For a southerner, there are too many associations with yankees to calculate all the meanings of that post-game analysis. I don't like any of them.
I can only figure it means everyone hates us now. We are Goliath to the Saviors of Motown. The story of MSU raising up downtrodden Detroit moves so fast through the media you'd think Roy Williams designed the break and Ty "Beep Beep" Lawson is at the helm. Except suddenly we're the bad guys.
Michigan State fans are loud even before they completely take over Ford Field for the final. How did they get THAT many seats? It's an astounding show of force for the semifinals. I pray they lose so I'll have some chance to buy better seats for the championship. I change my mind every time I see Thabeet.
My new friends sitting on either side of me are just as schizophrenic. Chapel Hill Nathan, a large man who never removes his sunglasses, never smiles and never moves his arm from the back of my seat, does not want THAT crowd in the game Monday night. On my right, Kenny, a Final Four veteran from Nashville and a long-time Tar Heel supporter, wants the Spartans to win.
I want better seats.
THE ROAD IS ROCKY
After a year of planning for this trip, two days before the first tip, it starts to unravel. I lose my traveling companion. My unemployed husband accepts a new job that keeps him grounded for the duration. His priorities are skewed but consider: he is a UCLA Bruin.
I am not happy but at least I am a Tar Heel.
So he takes the job and I take the Friday morning flight from Oakland to Detroit.
I've got two nosebleed lottery seats in the biggest college basketball arena in history and an optimistic pocketful of cash for the scalpers. I will eat beans for the rest of the month, my credit card will groan, my third-graders will berate me and tell how mean the substitute was, my boss will be pissed - but I am going.
My reserves are stepping up to fill in for my husband. My best friend and my nephew both accept the last minute invitation to use his ticket.
Before I leave California, by some miracle, an IC'er calls me with an extra seat I not only want, but now need. And, it's a good seat for sale at face value. Is this incredible good fortune, that Tar Heel family thing or fraud? He's 3,000 miles away and I have no way to check him out. I give him my credit card number anyway because I am desperate and now totally committed. I figure his near tearful explanation of why he can't use the ticket is some evidence of good faith.
For once I don't crack a book on the plane or tune out with the iPod. I'm strangely giddy and talking to everyone.
Two minutes after stepping off the plane for a layover in Chicago, I find myself quizzing a guy who just came off the same flight. We're checking the DEPARTURES board for our next flight.
"Are you going to the Final Four?" I ask completely out of the blue.
"Yes." He's reserved and soft-spoken.
He towers a foot over me looking perplexed.
"REALLY? Me too!" He takes a step backward. "Why are you going?" I am undeterred by his lack of enthusiasm for the inquisition.
"To watch my brother play," he says.
"WAIT!" I say stunned. I study his face searching for the connection. "Are you D D D D Danny's brother?" I ask in disbelief as I have come to venerate Danny Green, the spirit, the spark, the heart, the soul, the smile, the dance, the teabag dunk. Danny has become my all-time favorite Tar Heel.
He is indeed Danny's little bro and I am a lunatic.
It's too embarrassing to relate exactly what happens next. Suffice it to say it involved running after him, buying him dinner, buying every sports rag I could find to mull over together and sitting with him for two hours until we both got on the same flight to Detroit and then he fell asleep. Guys'll do that.
He looks a lot like his brother. Rashad Green transferred to the University of San Francisco this year to play guard. I was reluctant to use him as an encyclopedia of insider info figuring he's tired of answering Carolina questions so I limit it to a handful.
Casual ones like, "Who do you hang out with in Chapel Hill?" "Deon," he says.
And the big one – I still can't fathom what happened in the Kansas game last year. "What was the team's take on it?" I ask. "They didn't come out ready to play," he says.
"How can you not come out ready to play in the Final Four?" Rashad tells me the mental part of the game is the toughest. I have to take his word for it.
We part at baggage claim with a hug and photo but I secretly and stupidly am praying he'll call me in Detroit with an invite to some insider party.
