Welcome to the Final Four, where the scene is alive, dreams come true and memories are made that will last a lifetime
San Antonio — A lone photographer scurries above a locker in the three-foot gap between the top and the ceiling the way a pack rat might move around in one's attic. All in the name of getting that one great shot.
Golf carts roam from spot to spot and interview to interview, driving on carpet instead of plush fairways, carrying coaches and players instead of clubs. While that might sound a little absurd, it's actually necessary to keep everything running on schedule. The walks between rooms and media obligations are lengthy and the NCAA wants the players to be as fresh as possible for their showcase event.
Thousands of dollars worth of signage dot every corner of the arena, both marking the spot with a sense of pride and signaling to those who made it here that this is the big time.
Welcome to the Final Four, a spectacle unto itself that has grown, year after year, into one of the biggest stages in all of sports.
It's a place where some of the best basketball of the season takes place, but also a spot that has room for so much more.
The stories and their stars are different every year. But the vibe that runs through every site that serves as host is the same.
Hope. Joy. Satisfaction. Gratification. Heartfelt elation. Devastation. All of those emotions and so many more light the stage and make for a memorable weekend, no matter what happens on the basketball floor.
Naturally, winning two games here changes everything. But even those teams who go 0-1 or 1-1 come away with a great sense of accomplishment and memories that will last a lifetime.
For the top-seeded Kansas basketball team, which will face top-seeded Villanova at approximately 7:49 p.m. on Saturday night, this week already has been chalk full of moments that will last forever.
• Who could ever forget the tale of Udoka Azubuike's mother making the journey all the way from Nigeria to not only see her son play basketball for the first time but also to see her son in any capacity for the first time in six years? Oh, yeah, and the families of Angola native Silvio De Sousa and Ukraine senior Svi Mykhailiuk are coming from nearly as far to take it all in, as well.
Said De Sousa of the reunion with his family: “I'm excited, but I'm more excited about the games. I know that I'll always get to see my family, but I'll never know if I get to play in those games ever again.”
• The distance may be significantly shorter, but the moment is still special all the same, as KU point guard Devonte' Graham is thrilled to be welcoming his sister, Shamaria Massenburg, to the Final Four this weekend.
For four years, Graham has been telling his younger high-school-aged sister — whom his mother told the Journal-World she was going to make apply to KU when it came time to pick a college — that he would get her to the Final Four. After two close calls in the past two seasons, Graham finally delivered.
Not only will Saturday's game be the first time for Shamaria at the Final Four, it will be the first time watching her brother play at all this postseason.
A cheerleading competition during the first two rounds kept her from going to Wichita. And financial issues kept her away from Omaha last weekend. After beating Duke, Graham said he was going to find a way to make sure she was in San Antonio.
“She was just happy,” Graham said. “I've been trying to get her out here for the Final Four the last two years and I finally got to do it. I know she was excited. I could tell she was excited from the way she was texting me.”
• Speaking of reunions, former Jayhawk Billy Preston made his way to San Antonio this week, arriving Friday as a show of support for his former teammates and friends.
When Preston left Kansas amid serious disappointment after a freshman season that never got off the ground for professional basketball opportunities overseas, his teammates were bummed and said they felt like they were losing a brother.
Remember, even though Preston never played a real game with the Jayhawks, he was with them throughout the summer — Italy included — and did practice and sit on the bench for two months of the season before leaving. It's cool that he made the trek to reconnect with his guys in such a big moment. I'm sure he'd rather be playing, but just being here has to be validating in a sense.
• Although this will be this KU team's first game in a dome — freshman Marcus Garrett actually has played in this very building — the Jayhawks don't sound all that concerned about struggling with their shot in the wide-open arena. Beyond that, Kansas seems to have supreme confidence playing on neutral floors.
The Jayhawks are 17-4 this season away from Allen Fieldhouse and 10-0 on neutral floors.
“We are experienced and used to playing away from home,” said junior Lagerald Vick. “We just go out there with the mentality to win. We are always thinking about the next play and go out there and play for each other.”
• Speaking of Vick, few players have seen the kind of rise that he has enjoyed during the past couple of weeks. Not only has his game returned to the early-season form that made him arguably KU's best offensive player, but he also has elevated his defense and even handled himself like a pro during interviews, smiling, laughing, sharing stories and soaking up the whole experience.
“It's been good,” Vick said. “There's been a lot of media, a lot of exposure. It's been pretty fun. It's great being with the team and the coaches, just playing another weekend. Seeing the fans and being here is great.”
• As for finally reaching the promised land and getting to the college basketball player's dream destination, several Jayhawks said their experience at the Final Four this week has absolutely lived up to what they expected it would be.
“I think I've been way more excited than I have all year,” Graham said. “I feel like a weight's been lifted off of my shoulders, just getting over that hump and I'm just happy to be here.”
When asked how he would get over that feeling and focus on basketball, Graham said that he felt like he had already reached that point midway through the week.
“I feel like I'm over it now,” he said. “I'm just excited, anxious, really, to play. I saw the gym and how big it was and just imagined it full of people and it sent goose bumps through me. I'm definitely excited to get out there and even practice today.”
It was clear, early in the week, that Graham was soaking up every ounce of the experience and that finally making college basketball's big stage was not in any way a let down.
“It's pretty cool,” he said. “I took pictures of it, recorded it, definitely going to save it on my phone. Just the locker room, recording it and showing it to people, just to show them what it's like because it's not every day you get to experience it. … From getting off the plane and having the people there to greet us and all the Final Four cards and the police escorts. I think it's definitely up to what you dream of. I just feel like everything's exciting.”