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Commentary: Final Four is as good as it gets for basketball fans

Courtesy of MCT

The coolest sporting event I’ve ever attended wasn’t that epic 2006 matchup between No. 1-ranked Ohio State and No. 2-ranked Michigan in Ohio Stadium. It was the 2007 Final Four in Atlanta.

The OSU men’s basketball team, featuring future NBA players Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook, entered the Final Four that year as a No. 1 seed, surviving scares in the second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament from Xavier and Tennessee, respectively. It entered the Final Four in Atlanta with a record of 34-3.

The Final Four was in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome that year, which houses the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Though the setup wasn’t natural for basketball – there was a large set of risers running the length of the court in front of a large black curtain that blocked off the rest of the football field, as well as risers for the student sections behind the baskets – the crowd of more than 50,000 people made it an experience unlike any other in the sport.

While the venue was certainly large enough to handle the fans who descended upon the city for the Final Four, there were some issues with ticketing. The first thing we noticed was that OSU’s handling of ticket distribution was questionable at best. OSU didn’t have the most fans there, but when we arrived, OSU had, by far, the longest line at will call outside the stadium.

We arrived at the arena in a group of three to pick up our tickets. We were told that if you wanted to sit in a group, you had to arrive at the arena with them when you picked up your tickets. That didn’t work out so well for us.

Two of us were given seats in the OSU student section behind one of the baskets. The other was given a ticket in the upper bowl. After complaining to officials in the venue, nothing could be done. We were not happy, but hey, it was the Final Four – a once-in-a-lifetime experience. While tickets were a bit pricier than they are this year – if memory serves, student tickets, which granted admission for both semifinal games and the title game, were about $70 – it was an opportunity we couldn’t complain much about.

That said, the atmosphere around the arena was lively.

The area around the Georgia Dome was essentially one big party. A band played on a rather large stage in Centennial Olympic Park, which is just a few minutes walk from the arena. Large signs adorned with the phrases “The Big Dance” and “And Then There Were Four” were on display around the arena and in the park, which was packed to the brim with fans from all four Final Four schools: OSU, Florida, Georgetown and UCLA. Good-looking girls in skimpy clothes walk around with product samples. Brackets the size of entire buildings were on display around the arena.

Florida fans were the most numerous, which was no surprise considering Florida was the Final Four school closest to Atlanta. Its fans were also the most obnoxious, busting out the Gator Chomp cheer at seemingly every possible instance, whether it was while the school’s band played during the game or while walking around outside the arena. From my experience, UCLA fans were the most friendly, but that was likely because we shared in a common interest in wanting to beat Florida, which is who the Bruins played in the semifinal game, but lost to.

OSU had already lost at Florida in the regular season, and had been blitzkrieged by the Gators in the BCS National Championship Game just a few months prior. It was a chance for redemption – one that ultimately fell short in the championship game, which we lost, in one of our worst shooting performances of the season. Not being able to tolerate watching the Gators celebrate another national title at our expense, we bolted out of the stadium and headed toward the congested Atlanta subway system for our hotel in nearby Alpharetta, Ga., as soon as the clock hit zero.

In fact, while walking around the venue, one of my friends swore he saw Urban Meyer, who was Florida’s football coach at the time, look at his shirt and deliver a sarcastic smirk at the OSU insignia adorning it.

The scale of the Final Four is unlike just about anything in collegiate sports, and many professional sports in the U.S. as well. When I received the email today which said student tickets were only $25, I nearly did a double-take. For the pinnacle of the country’s most exciting sporting events, that’s a damn steal, and I hope it’s as enjoyable for the fans descending upon New Orleans as it was for me in Atlanta.

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