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

Apr 6, 2005 at 4:00 am

On the barroom floor at Pop's, three unskinny women are dry-humping one another to the strains of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'," delivered by a cover band called The Real Me. The lyrics -- "Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit" -- brim with profundity for "Chet Lemon" and "Larry Herndon," two Michigan State alums who 24 hours ago arrived at Unreal's doorstep after a synthetically enhanced daylong drive from their homes in the Mountain West to cheer on their beloved Spartans in the semifinals of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Chet and Larry (pseudonyms borrowed from 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers outfielders) are unfazed by the soft-porn centipede on the dance floor. What they find mystifying are the dudes trying to pull the babes off the floor. Specifically, a guy in his forties who's a ringer for Pat O'Brien, television's Hollywood dirt disher who recently checked himself into rehab after attempting to coax a female companion into cocaine use and cunnilingus via eloquent messages ("You're so fuckin' hot, you're fuckin' hot!!!") on her cell phone. O'Brien's Pop's doppelganger stops short of vocal lewdness, instead grinding his denim-clad crotch into the worm's rear walrus, who sheds a white cardigan sweater to reveal a black sports bra.

"Fat, sweaty whores," observes Chet, a Hoosier State native who compares Pop's to "your average bar in Indiana," save for its round-the-clock operating hours, which strike him as "a brilliant concept." Evidently actor Vince "Dodgeball" Vaughn, spotted at the bar by Larry, and a cavalcade of orange-clad University of Illinois fans celebrating a blowout win over the Louisville Cardinals to propel their squad into the championship game, agree.

It's four in the morning with no end in sight. Sunlight may beckon a few revelers to the exit sometime soon, but right now at Pop's only two things are certain: Pat O'Brien's getting nowhere with Sports Bra, and (by Unreal's count) at least 137 patrons here are equipped with moustaches.

How many of those furry fellows once occupied dorm rooms in East Lansing, Champaign, Louisville or Chapel Hill is anyone's guess, but the predominance of college colors indicates that this ain't your average Saturday-night crowd at Pop's. Still, there's a charming obliviousness to the major fiesta taking place on the other side of the river, embodied by The Real Me's lead singer, who explains that his "great mood tonight" is due to "the beginning of Cardinals baseball season."

On the first weekend of April in any other year, such a comment would be de rigueur in St. Louis. But it's not every year that St. Louis hosts an event that relegates the Redbirds to the nether reaches of the daily sports dispatches and turns the city's moribund downtown upside down.

Naturally, Unreal took it all in so you wouldn't have to.

Very tall men outnumbered gals eight to one at the Slam Dunk and Three Point Championships afterparty at the Pepper Lounge Thursday night, where we stayed long enough to see three-point champ Drake Diener of DePaul working a sweaty with a J.Lo caboose out on the patio.

And to down a few. Unreal is partial to tequila, but we're a snob when it comes to our favorite potion and the Pepper was only comping Cuervo. So we switched it up, opting for Southern Comfort and lime juice. Not smart, but we won't bore you with the details. Suffice to say we were right back on the front lines the next morning, hoofing it to America's Center, where the National Association of Basketball Coaches was holding its annual convention. Haggard as Merle, we basked briefly in the glow of just-retired Purdue coach Gene Keady's Lego hair before heading off to take the city's early Final Four pulse.

The vibe downtown was decidedly rambunctious, though you wouldn't have guessed from within the tomb known as St. Louis Centre. University of Iowa coach Steve Alford was talking shop with Don Monson of the University of Minnesota over slices of pizza in the fourth-floor food court, but other than that you could have heard a pin drop.

God bless Laclede's Landing. For all the ribbing the party-hardy district takes from the bohemian set, the Landing is a conveniently located sponge for tourists and suburbanites seeking a faux Bourbon Street atmosphere to brand their Final Four experience like a temporary tattoo. On Friday night the locals met the yokels at the Landing's nexus, Mississippi Nights, where the Jack Daniel's-swilling Alabama five-piece known as the Drive-By Truckers came through with a set that bridged the gap between the brothers Allman and VanZant.

Truckers guitarist Patterson Hood, who entered the stage wearing a black-leather duster that was quickly soaked in sweat, expressed surprise at the wall-to-wall crowd. Somewhere around the sixth bottle of Busch, it struck Unreal that Hood's shock might have been for real: Given the Truckers' relentless tour schedule, it might not have occurred to him that the turnout, heavy on the Louisville red and Carolina powder-blue, coincided with college basketball's version of Bonnaroo.

