April 16, 2014

I'm naming my first born Aaron

Kentucky’s Obstacle Course to the Final Four

This year’s University of Kentucky men’s basketball team took its fans on a roller coaster of emotions (and that is an understatement at best).  The season went from highs to lows, to highs, to lows, to real lows, to falling off a cliff lows, back to highs, and higher highs, and highs so high I thought I was in heaven highs.  Anyone close to me knows that I am always a “glass always full” type of fan… and I was one of the few fans who still believed this team had the potential to be special, even after the regular season ended with an embarrassing loss at South Carolina and a blowout loss at Florida.

Aaron Harrison (two A’s, the 2 guard, number 2… aka the one with the shorter hair) also had faith in this young team when the rest of the country did not.  He told reporters after the game in South Carolina: "We know what we can do and we know we’re going to make a run to have a big, great story for everyone to talk about.”  Go ahead and get Aaron an application for the Psychic Friends Network.  And let’s change his middle name to Nostradamus while we’re at it.

The team’s turnaround began at the SEC tournament in Catlanta.  The boys started playing their best basketball of the season courtesy of Coach Cal’s mystery tweak(s).  Despite their recent good play, the Wildcats were seeded #8 in the field of 64 (wait, it’s now 68) and were given the near impossible task of making it out of their region.  They were going to have to climb Mount Everest (without oxygen… backwards… on two hands) if they had any hope of making it to the Final Four in Dallas.  This team’s response:  no problem… we’ll even do it blindfolded.
I endured the first and second rounds of the tournament during my weekend to work.  Thankfully I was able to watch the Kansas State game at home due to its late tip-off.  Beating Kansas State led us to a date with #1-seeded Wichita State, the only undefeated team left in the country.  Yes, Wichita was a mid-major.  Yes, they had a mediocre strength of schedule.  But no, this team was not overrated.  These Shockers were the real deal and I was a nervous wreck.  That Sunday afternoon at work, iHeart radio and Tom Leach were my lifeline for the Wichita game… and my poor technicians had to put up with me being a deranged lunatic for those two hours.  (Do you have a question for the pharmacist?  Yes?  Ok, give her a second to allow her breathing to return to normal and she’ll be right with you.)  Remember when there were tornado drills in elementary school and you had to crouch down against the wall with your hands covering the back of your head?  After James Young hit the go-ahead three with 90 seconds left, that was the exact position I was in for the remainder of the game as I channeled Big Blue Jesus to help the players make their free throws.  When the game ended (and I did a few high kicks and air guitars around the pharmacy), I returned to a being a professional for the rest of the day with a big ass smile on my face that didn’t go away for a week.

The regional games the next weekend were played in Indianapolis and luckily I bought tickets for the Indy regional last summer when they went on sale to the general public (because it's perfectly normal to buy March Madness tickets in July).  The week leading up to the Indy trip felt like an eternity as I prepared myself mentally for our Sweet Sixteen matchup with 4-seeded Louisville.   Yes, Louisville.  To advance another round, UK had to beat our in-state rival and the defending national champion (without our lottery pick center who ended his season four minutes into the game... we had to do it with our Willie out).  After being down by as many as 13 points, Aaron Harrison hit the go-ahead three pointer with 40 seconds left to propel the Cats to a win.  Fast forward to Sunday night.  Kentucky now faced 2-seeded Michigan and the winner would be skipping to the Final Four.  Marcus Lee had his coming out party and Aaron Harrison hit the game winning three pointer with 3 seconds left to propel the Cats to a win.  (Yes, I typed that sentence twice in the same paragraph.)
Kansas State.  Check.
Undefeated #1-seed Wichita State.  Check.
Defending National Champion and #4-seed Louisville.  Check.
Defending National Runner-up and #2 seed Michigan.  Check.
Three of the four teams in last years Final Four.  Check.  Check.  Check.
Xanax refill.  Check.


My rat pack for the Final Four was the same as it was for the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans:  my dear friend Britt, my sister Allie, and my mother (we always need a chaperone).  We also adopted two friends, sisters Mary and Christina, who are now permanent fixtures in our Final Four family.  Christina and Allie were the little sisters.  Mary and I were the older sisters — or as Mary liked to call us “the two lesbians,” due to our excessive sports knowledge.  Yes, Mr. Man, I know more about college basketball than you.  Sorry, not sorry.

