Beach's Bits - The Big Apple Experience

The Huskies are finally home: A bittersweet end to a frustrating nine days of "almosts". I thought I'd take a different approach to this article as the holiday buzz of New York City slowly fades from my consciousness. I've had a bit of time to reflect on my time in the city, what the trip meant for the team, and where they go from here.

My experience was probably pretty similar to most people, but I wanted to share it anyway.

Born and bred on the west coast, I've rarely found occasion to head east, so this was my first visit to the Big Apple. I was blown away by the sheer scale of the city. Where Las Vegas attempts to manufacture the illusion of size and Magnificence, New York City simply is. I was awestruck everywhere I went.

I arrived Thursday afternoon and was greeted by my good buddy Matt, who served as my host and tour guide for much of the trip. I jumped in his black SUV and away we went. They drive like maniacs there - my friend included. Matt, who drove a limo for a short time in the city, joined the scurrying pack of cars whizzing in and out of traffic. As we crossed the Hudson River, the city skyline came into view.

New York City oozes history, and since American history is one of my favorite interests outside basketball, I was excited to experience it first hand - but first we had to park. Parking in any city can be a nightmare, but parking a GMC Yukon in NYC was next to impossible. We drove around for what seemed like hours; there was so much to see. I was too busy drinking it all in to care. Eventually we found a spot along Central Park, parked, and headed downtown. After grabbing a bite to eat we ventured into the park, where residents were holding a vigil to mark the anniversary of John Lennon's murder. It was totally authentic, and set the tone for the rest of the trip for me personally. The crowd surrounded a musician's circle, singing and celebrating the life of the legendary Beatles singer. It was a glimpse into the soul of New York City, and I liked what I saw.

After soaking up the good vibes, we ventured into the heart of the city, wandering without any real agenda. I was struck by the way the city pulses with life. My preconceptions about New Yorkers were dead wrong. I was expecting boisterous rudeness - that's what Hollywood has told me to expect, after all - but what I observed wasn't rude, just focused. We meandered into Times Square (which was like visiting Vegas) people watching, and trying to avoid the endless stream of taxi cabs racing from stop light to stop light.

Eventually we returned to Central Park to rejoin the growing throng of Lennon devotees before pointing North to Matt's home in the suburb of Yonkers.

The following morning, I got up early and headed to the train station that would eventually take me to Grand Central Station. There I would meet Dawgman Publisher Kim Grinolds for breakfast. My destination would take me into the heart of the city. Unfortunately, my arrival coincided with the technological equivalence of a pilgrimage to Mecca - the opening of the new Apple store inside Grand Central Station. To some that might be a happy coincidence, but as I maneuvered my way through the mass of cheering Apple fans and chanting 'Geniuses' or whatever they are called, it detracted from the ambiance of the worlds most famous train station.

At that point, it was time to put on my walking shoes. I met Grinolds for a quick bite before saddling up and hitting the streets. Kim, who had been there since Monday, led me deeper downtown. Nearly every block took my breath away. We wandered down Madison Avenue, passed the famous Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, eventually ending up at the stunning St. Patrick's Cathedral - my personal favorite during my brief stay in town.

Open to the public we ventured inside, marveling at the beauty and opulence of the 19th century wonder. I'm not Catholic, but I didn't need to be to appreciate the structure: The incredible detail that covered every inch of the building, intricate stained glass windows that made a 100 different colors dance across the walls as the sun shone brightly outside. As a musician, I appreciate a cool instrument when I see one, and the organ that rose high above the floor against the back wall of the chapel was truly the most impressive instrument I've ever seen. I could practically hear the throaty growl of the bass notes reverberating through the arches as I stared.

We headed back into the brisk sunshine towards Radio City Music Hall - home of the Rockettes. During that leg we noticed a commotion outside Trump Tower so we ducked inside. To our surprise, the Donald himself was signing his new book in the lobby so we snapped a couple quick pictures of the real estate mogul-turned reality TV star, and exited the building. We'd been fired.

At that point, I noticed the distinctive red store front of one of great examples of free market capitalism at work - the American Girl Doll store. I have two young daughters who were recently introduced to this ridiculously over-the-top American institution by their grandma, and I figured I might find something special for the girls inside. Kim and I wandered indoors and I watched in delight as Grinolds slowly realized the nature of the store I had led him into. We navigated a sea of crazy-eyed, pint-sized doll worshipers searching for someone to get us in and out of the building as quickly as possible. Finally, we were directed up the escalators to the fourth floor (yes, four floors of every possible doll outfit and accessory one could imagine) to the New York-specific merchandise. Kim followed with an expression of equal parts horror and bewilderment plastered across his face. I found what I was looking for, quickly paid and raced for the exit post-haste.

It was well past lunch time by that point, and I was eager to experience some traditional New York fare, so we met up with another friend and caught a cab to the Carnegie Deli. The Carnegie Deli has faithfully served New York's biggest stars for decades, so I was excited to sink my teeth into their renowned corned beef. After a brief wait in line we were ushered inside the crowded shop, where an Army of butchers scurried behind the crowded counter slicing slabs of meat.

