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St. Pete Scenes

I'm just a citizen of Hoop City

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Posted: Monday March 29, 1999 05:11 PM

By Dan Shanoff, CNN/SI

TAMPA, Fla. -- The clock read ":01," then the horn sounded as a pull-up jumper from 16 feet fell way short of the rim.

There would be no 1982 national title for freshman Michael Jordan and North Carolina. I had ensured that. And Hoop City, the NCAA's interactive, fan-friendly basketball Mecca, had claimed another victim.

Fans making the pilgrimage to the Final Four -- and this year, "no-sleep-'til-St. Pete" road trips started in distant points like East Lansing, Mich., and Storrs, Conn. -- came to town looking for more than just a game. In Hoop City, the NCAA and its coaches provided an easygoing atmosphere of accessibility and accommodation.

Throughout the Final Four, from events as formal as the NABC All-Star Game to chance meetings on a sidewalk, players and coaches went out of their way to please eager fans, especially kids, signing autographs and posing for photos. Call it the anti-NBA.

Constructed at the Tampa Convention Center with the driveway-hoops dreamer in mind, Hoop City was a lot of fun, if one could get past the blinding corporate sponsorship signage -- and had the patience of a coach in a rebuilding year to wait in long lines. A half-dozen or so interactive tests of skill (or lack of same) and various other information booths wrapped around a full-length court where coaches like Mike Jarvis and Gene Keady put on free clinics for kids.

Let's take a quick -- and humiliating -- tour:

  • Starting on "John Wooden Way," take 30 seconds to re-live the playground adventure that is "Around the World." (One shot made out of seven tries from seven spots. No sweat. A 10-year-old just beat my score.)

  • Head right, to a free-throw shooting setup -- three shots to find your groove, then you can stay as long as you keep making your shots. The Wizard would approve. (But he would gag on my four-shots-and-out performance. Continuing a trend, some high school kid next to me drained 18 in a row.)

  • Other coaches deemed street-worthy include Henry Iba, Phog Allen and Clarence "Bighouse" Gaines. (What, no "Krzyzewski Shtreet?") Hang a right on "Adolph Rupp Road," then turn right again on "Dean Smith Street." Symbolically, that's the intersection where you can torture MJ's sweet 1982 jumper, or Indiana hero Keith Smart's 1987 baseline winner, or Charlotte Smith's 1994 buzzer-beater for UNC (extra points for mixing in a women's hoops moment), or Christian Laettner's 1992 turnaround miracle for Duke. (A realistic touch would have been to add a dummy in a Kentucky uniform on the floor that you could step on before shooting.) With 20 seconds to make as many of these last-second shots as you can, many armchair fans come to the realization that -- despite their "I-can-do-that" yelps at the TV -- the reality is they can not. (I was oh-for my 20 seconds.)

  • Farther down Smith Street are two related, equally revealing, skill tests -- the hang-time clock and the slam-dunk area. The hang-time test uses a computer sensor to gauge how long you stay in the air on the way to the basket. Not very long, apparently, for most people. A few minutes of observation yields the conclusion that people just can't fly. The longest recorded jump at the time was 1.1 seconds, forever compared to my .44. (I never said the back of my jersey read "Vince Carter.")

  • The slam-dunk area was more to a fan's liking, especially the seven-foot-high rims. Volunteers working the floor couldn't explain why they bothered putting up a 10-foot rim, because they said no one ever tried to dunk on it. Most adults tried the seven- and eight-foot heights, while kids ate up the five- and six-footers. Finally, an activity I could actually complete. Carla, an attendant from Tampa, asked me if I wanted a regulation men's ball. I tried it and was rejected by the rim. ("Women's ball, please.") The smaller ball helped, but as enjoyable as it is for a ground-bound player (see hang-time, above) to throw one down, the volunteers were the only ones who were laughing.

  • Naismith Boulevard is defined by two activities the doctor probably didn't think of -- a longest-shot area and a three-point contest. Earlier in the weekend, some guy hit a shot from 70 feet. Most people try from 30, the measurement marked nearest to the basket, and have a tough time hitting rim.

  • Three-point shooting contests could be the most underappreciated competitions in the sport, probably because every YMCA chucker thinks he's Steve Alford. Hoop City set up three racks of four balls at three points around the arc. Given 30 seconds, most people don't get off all 12 possible shots, let alone hit many. For comparison, Arizona's Jason Terry, who won an all-star three-point shooting contest at the Ice Palace on Thursday night, had a minute to shoot five racks of five balls each. Accuracy aside, the hardest thing is merely getting to all the shots and not becoming fatigued near the end.

All of these tests of "skill" are completed under the harsh spotlight and unrelenting analysis of fellow fans waiting in line -- sometimes up to a half-hour or more. Any attempts at showmanship or witty banter with volunteers is met with glares and muttering by fans.

The NCAA pushed all the right buttons in selecting the different contests. The hall was spacious, and quickly filled with fans at the start of each day. Coaches running clinics or participating in autograph sessions were engaging. But after working up a sweat during the various games, fans would have been better served with a few more free water stations.

Check back for more St. Pete Scenes as CNN/SI covers the Final Four from St. Petersburg, Fla.

Related information
St. Pete Scenes: The view from the Hoop Summit
Rating the UConn-Duke matchups
Sports Illustrated Preview: Duke vs. UConn
The Dance at a Glance: It's down to two
St. Pete Scenes: Diary of a ticket jockey
Spotlight of the Day: Shane Battier
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