The theme of our Dallas Final Four trip was “mojo.”  Mojo is like superstition on crack.  It can be the difference between a win or loss.  For some of us, that meant wearing the exact same clothes.   For others, that meant putting on two swipes of deodorant and three coats of mascara before each game.  For the little sisters, that meant fireball shots before the game.  For me, that meant not moving from my seat once the game started.  You have to do everything the exact same.  The.  Exact.  Same.  We took this mojo thing seriously… no one wanted to be blamed for the loss because they didn’t use the same black hair tie as in previous games.

Dallas has to be the worst city to host a Final Four.  The worst.  The 50,000 Kentucky fans were spread out all over the sprawling city and transportation was expensive and a nightmare.    It took us almost an hour to get from our hotel to the AT&T Cowboys Stadium, and that was even with Christina doing her best Danica Patrick impersonation.  Fortunately due to Mary’s impressive planning skills, she reserved a prime parking spot across from the stadium at the classy establishment of Jack-in-the-Box for $100.  That is not a typo.

Prior to the game, we attended the UK Alumni Association pre-game party.  Hundreds of fans donning their luckiest blue and white (#mojo) came together to drink and be merry (and by drink, I mean devour 200 cases of Miller Lite).  In the midst of the crowded crowd, we found the one long table in the center of the tent.  Christina, whose real life job is an event planner, went to work and organized a game of flip cup, which attracted all the cool kids.   It was difficult playing on a tablecloth with large heavy stadium cups, but there’s no crying in flip-cup.  Suck it up boys and drink.   When the party ended, a sweet little old man (named Jim Bob, no joke) had a golf cart and volunteered to drive us to the stadium.  He drove that thing like it was a Humvee… cutting off cars, making his own lane in traffic, driving over curbs.  But we received front door service to the stadium and he received a handsome cash reward.
Even though the city of Dallas was a horrible place for a large tournament atmosphere, the Cowboys Stadium was the most perfect place on Earth.  I think I heard angels sing as I walked through the front doors.  I felt like I was entering a Las Vegas casino with the bling-bling chandeliers and carpet, televisions everywhere, and gourmet food stations throughout.  Then there was Big Bertha:  the mother of all video screens.  I cannot even do it justice by trying to explain this monstrosity, but it was twice the size of the basketball court.  The one million pound display (not kidding, I just googled that) draws you in and you just can’t look away.   If they could put the Cowboys Stadium in New Orleans for a Final Four, it would be better than a slice of heaven… it would be more like the whole pie.
The actual basketball game was amazing.  Ahhh-mazing.  The white boys of Wisconsin looked to have the game wrapped up with about 5 minutes remaining, but they forgot about this Kentucky twin named Aaron (two A’s, the 2 guard, number 2… aka the one with the shorter hair), who had hit the last two game winners.   Aaron Harrison hit the go-ahead three pointer with 6 seconds left to propel the Cats to a win.   (Yes, that is the third time you have read this sentence.)  I couldn’t cheer because I was in utter shock.  My knees gave out on me because I was shaking so bad.  We all admitted after the game that we peed a little when the ball went through the net.  Who hits the game winner three games in a row… in the NCAA tournament… against three teams who finished the season ranked in the top 10?  Aaron Harrison… whose balls were so big that he could barely walk around (Dakari said it, not me).  #bigballsnation.
The bars in Dallas closed at 2am (yes, Dallas is truly a terrible city).   Due to the long drive and traffic, we didn’t make it back from the stadium until almost 1am, which gave us a measly hour of celebration and drinks.  Pressed for time and with limited options, we headed straight for the hotel bar.  The six of us kept ourselves amused in the hotel bar lounge, which was strangely decorated as a library.  In silly fashion, we perfected the art of #Randleing in honor of Julius, and we designated “1-2-3 Brothers” (how the team broke each huddle) as our signature toast.  We annoyingly used the two ad nauseam that night, but it never got old.
Final Four weekend always coincides with the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention and there were several coaches from across the country mingling at the hotel bar.  An assistant coach from a division II school out in California, who was a Kentucky native, walked by our group and started small talk when he saw we were Kentucky fans.  Then this happened:

Britt (to Jamie the coach): Dang, you are tall. How tall are you?
Jamie: 6’5”
Britt: I’m 5’4”. That makes you one foot and one inch taller than me.
Jamie: That is also known as 13 inches.
Britt: Wow, 13 inches is a lot.
In unison: That’s what she said!