Though we were loath to tear ourselves away from the inspiring sight of a colossal Tar Heel fan drinking his beer straight from the pitcher a few feet from the stage, Unreal was called away from the festivities by a phone call informing us that our weekend houseguests were incoming on I-70, within eyeshot of the Dome.

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.

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.

Though the shoe story was destined for the pages the Post-Dispatch (courtesy of Unreal's favorite scribe, Todd C. Frankel), the fact that the Pope perished over Final Four weekend seemed an afterthought to pretty much everyone downtown except Gus.

There were definitely more orange-clad Illini fans at Monday's big tilt -- best T-shirt: "We Love Head" (as in Illini guard Luther) -- but Tar Heel blues were hardly as sparse as the refreshments in the upper press box.

Though their team trailed 40-27, the Illini faithful betrayed scant anxiety at halftime. After all, their boys had erased a fifteen-point deficit in the space of four minutes a week earlier in a regional elimination game against a very talented Arizona team, and here a full twenty minutes remained to chip away.

Chip away the Illini did, finally -- inevitably? -- knotting the score at 70 with two minutes to go by way of a slew of three-balls by fellow veteran guard Head and Deron Williams, abetted by the heroic offensive rebounding of undersize senior frontline players Roger Powell and Jack Ingram. When less-talented teams win titles -- and despite its number-one ranking, the Illini were dramatically less talented than Roy Williams' roster of NBA players-in-waiting -- it's always a player like Ingram who turns in the performance of his career.

But the Illini would not score in the final two minutes. Two threes by Williams, so cool under pressure throughout the tourney, hit the back iron, and an errant pass by the gutsy Head found its way into the hands of opposing point guard Raymond Felton to seal the Illini's fate.

Outside the locker room after the game, a holding pen of broadcast media not-so-patiently awaited permission to enter the losers' den. So intent were they upon capturing the "spontaneous" agony of defeat, they all but ignored such prominent passersby as coach Bruce Weber, Deron Williams, Head and teary-eyed national player of the year Dee Brown, who looked the most demoralized of them all as he was shuttled via golf cart to the interview room alongside his backcourt mates.

Unreal passed the NYT's William C. Rhoden on the walk to the interview room. Munching on some baked goods, Rhoden eschewed the losers' last words in favor of the powder-blue celebration still transpiring out on the court. In the somber interview room, reporters lobbed softballs to Weber and his trio -- "Your fans were really great, weren't they?" Only the P-D's Bryan Burwell approached anything resembling the heart of the matter, essentially asking Weber how he consoles a player like Head who more or less chokes away a big game.

"I cried, he cried. And I hugged him," replied the coach, cementing his status as a genteel New Age standard bearer for the post-Bobby Knight era.

Weber, who'd presided over the Illinois bench in a fabulously tacky orange blazer, was then asked about the performance of center James Augustine, who managed to foul out in a mere nine minutes of floor time, netting zero points and setting the stage for fill-in Ingram's unlikely heroics.

Said Weber: "James is not gonna have great memories of St. Louis."

Nor will fans and players who struck out for the Arch from Louisville and East Lansing. Yes, for all the adoration the NCAA publicly showered upon the host city, St. Louis is destined to be remembered as a basketball crime scene by many who took part in the weekend's festivities.

But not Unreal.

As midnight approached, a group of Tar Heel rowdies blocked traffic on Fourth Street in front of the Adam's Mark Hotel, awaiting the arrival of the champs' bus. Right about then, noticing the incipient symptoms of a spring flu, Unreal felt more kinship with the passed-out Illini fan we'd seen being tended to by emergency medics outside the Morgan Street Brewery on the Landing.

In a few days downtown will slumber once more. A sea of Cardinal red will descend upon Busch Stadium one final time to root on the boys of summer. Then the Rams, our carpetbaggers of the gridiron, will punctuate fall's weekends at the Dome. Winter will herald the return of the moribund NHL, sharing Savvis Center space with the basketball Billikens as Saint Louis University continues its struggle to finance its own new arena.

And there Unreal will be, solitary and sober, at a table not far from the visitors' bench, pining for the very Madness that landed us in the infirmary.