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Behind the Scenes at the NCAA Tournament

Last week, I had the chance of a lifetime and watched the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight games at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. But here’s the kicker: I also got to go behind the scenes!

As a member of the media, I saw firsthand how the press covers these games, where they sit, and how they experience matchups differently than normal spectators.

Here are 10 things I experienced while covering the tournament games.

1. The Sixth Man
The bands were one of the best parts of the experience of being at the games. When the bands played, the fans sang along and lifted the team’s spirits. The bands played loud and happy tunes, even when their team was losing. At one point, in the Elite Eight matchup between Arizona and Wisconsin, the Wildcats were down 10-2 while the Badgers players were feeling very confident. The Arizona band got up and played the school’s fight song, got the fans on their feet, and shifted the momentum. Arizona led at the half, 33-30. The school bands take “team spirit,” to a whole different level through their music. They are truly part of the team.

2. Mascot Mayhem
Another fun part of the experience: the mascots. Did you know that more than half of the people wearing mascot costumes in the tournament were women? Pretty crazy, right? I assumed that all of them were men. The mascots love to hype the fans up by doing stunts with the cheerleaders. My favorite mascot from the Sweet Sixteen was the Xavier Musketeer because of his original, pirate-like costume. I also loved his mustache and his interaction with the crowd.

3. A Birds-Eye View
Have you ever heard the term a “birds-eye view?” It means we’re up at the top of the arena looking down at the game. That is where some of the press sits. We got to see the full court, without having to move our heads! There were also TVs where we sat, so we could watch the other games, too. 

4. Food!
If you are part of the press, one of the greatest perks is getting FREE food. There is a media buffet served two hours before tip-off for all the writers, reporters, and cameramen. My dad and I got pasta and soda before the game. While watching the game, the members of the press get chips and drinks to snack on. Who doesn’t like snacks while watching the game? 

5. The Players are TALL!
This might sound obvious, but the players are REALLY tall. While I was watching the teams warm up, I had to tip my head up to see the players’ faces. Think of the tallest person you ever met. Now picture more than 20 of them on the court at once warming up. On TV, it doesn’t look like they are that tall because most of them are about the same height. But in person, it’s incredible to see how tall the players really are.

6. Courtside Celebrities
You wouldn’t think that college students have celebrities following them around, but they do! In the Sweet Sixteen I got to see Cal RipkenJr., the Baltimore Orioles legend and one of my favorite authors, and actor Billy Crystal at the game. In the Wisconsin/Arizona game, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his girlfriend, actress Olivia Munn, were there. Other famous people, like diehard Kentucky fan Ashley Judd, show up at the games, too. 

7. The Top Referee
The referees make good calls and bad calls, but we usually think that they are the bosses of the court and nobody is above them. What if I told you that someone is the referee of the referees? Tommy Nunez, a former NBA ref, was tasked with selecting the March Madness officiating crews. He observed and graded a bunch of referees, noticing which calls were wrong and which calls should have been made that weren’t. After 30 years of experience as a referee and then as a referee of the referees, Nunez knows how to be fair and get the job done. 

8. The Best Souvenir
After a team wins the Elite Eight, there is a mad rush on the court. All the camera people race out to interview the players. Then, after the trophy presentation, the players take part in a great tradition: the net ceremony. Each player and coach gets a chance to go up on a ladder and cut a little strand of the net to remember the game. Most tie that strand to their championship hats to mark the occasion. The head coach gets to keep the biggest part of the next. I got a t-shirt, hat and basketball at the game, but the net is the best souvenir to get, don’t you think?

Click on photo for larger version!

9. The Locker Room
The postgame Wisconsin locker room was eerily silent. I expected a huge celebration with jumping around and yelling and dumping things on people’s heads. But everyone was very calm and relaxed, doing press interviews and eating Mexican food. I got to interview seven players and coaches from the Wisconsin team, including standouts Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes, and Sam Dekker. 

10. My Moment on the Court
After locker room interviews, my dad and I were getting ready to leave. I wanted to go do something, so he followed me. I walked right onto the court and stood in the middle. It was an amazing. The fact that I could stand on the same court where this year’s top NCAA talent played, as well as where Lakers’ Great Shaquille O’Neal, and of course, Kobe Bryant, won NBA titles was pretty cool!

Photos: Isabel Gomez

isabel gomez march madness press room
isabel gomez march madness band
isabel gomez march madness mascot
isabel gomez march madness press box
isabel gomez march madness net
isabel gomez march madness wisconsin locker room
isabel gomez march madness center court