Final Four: The Finality Of It All

By - April 02, 2007

There's a verse from the Book of Joel that kind of sums up Final Four weekend: Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.

The old men are the people who pick up their lives to travel across the country to a city where every third street is named Peachtree to watch a bunch of kids play the old Indian game that R.P. McMurphy once called Put The Ball In The Hole. They are past winners like Lute Olson or Rollie Massimino or the ones that have come so close like Bruce Weber or Phil Martelli. Or the anonymous followers -- the older gentleman I saw getting into a cab at the airport with a leather jacket that had decades of nondescript rectangular patches listing Final Fours with their dates and host cities meticulously sewn up and down the sleeves like badges of honor. Whether it's the onlookers who enjoy watching young men achieve the peak of human performance performing an activity that values skill over strength or the coaches and former players who will never reach this stage but hope to experience the dream vicariously: These are the dreamers.

The young men are the current and future players, many who will spend Monday evening in driveways, playgrounds and city streets around the country re-enacting the shots made by Lee Humphrey or Raymond Felton or Ben Gordon or Gerry McNamara or Juan Dixon, counting down the seconds before launching a game-winner -- and repeating the process if the shot draws iron -- until the non-imaginary clock strikes nine and the telecast starts. They are the tweeners in the crowd who harbor dreams of playing basketball for a living, who watch the games and study the mannerisms of the players. Who think, I will be out there someday and then live the reality in their mind's eye: These are the visionaries.

The whole entity, the old and the young, the dreams and the visions, adds up to the palpable tension this weekend creates. Consider Saturday night: Corey Brewer's exultation and Arron Afflalo's tears, while such seemingly disparate emotions, go hand in hand with one another like yin and yang. There is no Final Four without happiness just as there is no Final Four without despondence and the disappointment of broken dreams. Which explains the nervous excitement and apprehension that's everywhere this cloudy Monday. No one dreams of being Afflalo. The Florida fans in my hotel lobby just can't stop talking about basketball -- so obviously bubbly about their team's opportunity to repeat as national champs but nervous and helpless while discussing things like the possibility of losing or whether their coach will take the Kentucky job next week. The Ohio State fans who couldn't have imagined this kind of success even 12 months ago are just as nervous because these opportunities don't come often. Only the dreamers in Columbus can remember the last time the Buckeyes got this close to the game's ultimate prize.

Which brings me to yesterday, when our fearsome foursome of bloggers took in a few hours of press conferences with the Ohio State and Florida players and coaches. Practices were closed but both schools offered an excess of media availability on the main dais and the five breakout rooms for more intimate sessions with individual players (where David Scott caught up with the uncommonly gregarious Greg Oden on the eve of his probable collegiate curtain call). While putting the finishing touches on my look ahead to the 2007-08 season that will appear on the site Tuesday, I deferred to my Hang Time comrades to report most of the day's highlights. But there was one moment I can't help but discuss.

Ohio State was scheduled to appear in the main interview room first and and toward the beginning of their group session, Ron Lewis had described Florida in passing as a "good" team. Minutes later, a reporter noted that Jamar Butler had used the adjective "great" to describe the Gators while Ivan Harris had used "excellent" and asked Lewis some thinly veiled question about his standards of greatness. Lewis bit -- for the benefit of those few reporters who didn't catch the first slight: "I think [we're a great team] because we got to this point," Lewis said, smiling. "They're a good team team to me. That's all I can say about it."

Not long after the Buckeyes finished, the Gators took the stage with enigmatic frontman Joakim Noah commanding the room's attention. The Gothamite has been sort of the Roger Waters to this collective effort over the past two seasons -- tempermental, unpretty, somewhat mysterious and deceptively sensitive, beloved and hated around the country with equal fervor. Predictably a reporter related the Lewis story to Noah after waiting until the junior's weakest moment -- the tail end of the monotonous half-hour interview session when the raggedy pivotman was presumably at his most candid. Maybe you've caught the video somewhere (I haven't watched much TV this weekend and have no idea how much play this exchange has gotten) but the reaction provided the portrait of Noah that I'll keep for years to come:

Reporter: "A little more than an hour ago, Ron Lewis was up there and described you guys as a good team. A follow-up question was asked, described Ohio State as great, and [Lewis] referred to you again with the word "good." How do you feel about that assessment?

