Unreal Fouls Out of the Final Four

The beer-drinking, the game-watching, the east-side partying: We took it all in so you wouldn't have to

The Final Four is at least as tough a ticket as the Super Bowl. Still, thousands of admission-impaired fans make pilgrimages to the host city to root on the ol' alma mater. Sure, scoring a scalped ticket would be nice, but Chet and Larry are the sort of diehards who feel that proximity to their squad is crucial, even if there's no hope of taking the game in live.

In 2000 they ventured to Indianapolis, where Chet's sister had a place. Her ex-boyfriend was a scalper, which meant tickets. The Spartans emerged with their first national title since Jud Heathcote and a gangly sophomore point guard named Magic Johnson led them to the promised land in 1979. The next year Michigan State made it to the Big Dance in Minneapolis, and so did Chet and Larry. They scored tickets that time too, but the road proved rockier. The defending champs were bounced in the semifinal round, and Chet got himself thrown in jail for decking a University of Maryland fan in frustration. Hours passed before a tipsy (and inexplicably barefoot) Larry arrived with a C-note to bail him out of the drunk tank.

Chapel Hill fans prepare to do battle.
Jennifer Silverberg
Chapel Hill fans prepare to do battle.
Not over yet: An Illini fan has "dedication" written all over him.
Jennifer Silverberg
Not over yet: An Illini fan has "dedication" written all over him.

This year, after North Carolina defeated Michigan State in Saturday's semis, more than 60 people were arrested for disorderly conduct in downtown East Lansing -- a decidedly modest paddy-wagon haul in light of past postgame Spartan looting. In the shadow of the Arch, a ticketless Chet and Larry managed to stay out of trouble, drowning their sorrows in Car Bombs (equal parts Jameson and Baileys) in front of the TV at Kitchen K.

Unreal, meanwhile, watched Michigan State and Louisville meet their respective ends in person, thanks to a hard-won press credential. Of course, "in person" is a term we employ loosely. So profound is the difference between the haves (William C. Rhoden of the New York Times) and have-nots (Unreal) among the credentialed media, that the former take in the games from eye level while bottom feeders like ours truly are made to sit in the facility's upper press box, a mile and a half up in Edward Jones' rafters. While Unreal was happy just to be in the building, our belly wasn't. The dinner buffet had been broken down before the first game tipped off, and NCAA officials didn't dispatch so much as a pretzel to our assigned aerie.

"I'm fucking starving," griped veteran WGNU radio broadcaster Skip Erwin, who eventually forked over $7 for a scrawny concession-stand cheese steak.

Half an hour prior to tip, Unreal and our high-altitude colleagues were struck by how slowly the capacity crowd of 47,754 seemed to be milling in. Five minutes later, the pace accelerated tenfold. Why? According to one guard who asked not to be named in print, entryway security was ordered to stop checking attendees' bags, in order to speed the inflow. We later heard that they eventually stopped checking for tickets, too.

Pity Chet and Larry.

The unofficial fan beverage of the Final Four was the open container of beer. This was largely brought on by the NCAA's prohibition of beer sales inside the Dome. The NCAA also does not permit gambling establishments to advertise in its official program, which might explain why Fairmount Park drew only a ho-hum crowd to what the Collinsville horse track's brass had hoped would be a robust -- and rare -- Sunday afternoon of racing.

Outdoor drinking was such a priority for tournament fanatics that they endured a heaping helping of mediocre live music (confidential to pop culture: Joss Stone is the next Sass Jordan, not the next Janis Joplin) on the grassy Gateway Mall Sunday in exchange for the right to commiserate and pound brews in the sun on the off day before the title game.

Chet and Larry having departed, Unreal's liver took Sunday off.

En route to the Dome the next day, we spotted a massive Illini-only pre-function under a large white tent outside Al Hrabosky's Ballpark Saloon. This was only unusual because: 1) It was, like, three o'clock in the afternoon, nearly six hours before the opening tip, and 2) Al Hrabosky's is located south of Busch Stadium, a geographical coordinate the weekend's revelers rarely ventured beyond. Soulard, easily the drinking capital of St. Louis, slogged through a normal to below-average weekend despite the gaudy "Welcome" banners that graced many an establishment. And while Washington Avenue bars poured 'em swift before the title game, it was business as usual at less-flashy joints.

Out of a sense of nostalgia for St. Louis' true soul, Unreal stopped in at a very quiet Gus's Fashions and Shoes to visit proprietor Gus Torregrossa, who shared a photo album thick with shots from a recent missionary hunting trip to South Africa. While we were pondering whether that term could be classified as an oxymoron, he backed it with tales of "popping zebras" and helping to skin them to feed hungry villagers and child prostitutes. Torregrossa, a devout Catholic, also showed off the replica pair of gold-laced white Reeboks he gave to a sore-footed Pope John Paul II when the pontiff came to the STL in 1999, which he displays in his shop along with the thank-you he received from the Vatican.

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