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Navigating the sea of sweatsuits

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Posted: Thursday March 30, 2000 05:54 PM


By B.J. Schecter, Sports Illustrated

INDIANAPOLIS -- The games are a couple of days away, but the city is already buzzing in anticipation of a dramatic conclusion to what has been the most bizarre NCAA tournament in years.

No press conferences have been held, no clichés yet uttered, but the madness has already begun. As I walk down the streets of the city that is affectionately referred to as the "amateur sports capital of the world," I can't go more than two feet without seeing a sea of coaches in sweatsuits. And I can't even look up without being harassed by ticket scalpers.

So from now on I'm going to wear a sign around my neck with the following message: I DON'T HAVE TICKETS AND IF I DID I WOULDN'T SELL THEM TO YOU. As a matter of fact, I'm going to put the sign on right now in case there's a sleazy scalper hiding out in my room.

On Wednesday night, I had dinner at St. Elmo Steak House with SI colleagues Alex Wolff and Seth Davis, and the always witty and entertaining Charlie Pierce of Esquire magazine. Sitting next to us were the CBS folks, and every time we looked up we saw a different coach or member of the media.

Yes, sir, St. Elmo is the place to see and be seen in Indy. Known for its 32-ounce prime rib (my boy Seth valiantly tried to attack the cow he was served but was defeated before he finished the first pound) and the killer horseradish in the shrimp cocktail (you should see the tears pouring out of people's eyes after the first bite), St. Elmo is the schmooze capital of the Final Four.

Even if you don't feel like waiting for a table, have a drink at the bar and you will be treated to a wonderfully entertaining show. There are smooth operators here, and there are amateurs. Here's how to tell the difference: A smooth operator will look you in the eye and carry on a conversation for more than 30 seconds; an amateur will greet you with a weak handshake, all the while looking over your shoulder in an attempt to try to find someone more important to talk to.

In any event, my dinner party and I were greeted by both as we attempted to leave the restaurant after our coronary-waiting-to-happen of a meal. A quick word of warning: At St. Elmo it's not easy to leave. From the time we actually moved away from our table, it took us 45 minutes before we were out the door.

If steak isn't for you, don't fear. You can still get a taste of the Final Four, even if you don't have a ticket to the games. Walk in to the lobby of the Indiana Convention Center -- which is adjacent to the RCA Dome -- as I did on Thursday afternoon.

It's an experience, fresh with coaches wearing every type of sweatsuit known to man. There are smooth operators and amateurs here, too. The smooth ones stand in a corner and wait to be approached, while the amateurs pass out their business card like those guys on the streets of Manhattan handing out fliers hawking men's suits.

The dialogue and level of schmoozing are the same here.

"Hey, coach"

"Right on, coach."

"Great to see you, coach."

"Tremendous job with your team this year, coach."

The butt-kissing is nauseating, but it is what makes this the Final Four. You really have to see it to believe it.

I don't think I'm going back to St. Elmo, though, and you won't find me hanging out in the lobby of the coaches' hotel.

In fact, I'm actually looking forward to sitting in one of those press conferences where all the coaches say, "Whoever executes and plays the best defense will win," and all the players respond to every question by first saying, "We just have to take it one game at a time."

Sure, I might fall asleep, but at least I wouldn't have to take a shower afterward.

B.J. Schecter is a Sports Illustrated writer-reporter. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer.

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