When you are a Kid Reporter and your editor asks if you would like to cover the Final Four, what do you think you say? YES! That is exactly what I said when my editor asked me that question.
This year’s Final Four was a five-day event in Houston, Texas, from Thursday, March 31, through Monday, April 4. Before school on Thursday, I went to NRG Stadium to pick up my press credential. The planners of an event like the NCAA tournament want to make sure that the players and coaching staffs are safe, while still giving the media access to the teams to conduct interviews. Members of the media wear credentials around their necks to indicate to security that they have permission to go into designated areas and player locker rooms. Here are just some of the things I learned over those five days:
The coaches are approachable.
After I got my credentials, I literally ran into Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger. He seemed really interested in me and asked me all kinds of questions about what I would be doing for SI Kids at the tournament. I even got a picture with him.
“What do you do to keep your team up and positive when things aren't going your way?” I asked.
Coach Wright replied, “That's a great question. We wear these attitude bracelets....We have it on the wall in our practice facility. There's not a lot of things on our wall, but that's up there. We want our guys to understand in basketball that what you control is your attitude. You don't control whether your shot goes in or the referee's calls, but you control your attitude on the next play.”
Later in the day, I saw Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim in a hallway, with the media crowded around. A situation like that is called a scrum, which just means an unscheduled press conference. I worked my way through the scrum and was able to ask Coach Boeheim a question as well.
You wouldn’t know the athletes are playing in the biggest tournament of the year.
As a reporter, you are permitted to go into the players’ locker rooms at designated times. I went into the Oklahoma, Syracuse, Villanova, and North Carolina locker rooms to interview players and take pictures. Each locker room was packed with players sitting next to lockers. There was a player nameplate above each one.
In the Syracuse locker room, center Dajuan Coleman was lying on a table by his locker with huge icepacks wrapped around each of his legs. Three other athletes were taking a break, shooting aliens at the two Galaga arcades in the corner of the room. Forward Doyin Akintobi-Adeyeye had his wireless PowerBeats out; I wear PowerBeats when I am running, and we talked for a minute about how awesome they are.
In the North Carolina locker room, there was a lot of good-natured smack-talk going on among the guys. Some players were even joking with reporters. Forward Kennedy Meeks burst out laughing when I asked him to name the animal coach Roy Williams reminds him of the most.
Even though they were getting ready to play in the biggest games of their lives, the players acted just like the guys on my own soccer team act when we are waiting for our parents to pick us up after practice.
Reporters get great seats.
The Final Four semifinal game between Villanova and Oklahoma was scheduled to start on Saturday at 5:09 p.m. I got to the stadium three-and-a-half hours early. When the courtside area opened to the media, my dad and I picked two seats. A few minutes later, a gentleman came over to ask if we were enjoying ourselves at the tournament. When we said that we were, he told us good, but that we were going to have to enjoy ourselves from different seats! That’s when I found out I had an assigned seat, in between the journalists from ABC radio and CBS radio.
Politicians love the Final Four, and so do basketball legends.
During the semifinal games, I spotted Vice President Joe Biden and former President George H.W. Bush. Vice President Biden was there with his wife, Dr. Jill Biden. They were there as alumni fans of Syracuse and Villanova. President Bush has a home in Houston, so I guess he came as a local basketball fan.
UNC alum and retired basketball star Michael Jordan and retired NBA star Shaquille O’Neal were both at the championship game.
I witnessed one of the most dramatic national championship games of all time.
What a game! More than 74,000 fans crowded into NRG stadium to watch an absolute nail-biter, with Villanova defeating North Carolina 77–74 on a three-pointer from Kris Jenkins at the buzzer.
As soon as the game ended, security blocked off the court. Five minutes later they let members of the media out onto the floor. I was crowded in between photographers and reporters, as blue and white confetti poured down from the ceiling and the players took the award platform. I could feel the energy that was still coming from the players, and I could see the emotion on their faces. The Wildcats had won their first national championship in 31 years.