Every inch of wall space is covered in photos from decades of celebrities who enjoyed the same meal I was about to feast on. I ordered the Buddy Holly special - the menu indicated it was a favorite - a blend of their famous corned beef and pastrami, and set to work on the pre-meal pickles delivered to each table. As soon as I saw my sandwich, I knew there was no way I would be able to eat the whole thing. It towered over the salt shakers and mustard bottles - the meat was piled six inches high at least - and dared me to get to work. The meat was as succulent as advertised and I managed to put away half of it before finally giving up. I wrapped up the other half, which weighed at least a pound, and bid adieu to my lunch partners and hit the streets to meet up with my friend Matt.

We met in Times Square and hopped a double-decker tour bus to catch a few more of the sites. Eventually, We hopped out in Greenwich Village and grabbed a beer at a local watering hole, nabbed a slice of pizza from a ratty dive that claimed to have the best pizza in the city (it WAS pretty tasty) and tried to navigate our way back through the maze that is the Village. Tired and worn out, we eventually gave up and hailed a cab that took us back to Rockefeller Center where we caught the elevator to the "Top of the Rock." After taking in the breathtaking view and snapping some photos of the Empire State Building, we grabbed an elevator and dropped 70 stories back to earth. From there we headed back to Grand Central Station. Before catching our train, my friend Matt lead me downstairs to a local favorite called the Whispering Wall, an acoustic anomaly that allows a person to face one corner of the hallway and hear a person whispering clear as day from across the room.

With that, we caught the train back to Yonkers and I collapsed into bed.

I woke Saturday morning at what would have been 3 a.m. Seattle time. It was the day of the Duke game, and I was too excited to waste any more time sleeping. I quickly got ready and Matt drove me to the train station. I planned on grabbing a quick bite before heading to MSG. Kim was nowhere to be found, but I texted KJR sports radio personality Dave 'Softy' Mahler, who was headed to an alumni pre-function event on 33rd so I changed course and headed there. It was packed and buzzing with excited Husky fans, so I wedged myself into a spot at the bar, ordered some French toast, and chatted it up with several Dawg fans. They gave me their thoughts on the game and wanted to know about Washington's chances of landing 2013 phenom Jabari Parker. Softy got lost en route, so I settled up the tab and bailed.

I quickly covered the block between 33rd and The Garden and ventured inside, passing through the heavy security to the press entrance. I showed my ID, gathered my credential, and headed toward the arena floor.

Six years ago I accepted the 'Head of Hoops' gig at Dawgman because it gave me, a college basketball nut, the opportunity to do things I would never normally get to do. This was one of those moments.

I strolled into the historic arena with a giant smile on my face and stepped onto the edge of the court. It's a beautiful arena - not so big as to lose its sense of intimacy, but a huge contrast to the cozy, high school gymnasium feel of Maui's Lahaina Civic Center, where the Huskies spent Thanksgiving last year.

Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar was clustered with several people near center court, deep in conversation. I maneuvered my way to the press area left of the baseline on the home team side and found my spot a couple of rows up. I chatted with Adam Zagoria, an East Coast sportswriter and personal favorite of mine while I waited for the rest of my crew to show up.

Eventually, Grinolds and Dawgman Lead Writer, Editor and Big Cheese Chris Fetters found their way on press row. We got situated and sat down on the sideline as both teams warmed up. I began to plot the theme for my post-game article.

As the arena slowly filled, it was clear that Washington fans were going to be outnumbered, though the amount of Huskies who chose to take the cross-country trip far exceeded my expectations. That, and clearly there are more NYC-based Washingtonians than I realized. They, unlike Duke fans, were in full voice, eager to make their presence felt.

The game started, and Washington floundered out of the gates. The game went quickly south, despite a valiant second half team effort and a breakout performance by freshman Tony Wroten. Despite the outcome, the Husky fans nor the players ever relented, as the team fought gamely to the finish, scoring 54 points the final 20 minutes.

The horn sounded the end of the game, which came to me as quickly as it had started. Just like that, the game was over as Terrence Ross connected on a three-pointer at the buzzer. The Huskies lost 86-80.

After the game, we headed to the post-game press conference where legendary Duke Head Coach (and now winningest coach in NCAA history) Mike Krzyzewski took the podium first. He indicated that the Huskies were a very good team and a couple plays away from being 6-1, and was generally very complimentary of Washington. I took the opportunity to ask him about his relationship with coach Romar and he shared his great respect for him, both as a coach and as a person. A subdued Tony Wroten came next, followed by Romar, and after an uneventful press conference, we headed back outside to complete our post game work as Pittsburgh and Oklahoma State battled in the background.

