Pittsburgh and Kansas. He stood and clapped, boogied during the UCLA Fight song, gave high fives, pumped his fists in the air, signed autographs, and gave the victory sign after his Bruins won.
*I noticed the UCLA spirit squad wearing Bruin jerseys (No. 21). Kevin tells me they do this in honor of the jersey number worn by Cedric Bozeman, the only senior off last year’s team...The Bruins also have a guy named the “UCLA Juggler.” He’s Chris Smith, a senior at UCLA and icon of sorts around Westwood. He put on a show during timeouts with his juggling act and wowed the Bruin cheering section. He juggled balls during these games, but also juggles such objects as knives and bowling pins.
*Speaking of the UCLA cheerleaders, let’s tip the hat and give huge props to the KU spirit squad and coordinator Cat Jarzemkoski. Performing in a road type environment at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, the cheerleaders and Rock Chalk Dancers never stopped cheering and believing in their beloved Jayhawks. They truly showed the nation why they’re as talented as any spirit squad in the country. When the UCLA cheerleaders were leading the crowd with the chant: “U-C-L-A Fight! Fight! Fight!,” KU’s spirit squad cheered even louder, turning to the Jayhawk section behind the KU bench at one point and firing up the fans with that familiar, resounding Allen Fieldhouse chant: “Let’s Go Jayhawks!” Oh, that’s always such sweet music to my ears.
*While the section behind was was swarmed with Southern Illinois fans during the KU-SIU game on March 22, I spotted two KU fans sitting in the third row. Tim Schmidt, a 1976 KU graduate and California resident, was wearing blue shirts and a white shirt that said: 100 Years of Kansas Basketball: To be part of the tradition, you need a ticket.” And how did Schmidt like sitting in the sea of Saluki fans?
“When I went to the Final Four in ‘97, I sat in the middle section of the Tar Heel student section, so this is nothing,” he said with a big smile. “I’m home. This is home,” he added while scanning the arena and seeing Jayhawk fans clad in blue...The man sitting next to him was former KU football player Wardell Johnson, who works in insurance claims in Miami. Johnson, a 1977 KU graduate, was excited to be in San Jose. I asked him his motivation for making the trip.
“Being a Jayhawk from a football standpoint and having the opportunity to come out,” Johnson said. “I had tickets available, so I jumped on it right away. It’s just good to be back in the arena and have the opportunity to move on. It’s a good opportunity for us. I think we’re in the right bracket to not only make it to the Elite Eight, but to the Final Four.” (Johnson said he would have gone to the Final Four in Atlanta had KU won, and I bet he’ll be in San Antonio if the ‘Hawks make it to the Final Four next season.)
*I did walk up to CBS basketball analyst Jay Bilas and told him I remembered him at Duke when the Blue Devils beat Kansas in the Final Four in Dallas in 1986. “That was a long time ago,” he said. Yeah, in a way it was. But it also seems like yesterday. I remember that season as maybe the best year of my life, when I sat behind the bench at every home game and cheered for guys like Larry Brown, Danny Manning, Calvin Thompson, Ron Kellogg, Cedric Hunter, and Greg Dreiling. I idolized Larry and had pictures and posters of him all over my dorm room. I loved how he worked the crowd and referees. When our student section wasn’t that loud, he’d turn to us and urge us to cheer louder. And we always did. We stomped our feet. We screamed. We yelled. We took our “game” up a notch for Larry, our hero who could do no wrong.
Of course, that 1985-86 season was Bill Self’s first year in the coaching profession when he served as a graduate assistant under Brown. Unfortunately, KU lost its bid for a national championship when Bilas (he played great defense on Dreiling, as Mark Alarie did against Manning) and Duke advanced past Kansas before losing to Louisville in the title game... I asked Self and UCLA coach Ben Howland before their Elite Eight game who Brown would be cheering for. (Brown coached at UCLA two years (1979-81) and took the Bruins to the NCAA championship game in 1980.)
“I’m sure he he’s rooting for Bill out of friendship and deference to a former assistant coach,” said Howland, who has great respect for Brown. “He’s someone that I really look up to. I think he is one of the greatest coaches in the history of the game.”
And Self’s take on Brown’s rooting interest?
“I haven’t talked to Larry about it. But since we’re probably the ones getting him the tickets, I think he should be for Kansas,” Self said with a smile. “Knowing coach, he won’t cheer either way. I mean, I only worked for him for a year, but he’s really proud of both places. I think UCLA was a place he loved, and I know Kansas was as well. He’s been a couple of places. He’s got some things to judge it against.”
“I think he may secretly be involved trying to cheer on one team or another,” Self added, “but I don’t really see him being actively involved.” (Brown was not sighted during the game and apparently didn’t make it.)
* San Jose State University and HP Pavilion did a marvelous job of hosting and organizing this West Regional. Lawrence Fan, the sports information director at San Jose State, was exceptionally nice and even brought slices of cake to all the media after the UCLA-KU game. He and his staff deserve huge kudos for all their help with stats, game packets, etc. The media hotel (Doubletree) also provided great service. I never had to wait for a shuttle ride from the hotel to HP Pavilion (and vice versa), which was about a four minute drive away...My room was on the fourth floor, and in the hallway, I had a great view out the window of the pool area and palm trees with the mountains in the background. And then, I thought to myself: “David, you’re not in Kansas anymore.”
*I hardly had any free time in San Jose to see the sights, but I did go downtown Friday night (March 23) to San Pedro Square and visited a few drinking establishments. I ended up in two bars: The Flying Brothers Bar and Bistro, and O’Flaherty’s Irish Pub, which was voted the “best Irish Pub in Silicon Valley.” Both bars had a “Cheers”- like family atmosphere, and the people were quite friendly. However, they weren’t all basketball fans. One person I spoke to had no idea about the basketball games being played in the city. He didn’t know anything about KU basketball or the NCAA tournament. When I mentioned that Danny Manning played for KU, he looked at me puzzled and asked: “Who’s that?” Of course, he was also in the dark when I mentioned former Jayhawk star and NBA guard Rex Walters was from San Jose. So yes, “King Rex” is the correct answer to the trivia question.
*Mike Montgomery, the former Stanford and Golden State Warriors’ coach, called it in his column in the San Jose Mercury News on March 24. Montgomery, who currently works as a television and radio analyst, has been writing a column in the Mercury News about the NCAA tournament. He ended his column with this statement: “Kansas is awfully young, and UCLA has been there before. I’d go with UCLA on that basis.” Self said after the game that KU “played young” and got “sped up.”
This young team, though, will be more experienced next year and primed for a run to the Final Four in San Antonio.
Let the madness begin!