San Antonio Dreams Turn into Nightmares

It was only halftime of the Duke-Connecticut semifinal, but I could not have cared less about the outcome. I was numb and in despair. In basketball, it seems, no dagger pierces so painfully as losing on a last-second shot. One moment, there is the euphoria of John Lucas' clutch, game-tying trey, everyone in orange roaring. The next? Stunned silence, as the celebration instantaneously shifts to the enemy.

The season is over. The old Trail Rider wouldn't dare compare his pain and suffering to those Cowboys who gave their blood, sweat and tears to so memorable a campaign. But believe me, the pain and suffering is no less real, in part because this time we were more than loyal fans and proud alums. We were believers. We believed this might – just might – be a team of destiny.

Oh, the joy of hoisting a third basketball national championship banner in G-I. Oh, the joy of Eddie Sutton finally getting his due nationally. Oh, the joy sending Tony Allen and Janavor Weatherspoon and Jason Miller into the future with sparkling rings on their fingers.

Bummer. That was all I could mutter, bleakly, as The Missus, our youngest son and I watched Georgia Tech celebrate below in the Alamodome, Eddie stoically stride to the locker room, shoulders hunched, and JL III wipe away the tears. I don't much cotton to profanity, but if ever a moment seemed ripe, this was it. Yet, all I could manage was "bummer." I think my reaction was a sign of profound sadness.

The despair shattered a week of celebration and anticipation. The orange attire worn proudly across the state. The Final Four t-shirt tents seemingly on every corner in Stillwater. The around-the-clock hunt for tickets that didn't spell b-a-n-k-r-u-p-t-c-y. The Cowboy caravan down Interstate 35.

The Missus and I did something we rarely do: We headed to San Antonio without tickets, hoping against hope we could get in, at a reasonable price. Our computer was parked on E-Bay – even on the drive down, using our wireless Internet. We watched glumly as tickets that hovered around $300 a pair routinely were stampeded into the $600 and $700 and $800 a range as auctions neared their end.

We corralled a room in Austin – a little more than an hour from the Alamo city – for a reasonable $79 a night. Then we heard La Quinta in San Antonio had openings. The price was too rich for our blood: $149 a night, with a four-night minimum. La Quinta is a reasonable nice place, but $149 nightly? As my daddy used to say, I don't want to buy it – I just want to sleep in it. [An aside: The old Trail Rider doesn't speak much Spanish, but a friend recently interpreted La Quinta. In English, he said, it means "next to Denny's."]

For much of the week, it seemed as if we were the proverbial day-late and dollar-short in our ticket search. First, we had the promise of two. Then four. Suddenly, we were down to three. Then two. And then none. We were down, then we were up. Someone called with a bead on three. Yet, three hours before tipoff, we were in a lurch.

San Antonio wasn't making it easy to engage in good old fashioned street corner haggling. I read somewhere the city fathers – at the behest of the image-conscious NCAA – took steps to minimize the brokering in a mile-or-so area near the Alamodome and Riverwalk and the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, where the fan fest known as Hoop City was underway.

From our parking space adjacent the Hemisfair tower, we walked the pedestrian bridge scanning the interstate highway to the dome, hoping to find fistfuls of available tickets. If you've been to enough of these events, you can spot the professional scalpers who are trying – as nonchalantly as possible – to avoid police attention. This time, though, there didn't seem to be very many plying their trade. Two guys – clearly working in concert, but careful to be apart as much as possible – had lower-level seats for $450 each. Thanks, but no thanks. Two hulking men ambled past us and leaned against a railing, watching the activity. The Missus quickly speculated they were undercover police, poised to snatch ticket-selling offenders. They surely looked the part.

We hovered around the long line of OSU faithful at the Will-Call window, hoping to find someone with extras they would sell at face value. All tickets seemed to be spoken for. Naturally, we did cross paths with one happy Cowboy who gleefully said he'd just been given – given! – a ticket by a Poke doctor. Finally, we headed across another bridge to Sunset Station, where the OSU pep rally was scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Surely, we thought, extra tickets would abound. Alas, the only tickets seemed to be those for food and beverage vendors. Police, many on bicycles, seemed everywhere.