From that point on, Jamie was nicknamed “13 inches.”  He and his head coach, Coach Sanchez, bravely joined us and they had no clue what they were getting themselves into.  They were very impressed by our knowledge of all things Kentucky basketball… and our slight inappropriateness.  The bar closed shop at 2am, but our party was just warming up.  As Miley said:  we can’t stop, we won’t stop.  Mary went MIA for a few seconds, then returned like Houdini with sweet tea vodka and a huge jug of freshly made pink lemonade.  This party wasn’t ending.  Coach Sanchez had a heart to heart with Britt about relationships; Christina was ruthlessly mean to this random dude who plopped down uninvited and was getting uncomfortably close to her sister (see center below); my poor mom heard stories that she can never unhear; and we gave our best effort to take an Ellen selfie.  Our shenanigans didn’t end until 5am-ish and rumor has it that I fell asleep standing in our bathroom.  However, that is solely rumor and it cannot be confirmed or denied.
My body did not see the light of day until about 3pm on Sunday.  The day was pretty low key and uneventful as we spent the afternoon mingling at our hotel bar.  We made 7pm dinner reservations for the restaurant Dragonfly, which is located at the swanky Hotel Zaza.  The six of us were seated in their private and intimate wine room and received amazing food and impeccable service.  We are still not sure how or why we received the royal treatment, but they won our hearts with the three bottles of complimentary champagne and dessert. 

After dinner, the two California coaches from the previous night joined us at the restaurant and they brought another coach, Coach Steve.  We proudly exhibited how Kentucky girls are raised: southern belles who love their basketball and bourbon (and yes, coaches, everyone gets a cherry in their Makers and Sprite; it’s not negotiable).  We played several rounds of “Name a UK player in the NBA.”  Can’t name one?  Everybody drink.  (Dear Coach Steve:  Julius Randle, James Young, and Chane Behanan are not correct answers.)  We also broke down the last play of the Wisconsin game and the coaches used the water glasses to show us the play they would run with 15 seconds left.  You mean you wouldn’t run the “give the ball to your brother to shoot a three when he is almost standing out of bounds” play?  Amateurs.

We sat in that private wine room for seven(!!) hours and would have stayed longer if we weren’t asked to leave at 2am so the staff could go home.  Russ Smith was in the bar area as we were leaving, and in true form, we asked to get a picture with him and our three-goggles.   Props to Russ for being as kind and genuine as everyone has claimed.  I fell asleep as soon as we got back to our hotel… I needed to be rested for the big game on Monday… because what if Coach Cal needed me?  That night as I went to bed, dreams of a championship danced in my head.
Championship Monday had arrived.  We headed to the stadium around 2pm and parked in the exact same $100 parking spot at Jack-in-the-Box (#mojo).  We were then on a mission to find food and decided on the Blue Mesa (because, duh, it had Blue in its name).  I ordered a blue margarita and some Tex-Mex food, but I was getting very nervous and was not able to enjoy myself.  My sister was so nervous that she had a very difficult time ordering a drink.  Completely sober, she attempted to order a Beam and Diet.  Instead she said Jim and Diet, which came out of her mouth as "zschimm-annn-diiiie."  When the waitress asked her to repeat herself, she still said it the exact same way.  Good thing we can translate "Kentucky's-about-to-play-in-the-national-championship-bonics."  I knew that I needed to get to the stadium and just sit in my seat.  But once I was there, watching the clock in the stadium count down to game time ended up being pure torture.
We all know how the championship game versus UConn ended, so I won't rehash it.   However, I will share James Young's dunk over the entire state of Connecticut.   It is undoubtably the dunk of the year and I can watch this on loop all day, errrr-day.

This basketball season started with unrealistic expectations.  It took every bit of a full season, but this team finally came together and led us on the most memorable tournament run I’ve ever experienced.  I really wish this team had more time to play together because they were truly special.  Though this team fell short of a national championship by six points, I am so proud of their fight.  I am Kentucky Proud.  And I can’t wait to do it all over again in six months.