[A lengthy pause as Noah considered the question with a furrowed brow.]

Noah: "Oh my God! He said that?"

Reporter: Yes.

[A lengthier pause]

Noah: "No! What a bad person."

Moderator (after another awkward silence): "Anything else?"

Noah: "I don't even know what else to say. I really don't know."

And then another long break before Corey Brewer alleviated the discomfort with some playful response.

That's not the end of the story. The part I'll remember happened an hour later in the quiet media work area as I overheard a group of reporters -- a middle-aged man, an older female writer and a younger man in his twenties -- going back and forth for five minutes trying to decipher Noah's reactions for their stories. Was he seriously taken aback? Was he being sarcastic? Was he trying to play it off? Was he a fuming volcano whose maturity concealed the anger with playfulness? And that's the joke Noah has been playing on the gaggle of media types all along. As a New York-based reporter I've only had the opportunity to cover Florida on three occasions: the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at the Garden in November 2005, last season's Final Four in Indianapolis and this weekend's event. (The Gators are 5-0 in those events so far.) And each time Noah has been a different animal.

At the Garden, Noah was confident but cognizant of the things that Florida had yet to prove -- which came across in his reserved approach to media relations. The young sophomore was just playing the game and keeping his thoughts to himself.

In Indianapolis, the tournament's eventual Most Outstanding Player conducted himself with a fighter pilot's arrogance fueled by that famous us-against-the-world attitude that no team has ever used to better effect, never going overboard but keeping on toe firmly planted on the line at all times. Noah developed a predatory habit of calling reporters out that weekend. Even in the championship afterglow following Florida's systematic obliteration of the Bruins in the most lopsided 16-point game I can remember, Noah couldn't resist putting on the spot those from the media pool who "weren't there in November" when only "four or five" writers came out for Florida games according to his claims. "Where were you?" asked Noah in a pointed response to a reporter's genuinely innocuous question.

But this year in Atlanta, Noah has reverted to the less-is-more Garden form -- not quite stoic or reserved but just more passive. He's not out to get anyone. His habitual reference to the haters no longer needs explanation. His Friday afternoon treatise on hate is part hilarious and part disturbing since it's clear that the underdog complex is no longer an insider joke -- Noah has become lost in this psychological construct for motivation and believes in the haters almost as much as he believes in himself. But where the seven-footer seemed to attack the entire profession in Indianapolis, he now views the media frenzy of Final Four weekend with a detached amusement, with his best soundbites seeming to satirize the entire question-and-answer process which takes up 90 percent of the weekend. And the most priceless punch line to Noah's big joke is these three reporters dissecting his mannerisms, diction, tone and facial expressions down to the most minute facial tic -- all to determine whether or not Noah was telling the truth. To which I say: well-played.

We're not supposed to care who wins or loses these games because of a very real thing called journalistic integrity but I'll be the first person to say that a lot of times we do. Not in any way that would affect a single noun, verb or adjective of the final product that arrives on your front step or loads onto your browser but we're human beings and almost all of us are doing this because we watched these games on our living room rugs while growing up while caring desperately about their outcomes. (That one of the last times I cried happened when Seton Hall beat Temple to end Pepe Sanchez's career in the second round of the 2000 tournament just never came up during the CSTV interview process.) But tonight that's just not the case for me. Both schools are football factories from locations far from home. I don't have any friends or relatives that attended either Florida or Ohio State who aren't peripheral acquaintances. I never covered or befriended any of the players or coaches that will take the floor tonight. My rooting interest is good basketball. But if my inner sardonic sumbitch who roots for the bad guys in the movies was forced to take a side, that guy would want the pony-tailed clown in orange to get the last laugh.

Posted by at 04:30 PM on April 02, 2007

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