Wednesday, 4:30 p.m. - Back from practice, players ready for the big show tomorrow
By Brendan O'Hallarn
It's a lot of work going to two basketball practices an hour apart in gyms a few miles from each other. Good thing we had that police escort. Yes, ODU Monarch basketball has arrived at the big stage. It's less than a day from our NCAA Tournament opener, against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Today was media and final walk-through day, the players' first chance to shoot on the rims in the New Orleans Arena, and national reporters' first chance to pronounce Uusikaupunki, the city In Finland that's the home town of the Monarchs' Gerald Lee.
After a team breakfast, we boarded a bus for the short drive to the home arena of the New Orleans Hornets. En route, players loudly debated whether all-star guard Chris Paul will stay with New Orleans or leave as a free agent.
We pulled up to the loading dock where the CBS production trailers were lined up, giving me a sense of the enormity of the operation of broadcasting the tournament. As the players went into the locker room to tape up for shootaround, I sprinted out to the nearly empty court, smelling the new coat of varnish as I stepped on the shiny wood floor. The 19,000 seats were nearly empty. Only a few curiosity seekers were checking out our practice, the first of the day for the eight teams playing on Thursday.
But the entire arena had the feel of a big event, with staff doing final checks of audio and video equipment. And hey, there were Dick Enberg and Jay Bilas, who'll call the games on CBS. I sidled up to Bilas. He LOVES our team. "Really solid. They rebound like crazy, they're very good defensively," Bilas said. "They're unselfish and they've got really good pieces. (Coach) Blaine Taylor, I've known for a really long time, he does a really good job. The one thing they do that you can't simulate is they really go after the ball."
You could feel the excitement in Bilas' voice as we talked. He's got a great slate of games to call on Thursday, starting with ours, then following with an athletic Baylor team, then an evenly matched game between Texas and Wake Forest, and then a chance to see possibly the country's best team, the University of Kentucky. "If I could have picked any of the eight sites to do, this would have been it," Bilas said.
Meanwhile, Coach Blaine Taylor and seniors Lee and Marsharee Neely were doing their press conferences, Taylor apologizing for being late by joking that he had dropped off a bunch of Notre Dame players on Bourbon Street to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. "I told them don't miss the game tomorrow; it starts at 2:30," he said, laughing, about the game that actually starts three hours earlier.
Neely and Lee are the only two Monarchs who've played in the NCAA Tournament, three years ago in Buffalo. National reporters remarked that the team has achieved some national notoriety this season as a team that could pull upsets in the NCAAs. Neely said they embrace that pressure. "It's motivation hearing things like that. You tend to play with a chip on your shoulder," he said.
After shootaround, the guys hopped on the team bus for a 15-minute drive to nearby Loyola University for a more physical practice. The drive took us through an area of New Orleans where large sections are still not fixed up from Hurricane Katrina. Chatter on the bus got quiet as we looked left and right at abandoned homes, some with the roofs still half-off.
Loyola University is in the Garden District, an area of the city that features big, beautiful homes. It also is an older neighborhood, so the infrastructure isn't as bus friendly as you'd hope. We arrived at the Loyola University rec center, and our bus driver couldn't get over the concrete median into the parking lot. We sat. "Where's Mikey when you need him?" Neely said of team bus driver Mike Raspberry, who drove through three blizzards this season. Practice was crisp. The coaches ran the team through different offensive and defensive sets, and were off the court after 45 minutes. Now back at the hotel, they'll screen film of the Irish at 5 p.m., then they'll chill out at the hotel tonight, before for an ear-splitting (for students) 7 a.m. wakeup call on Thursday. Oh, and they'll all be wearing new socks.
This is one of those things that just make you shake your head. Mark Brown, Associate Athletic Director for Business and Finance, made an emergency trip this afternoon to buy socks for the team. The NCAA branding police informed the team that the ODU players' socks weren't in compliance with Tournament rules, because they have logos on both sides.
"We're at practice and an NCAA rep says 'I don't like your socks. They have two logos," Brown said. "I said, 'Are you pulling my chain?' They said no. So I'm going on a sock-buying spree this afternoon."
Those are the types of logistical things that I never considered for one second before following the team this season. I never imagined basketball involved so much more than just rolling the balls on the court. Brown and I chatted about the complexity of hosting an NCAA women's tournament site, hosting a women's NIT game featuring the Monarchs, and taking a trip with the men's team to New Orleans, "where everyone wants to go," he said.
"It's literally all hands on deck," Brown said. "I like sending someone from administration whenever we travel with our teams, because you never know what might come up."
Such as a shopping trip. To buy socks.
Brendan O'Hallarn works in public relations for Old Dominion University
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