We kept walking, turning a corner past some temporary Final Four memorabilia shops, and heading back in the general direction of the Riverwalk. A smiling man, sitting at an outdoor lounge, slyly held up two fingers. The Missus inquired if he had two – or was looking for two. He had two – at $500 each. We shook our heads, no, and kept going. A block or so later, we asked a man standing in front of a hotel if he had extras. Three, he said. Eureka, we thought! We stepped inside his temporary office – the lobby of the hotel, where he was a guest – and began to dicker. Well, actually, there was no haggling. It was the best deal we had found – on the Internet or on the ground in San Antonio.

He had three ticket books, each with seats for the semi-finals and finals as well as entry to the NCAA's Hoops City. The seats were on the first row of the upper deck, right behind the basket, about the best location we'd seen at a reasonable price. He asked $300 each, slightly more than twice face value. It was more than we wanted to pay, but it was less than most of the tickets we'd seen.

While The Missus and our youngest son sat with the man – who bore faint resemblance to actor Morgan Freeman – in the cool, hotel lobby, I ran to the nearest ATM to gather some cash. By the time I returned, he'd told quite a tale. Who knows if it was true, but if it wasn't, he was quite a salesman: He was from Houston, knew John Lucas II through his granddaughter's basketball team and went to high school with Robert Simmons. As in, Bob Simmons, former OSU football coach.

I had heard enough tales of counterfeit tickets to be leery, but the man showed me what appeared to be a bonafide, notarized license from the city of San Antonio to sell tickets. I quickly studied the tickets for the NCAA holograms and other distinctive markings that suggested their authenticity. We took the plunge, thanked the broker and headed back to our car to pick up the plastic ticket carriers we bought to hang around our necks.

We found ourselves in the midst of the UConn section. Just before tipoff, a man slipped in next to us and asked how much we'd paid for our tickets. The Missus knew immediately he wasn't a Southern gentleman – and not just because of his accent. A Southern gentleman wouldn't ask such a personal question. I responded amiably, with a grin: You tell me what you paid, first. It turns out he sold the tickets to our Morgan Freeman look alike. Morgan The Broker made a $200 profit off The Trail Rider's crew.

This was The Trail Rider's first Final Four, so we don't have any comparison. But as you would expect, it's nothing as frenzied as a Bedlam battle in Gallagher-Iba. Still, there was a buzz, an excitement as game time neared. Perhaps it was the nervous anticipation that we were on the verge of a season for the ages.

Our new UConn friend said he was rooting for us. But those who took their seats on the other side and behind us were pulling for Georgia Tech. It's unclear why, unless the Husky faithful want another shot at a team that beat them earlier in the season. One young woman said she used to live in Charlotte, N.C., and was loyal to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The game is almost too painful to discuss. You take these rides in the NCAA tournament knowing that one off night, one missed shot, one untimely official's call can spell doom. But this team had overcome each hurdle to make it to the Final Four. We believed. Less than minute into the second half, though, our UConn friend demonstrated he was a master of the obvious, telling my son, "You guys better pick up your `D' or you're going to get the s--- kicked out of you."

When JL III hit the game-tying shot, I thought it meant the team would find a way to survive, again. I liked our chances in overtime. But then came the dagger. The ghost of would-be Cowboy Will Bynum would haunt us forever. The Duke-UConn game was rendered meaningless.

After a late dinner at Casa Rio, on the Riverwalk, we strolled quietly back to our car, walking against the crowd just leaving the second semi-final. We already knew the outcome, but it would have been obvious which team won. The faces of the Duke fans were so similar to those of us in orange, an estimated 14,000 or so strong, dotting almost every section in the Alamodome.

I mentioned to The Missus that I found symbolism in our walk against the flow. It oft-seemed as if we were swimming against the tide this season. Our team was picked fifth in pre-season, but won both the Big 12 Conference and post-season tournament titles. We didn't receive a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but beat No. 1 St. Joseph's and another would-be No. 1, Pittsburgh. And it seemed throughout Saturday night's game against Georgia Tech that we were fighting the tide, never quite able to reach the surface and gain the safety of a lead and victory.

Yet, in the sultry San Antonio night, in the shadows of the Riverwalk, with boats full of merry tourists floating by, the silver lining became clear: It was an incredible season, a remarkable ride, one we won't soon forget. Reaching the Final Four is amazing in itself. There is no shame in falling 1.5 seconds short of the title game.

Even more important: I keep remembering the words of Eddie Sutton and his coaching staff. In their estimation, this team was a year ahead of itself. They believed our best chance for greatness was next season. Perhaps the best is really yet to come.

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