We wrapped up our duties, eager to find a hot slice of pizza and a cold beer after a long day of work. By this time, night had fallen and the city had come alive for what is one of its busiest nights of the year. SantaConNYC had descended on the city - 20,000-plus holiday revelers adorned in their finest, often outrageous North Pole livery - so we pushed and shoved our way to New York Pizza Suprema, capping the evening with a couple of beers at the Molly Wee across the street. I said my goodbyes to Kim and Fetters and went on my merry way. Ho ho ho!

I angled back toward Times Square where I had hoped to do a little NYC shopping, but realized quickly that I had underestimated how Saturday night in the middle of Manhattan during the holidays might impact my ability to do any meaningful Christmas shopping for my family. After what seemed like an eternity wading through the crowds with my laptop firmly attached to my shoulders, I finally gave up and bolted for the train station, ready for an end to the hustle and bustle and holiday revelry.

I returned to Yonkers battle weary, but savoring three days of my whirlwind trip through the Big Apple. After spending some time with Matt, his wife Dina and their newborn baby, I fell into bed and quickly drifted off to sleep. The following morning, I said my so longs to my gracious hosts and their wonderful city, and boarded the plane home.

As for the team, after having a bit of time to sit back and reflect on UW's performances during this lengthy three-game road trip I'm a bit more encouraged than I was after Maui a year ago. In Lahaina we saw a veteran Huskies squad go 1-2 and disappointed many observers who believed (as I did) that they were the favorites to win the whole thing. And this was a tournament clogged with talent; Michigan State, Kentucky and eventual National Champions Connecticut all played, but it was the Huskies who underperformed on the big stage.

That wasn't the case this time around. No one expected them to beat 11th-ranked Marquette or No. 7 Duke, though they have nobody to blame but themselves for giving away the Nevada game in overtime. The Huskies were out-executed this time around, but there was no question they belonged on the stage. That wasn't true of their performances versus Kentucky and Michigan State in Maui. This is an entirely new team, with new roles and many new faces, and the fact that Husky fans now expect them to beat a team like Duke tells you just how far the program has come during Romar's tenure. Before 2003, Duke playing Washington at Madison Square Garden would have just been an exercise in futility, the Huskies just one more cupcake for the Blue Devils to fatten up on before conference play. Romar has completely changed the way people view Washington basketball, on both coasts.

That doesn't change the fact that Washington has lost three games in a row and are now 4-4 on the season. But there are enough encouraging signs with these young Dawgs that fans shouldn't throw in the towel yet.

A friend of mine who is an assistant coach with another D1 program called me after the Duke game. He was jokingly inquiring as to why I hadn't called for some guidance while I tried to make sense of the underwhelming performances we had seen, as I previously had in years' past. Apparently, I'm transparently predictable.

I explained to him that I had learned my lesson with Lorenzo Romar-coached teams. The reality is, Romar's teams tend to struggle during the first half of the season, and they can look pretty ugly at times. Ten years' worth of evidence certainly backs that up, and especially during my six years covering the program. All teams improve over the course of the season, but the pendulum swings wildy with Washington. Why that is, I'm still not really sure. Heck, before losing to Kentucky and Michigan State in Maui, Washington beat Virginia by 43!

All I know is that if history holds and the roster matures as it should, the Huskies should gel in the weeks leading up to the NCAA tournament into one of the more dangerous teams in the country. The pieces are there.

As for what the New York trip meant for the program, that's a harder question to quantify. It would be one thing if they had come away with at least one win, but as it were they were more than just cannon fodder for better teams. They showcased their entertaining brand of basketball and the kind of athletes Romar's system attracts. The commentary, when given, was overwhelmingly positive, especially versus the tumult that has overcome UCLA, and to a lesser extent, Arizona, along with several other faltering PAC-12 programs. Oregon State just lost to Idaho by 14 at home. What's up with that?

Whether or not Washington receive a bump in recruiting due to the added positive exposure remains to be seen. More than anything, the trip served as an opportunity for the all-important east coast media to get a flavor for this year's squad, as well as find out what the UW program is all about. Wroten, Terrence Ross, and C.J. Wilcox got the chance to showcase their immense talents in front of people who will be guiding their futures once their college careers end.

And the trip also gave the Washington players a chance to experience New York City and all it represents. They got to go to musicals; they witnessed the 9/11 memorial. There's no question that whatever the Huskies gave to the city for a couple of days, the city gave back - and then some. I know that for sure after getting a chance to see it for myself.

In terms of the rest of the season, the coming weeks are going to tell us a lot about these guys. For one thing, they can't hang their heads and dwell on what could have been. They need to rebound quickly. If Aziz N'Diaye is out for any length of time after injuring a knee early in the second half of the Duke game, Washington will have to adapt. They'll go smaller, returning to lineups that, at least in terms of relative size, carried the program to new heights over the last decade. The development of the younger players will shift further into the forefront, which should pay big long-term benefits.

Much like last season, Washington's marquee non-conference slate ended with a fizzle on the court. Off it, I ate up every second - literally and figuratively. I'm told a person never forgets their first visit to New York City. I know I won't, and I doubt the Huskies won't either.


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