THE ROAD ENDS HERE
Walking toward that sign ("THE ROAD ENDS HERE') – huge and beckoning over the arena – is when the goosebumps begin.
Doing pre-game laps around the arena concourse is de rigueur according to my accompanying friend, who attended the 1983 Final Four and saw hoops celebrities galore on that stroll into a New Mexico arena that held 15,000 people. We walk three laps among 72,000 and spot Tyler Zeller's family and a bunch of crazy people. Mostly we weave through large roaming gangs of MSU fans screaming their call-and-response war chant – "GO WHITE!" … "GO GREEN!"
UConn, Villanova and Carolina fans almost consider banding together for survival.
But before the Saturday night knock-outs, all fans are giddy, flush with bravado and rapidly parting with their money.
The nosebleeds at Ford Field don't look as high as they did at Indianapolis where I attended my first Final Four in 2006 to watch my husband's Bruins fall to Florida. Perhaps because the joint seems as long as a football field they didn't need to punch a hole in the ozone to fit us all in. Of course I'll never know for sure because that Tar Heel with the extra ticket was for real. I've got a pretty good seat, albeit a solo. I sit there in a nice corner spot over the tunnel. I graciously send my guests to the rafters.
My new seat is a vast improvement, but I am obsessed - determined to get closer. I leave the MSU-UCONN game three minutes before the buzzer and head for the UCONN section with my cash and my best condolences speech. I find exactly two gloomy UConn fans selling, each with four tickets they will part with only as a pack.
Dumb, dumb, dumb. I should have bought the four-pack even if it meant going back to the ATM. Selling tickets here is as easy as beating Duke at Cameron when Tyler's in the post. I give up and go back to hang with the boys in corner row 37.
I am excited but oddly serene for our game against Villanova. At home, I scream and curse so much my dog shakes and licks the length of the living room hardwood. I don't swear much during this game and just keep sopping up the drool that is falling from my slack mouth. And smile a lot.
With the game in hand and three minutes left, in a trancelike state, I find myself jumping up, climbing over the back of my chair and running down the now-empty row behind my own. I accost a young father and his two sons trudging up the steps. They are wearing UConn gear and long faces.
"Do you have tickets to sell?" I ask. He does and we do and they are so good I think nothing will ever be bad again.
I pay $600 for three seats 33 rows up off the end of the court, five seats from the rail over the tunnel where the players run in and out of the cathedral.
I plan to make a fortune selling my old seats to MSU fans. Then the great moral conflict ensues – how can I contribute to the already overwhelming hometown crowd? I sleep on it. By Monday my sister and two more of her kids are in route to Motown with their Carolina car flag banging in the wind.
We will sell no tickets to the enemy.
We spend the day thinking up evil things to write on our posters. We settle on one to fight that "GO WHITE, GO GREEN" roar MSU loves to much. It says simply, "GO GREEN" in Carolina blue with a discreet #14 tucked in the corner.
On our neon orange poster we write, "Enjoy the show, Dook." And lastly, the best quote of the tournament, Lawson's, "This is a business trip" makes it into print as well.
And so it begins. The end is beginning.
A tie-up on the tip? Tyler, Tyler, Tyler. TYLER!
When early in the first half the lead stretches into double digits, my sister says, "This is kinda' embarrassing." I am so not embarrassed.
The green monster in this stadium is mute.
My signs are stolen at halftime of the championship. When I start my investigation as to their whereabouts, the guy behind me says, "What did they look like?"
I'm not sure which of us is stupider. What a lame line, especially after I had those signs in his face for most of the first half, but the obvious eludes me and I ask other MSU folks around me for signs of my signs. The middle-aged, middle-class smiling wine-and-cheesers all play dumb.
The final twenty minutes begin and nothing else matters. These are the last moments with them, the team that's thrashed our hearts and blown our minds. We watch in awe, alternately confident and terrified, holding our breath as Carolina fans are fated to do.
(Photos by M.E. Sprengelmeyer)