March has passed. The madness rolled over into April. Far further than most expected. The final game did not turn out as KU hoped. It did not turn out as Laura and I hoped either. Now it is time to drag ourselves back to life and reality. First, though, a look back at the long, strange trip that was March and early April.
In March 2000, I was in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The KU men defeated DePaul in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They would lose to Duke in the second round. In Rustin, Louisiana, Laura was with the KU women’s team that would lose to Vanderbilt in the first round of the women’s NCAA Tournament. Laura was the academic advisor for the women’s team at that time, and I was doing what I have done now for so long. We were only distant friends at the time. That was the last year the two teams played in the NCAA Tournament in the same season until this March.
So it was this year that Laura and I were split up again. No longer the women’s team’s academic advisor, Laura was covering the KU women as a photographer while I was following the men with my cameras. While I was in Omaha, Laura was in Little Rock and then Des Moines as I moved on to St. Louis. We finally reunited in New Orleans.
The quality of work Laura produced while covering the women’s team showed her continued growth as a volunteer photographer. When I saw KU women’s coach Bonnie Henrickson for the first time in weeks, she threw her arms around me and told me how “Laura did an extraordinary job” covering the women’s stunning run to the Sweet 16. I can not begin to detail my pride over Laura’s efforts, or this entry would never end.
Two things stuck with me from the women’s run. The first was the play of point guard Angel Goodrich. Laura’s famed high school coach, Jim Keith, told us four years ago that Goodrich would be something special at KU. Of course that was before the native of Oklahoma tore the ACLs in both her knees in a two-year stretch. This season was the first where everyone including national audiences got to see what Jim Keith saw years ago before his passing. Angel Goodrich is flat-out great.
Painfully, the other remembrance was that of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. Before the season, Summitt announced she suffered with early Alzheimer’s dementia. As sad as that was to hear, it was very painful for me to watch Summitt on the sidelines against KU. There were moments when her face displayed the same confusion and doubt that filled my mother as she began her long decline due to that terrible disease. Fortunately, I was alone in a hotel room watching the game with tears in my eyes. That is one game I really am happy not to have covered.
What I covered was truly amazing as I detailed in my last post. I have a love/hate relationship with the month of March. Post-season conference tournaments are ridiculous and serve only as cash cows for the conferences. The basketball season is too long with too many meaningless games. By March, all I want to do is get outside in the sun. If KU is upset in the early rounds, that is fine with me. I simply move on. No, there is not any other month I would want to trade to allow me to have more March as the Buffalo Wild Wings commercials kept asking.
However, once KU reaches the Final Four, then I am all in with the idea of the team winning the title. Basketball is one of the easiest and yet hardest sports I cover. The fast-paced action up and down the court gives any decent photographer the chance to make good pictures. It is making something different that truly showcases the flow of the game that makes it so hard. My hope is I do that. Naturally, winning makes it all better.
Losing sucks. I guess I could have jumped up and run onto the court to photograph Kentucky celebrating their victory, but it just seemed unseemly to do so. The team I cover was heading to the locker room with their heads down, so really all I could do was gather up my gear and do the same.
Maybe it was the elevated court that prevented me from getting further away from all the jubilation, but it was very disappointing to walk along the side of the court as Kentucky players started to climb onto the podium for the trophy presentation and see other photographers firing away. In the work room, as production began on the photos from the game, I could hear all the cries of joy and then “One Shining Moment” being played to the delight of the Wildcat throng. It was a hollow feeling, and I am not a crazed KU fan at all.
The other reason losing sucks is that I lost money. No, the compliance office does not have to worry, I did not bet on the games. However, Sports Illustrated was using a variety of my photographs in their commemorative book should KU have won it all. Included was a two page, double-truck spread of a photograph from the KU-MU game earlier in Lawrence. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, that money disappeared. So much for that cyclo-cross bike.
The massive Kentucky crowd was amazing. So often KU fans make games away from Allen Fieldhouse seem like home games. There was something about this year’s deep run that lacked the usual KU support. The student section was not jam-packed. The line of autograph seekers at open practices was smaller than usual. Compared to Kentucky’s throng, any other school’s crowd naturally seemed small. It was easy to book tickets to New Orleans for Wildcat fans. They could have done that as early as October given the talent that took the court in Lexington. KU was a reach all year, but they were a fascinating reach.
