Colbert: The Madness of the NCAA tournament
March 13, 2016
Steamboat Springs — And so the Madness begins.
With the release of the NCAA men's basketball tournament bracket Sunday, I saw this as a good time to reflect on the craziest month of my life. In the spring of 2013, I was in my final semester as a journalism student at Wichita State University, where I was the editor of my college newspaper and its main sports writer.
As it turned out, I was in the right place at the right time. That year, the WSU men's basketball team gave us one of the best Cinderella stories in recent years, making the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. I was with the team from start to finish, an unexpected and unbelievably memorable experience that cemented my desire to become a journalist.
The following are my favorite moments from this journey, one that actually began two years before that fateful Final Four run.
NIT in NYC
The first year I covered WSU was during the 2010-11 season. The Shockers settled for an NIT bid that year, and made a surprising run through the tournament. If you are unfamiliar with the National Invitation Tournament, the semifinals and finals are held in New York's Madison Square Garden each year. As a student journalist, I was sent to Manhattan to cover the NIT championship, where WSU beat Alabama. I was in New York fewer than 24 hours — of which it rained the entire time — but it was enough time to experience Times Square, grab a real New York hotdog, and stand on the floor of MSG as my Shockers cut down the nets. What I thought was an end was only the beginning.
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Weeping out West
A year later, in 2012, WSU made its first NCAA tournament since 2006. Somehow, the newspaper's business manager convinced the athletics department to let me on the team plane, where I joined them in Portland for the first round. Covering an NCAA tournament game proved a step up from even the NIT finals, and I wish had been able to spend more time exploring the region. However, WSU, seeded No. 5, was upset by 12-seed Virginia Commonwealth in the first round.
Salvation in SLC
WSU returned to the NCAA tournament in 2013 as a No. 9 seed, and I returned with them, not expecting any better outcome than the year before. This time, the first round was held in Salt Lake City, where the Shockers destroyed No. 8-seed Pittsburgh and was given a shot at top-seeded and top-ranked Gonzaga in the second round. This was the game that set fire to most brackets, WSU's stunning upset turning the entire tournament on its head. The on-court, post-game celebration was among the most surreal moments of my life.
Making the Sweet 16 — WSU last made it that far in 2006 — and beyond was a big deal. People all over were starting to pay attention to the Shockers. This, and shear random luck, led to a few run-ins with "celebrities" during the next week or so. In Wichita, either boarding or de-boarding the team's chartered plane, we randomly met Gus Bradley, who had just been hired as the head coach of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, and the one-and-only Tim Tebow. Each had stopped in Wichita — ideally located in the center of the country — to fuel, or in Tebow's case, shop … for planes. Both were nice enough to offer a pep talk. Other celebrity encounters included Atlanta Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan, actor Will Ferrell and Ice Cube.
The 2013 Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds were held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, home to both the NBA's Lakers and Clippers. The Shockers continued their wild run by defeating fellow upstart La Salle, a 13-seed, and upsetting No. 2-seed Ohio State in the Elite Eight game. Naturally, L.A. was where most of the celebrity sightings occurred — Will Ferrell was at the Elite Eight game in character as Ron Burgundy as they were filming Anchorman 2 at the time. Simply being in SoCal was great enough, but for a sports fan, being able to hang out in the Lakers' locker room was better than any of its sunny beaches. Sure, the beaches have supermodels, but standing in the very spot Kobe Bryant dressed hundreds of times before a game was beyond cool.
Between sites, we usually had a couple of days back in Wichita to regroup. Before leaving for the Final Four, things were hectic. As a newspaper editor — even if just a college paper — I was bombarded with phone calls. The best two I received came from the New York Times and Bill Littlefield, a Boston-based radio personality who hosts NPR's “Only A Game.” Both interviewed me about my experience covering the Shockers. You can still listen to my NPR interview online.
The 2013 Final Four was played at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. Simply put, that place is huge and easy to get lost in. I remember walking into it for the first time — this was a handful of days before the actual game — and staring down at the tiny court from the top of the rafters. It was a long way down to the bottom, where the media room was supposedly located. We — I was with my friend and co-worker, Taylor Dietterich — were finally escorted to said room, but only after we had accidentally intruded on a private practice for the Syracuse basketball team. I distinctly remember SU coach Jim Boeheim giving us the evil eye as we walked away.
Austin the Alien
Being a clueless student journalist at the Final Four — with the same credentials and access as the big wigs — is similar being on another planet. I had no idea where I was, or what I was doing. But getting to observe and be around the biggest names in sports and sports journalism was enthralling. Bumping into Jim Rome or Dick Vitale on the way to the restroom was something that actually happened at these things. One time I walked into the hallway and there stood NBA legends Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar chatting it up.
The Final Dance
The build up to a Final Four game is unlike anything I had ever experienced. Days of press conferences and predictions, photo shoots and stories to write. I nearly felt like a local by the time the game actually was played. The Shockers — again, they were a nine seed and probably shouldn't have been there — were playing in the Final Four for only the second time in school history, the other having come nearly five decades before. The magnitude of the game — from the amount of media present to the tens of thousands of fans — is impossible to describe.
The outcome is heartbreaking still to talk about, my Shockers having lost to eventual national champion Louisville by four points after leading by double digits in the second half. But the overall experience was one I never want to forget. I was able to photograph the game, and was one of only a few dozen people allowed on the raised court, a place many photojournalists never will reach in their careers. Maybe I was there because of pure luck, riding the coattails of the Shockers’ amazing Cinderella story, but it was an experience I'm forever thankful for.
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