Away from the games, our quest was to eat well and eat well we did. Seafood gumbo is a favorite and required at least a cup a day. The original muffuletta topped with rich green olive spread at Central Grocery in the French Quarter was as tasty as we remembered from 2003. We savored the brown sugar ham at Mothers with our breakfast eggs and relished the huge Oysters Rockefeller at Felix’s. We sat along the Mississippi River as Laura enjoyed the traditional beignet and chicory coffee from Cafe du Monde. Our waiter at the Gumbo Shop brought us the best of the menu, along with his top dining tips away from the French Quarter, while we relaxed in the old world building with its full-wall paintings depicting a more genteel time. Shrimp and grits along with small Belgian waffles covered in raspberry compote, Cajun cane syrup and powdered sugar were one of the highlights of the Naismith Coach of the Year brunch.
Yet, getting away from the French Quarter brought us the best food and gave us a chance to clear our sinuses of the stench that goes along with anything in the French Quarter. We rode the quaint old trolley car system to Le Crepe Nanou, where we ate rich chicken and beef tip crepes in a hip locals-only dining room. We followed that up with a walk to Creole Creamery for hand-made ice cream laced with a distinctive New Orleans touch. Our Salty Chocolate Almond cones were something different and certainly a taste that would take time to fully acquire.
Jacques-Imo’s was the champion by far. It required a cab ride, but we shared rides to and from with people heading to what many told us was the “best food in New Orleans.” Casual was the word. The old building burst at the seams from the crowd. Waits begin at an hour. Picnic tables lined the street for outside dining. In front of the building, a battered pickup truck’s bed included a dining table for two we hoped we would get.
However, rain forced that special table and the large picnic tables to be moved to any overhang that could be found as the dining experience never stopped even in the rain. After a trip through the bustling kitchen to our table, we both had wonderful fish meals that were as savory as anything I remember. The sound system blasted 70’s rock and roll. The crowd was loud and boisterous making for a thoroughly enjoyable evening of good food and fun.
The New Orleans Marriott was no match for the Hilton of Omaha or the Renaissance Hotel in St. Louis. The bathroom was too small for two. Once you have slept on a Temper-Pedic mattress, any hotel bed kills the back. The high-tech elevator system led to constant games of chance for us, though. Key in your room floor and the system selected the best elevator from A through G. We guessed so often, we have no idea who was the big winner.
A winning feature was the lighting in the Superdome. Photographers will relish this – 1250 ISO at 1/1600th at f2.8. 4100 Kelvin. While the photographers all drool, let me say to the anyone else – truly super lighting.
The other highlights for me were walking with Bill Self after he received the coach of the year award and meeting Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. Coach Self has a little kid wonderment about him, and he has a great sense of humor. When those two things mesh, as it did during that short walk, it is an absolute treat.
Prior to the Naismith brunch, I stood in a corner of the room trying to be as inconspicuous as I could amongst the basketball coaches and players there for the awards. Tom Izzo walked in and immediately came over to me, shook my hand and introduced himself. We exchanged pleasantries before he moved on. Impressed that he took the time to say hello, I later went to him and thanked him. I also told him he truly was “comfortable in his skin” as he states in his television commercial. He bumped me on the shoulder and said, “Jeff, I am still an old Division II coach at heart.” He went on to talk to me more than a simple photographer deserved. As the event broke up, there was Izzo shaking my hand, calling me by name and thanking me for the chat. That all this happened in front of coach Self and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, well, that is pure gravy.
My life is richly blessed beyond my comprehension. The long week in New Orleans proved that over and over. My time with my wife, doing what I love and knowing my children have grown into fine young women has me thanking my Savior again and again.
Right before the Championship game I walked from the photo workroom to the basketball court set in the middle of the giant Superdome. This was my 10th Final Four. Of the five played in New Orleans, I have photographed three. Over 70,000 people filled the stands. Some of the nation’s best photographers sat on the court ready to compete just as the two great teams finished their warm ups. Stopping to take this all in, I said my final prayer asking my Savior to be with me once again and took my spot on the court.
Our Director of Athletics loves to say, “Big time is not a place, it is the state of your heart.” My hope is that my heart is and will remain in the right place. That is why there is nothing like six loads of laundry, a yard that needs mowing, a home that needs some attention, a couple of pounds to drop, a dog that needs running and a bike waiting to be ridden along with all the spring sports to remind me of the best place for my heart. Time to get back to life and back to reality.