Except that the Alamo Rangers thought he looked too goofy, and he got the bum's rush from the property, much as he was ushered away from the St. Louis Arch by national park rangers during the Midwest Regional. It seems the Tree lacked sufficient gravitas to visit famous U.S. monuments, including the Alamo, in front of which were parked satellite trucks and Slurpee stands. The Budweiser blimp hovered overhead.
Inside the Alamo a plaque that was dedicated on March 2, 1927, reads THAT THE SACRED SHRINE BE SAVED FROM THE ENCROACHMENTS OF COMMERCIALISM. Few such encroachments have been made, if you discount the Alamo Strip-A-Dancer, Alamo Sewer Service, Alamo Pawn Shop, Alamo Escorts, Alamo Funeral Home, Alamo Bail Bonds, Alamo Eviction Services, Alamo RV Center, Alamo Wigs & Things, Alamo Meat Market, Alamo Urology Associates and roughly 500 other nearby businesses that have taken their names from the shrine in whose flourishing gift shop the Tree had purchased his coonskin cap in the first place.
So the Tree had to make do performing on court last Saturday at the Alamodome. "I can't believe we're here," Stanford alumnus and erstwhile NFL quarterback Jim Plunkett confessed to the Tree when he happened upon him. Well, who could? After all, it was Stanford's first Final Four appearance since 1942. "I couldn't have picked a better year to be Tree," said Merrill, before the Cardinal's heartbreaking overtime loss to Kentucky. The game marked the end of his one-year term as Tree, an office he will vacate this week. As he reflected wistfully on the past 12 months, a tear appeared to form on his bark. Though, truthfully speaking, it may have just been sap.
But you get the point. Tempus fugit. Time flies. No one knows this better than Jim Wilcher, who—along with his wife, Robin-occupied the two worst seats in the Alamo-dome last weekend. Section 315, Row 27 is actually behind the blue curtain that separates the court from the rest of the cavernous arena. "I work for Louisville National Cemetery," said Jim, a Kentucky fan. "I'm in the death-care business."
Whereupon two eavesdropping men seated directly in front of him turned and said cheerily, "We're in the funeral home business!" John Mitchell (Mitchell-Wiedefeld Funeral Home of Baltimore) and Michael Marzullo (Marzullo Funeral Service of Upperco, Md.) had found a new friend for life—and possibly beyond. That, ultimately, is what the Final Four was all about.
For some reason, the fleeting nature of life was on everyone's mind. You have never seen so many diems being carped as you did in San Antonio. Utah forward Brit-ton Johnsen strolled the Riverwalk in a T-shirt that read, WE MAY NEVER PASS THIS WAY AGAIN. (North Carolina guard Shammond Williams should have worn a shirt that said, I MAY NEVER PASS AGAIN, but that's another story.) Majerus said, "I don't know if I'll ever get back here again. Probably not." Kentucky star Jeff Sheppard, asked about his NBA prospects, said, "Coach has taught us to live in a 'precious present.' I'm a college student right now and enjoying that."
Well, amen. The NBA will never be like this: At 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, after his team's loss to Utah, Antawn Jamison, the National Player of the Year, sat with his family on the empty deck of a Riverwalk restaurant while, 20 feet away, Utah cheerleaders loudly celebrated inside, singing and dancing to a Polynesian wedding song. Jamison had just been watched on television in about 11 million households, but now he went all but unnoticed, in a backward baseball cap, slumped in a seat, looking Carolina blue.
But his little brother, 11-year-old Albert Jr., sat next to him, and he appeared to remain resolutely a fan, what with his still wearing a number 33 ANTAWN JAMISON Carolina jersey and all. After the Tar Heels' 14-point loss to North Carolina State in February. Albert Jr. had burst into the team's funereal locker room, surveyed the scene and shouted, "Hey, y'all! Get your heads up! Stop sittin' there all quiet and all! You're still goin' to win the national championship!" And the locker room busted up laughing at this smaller, rounder, more impertinent Jamison, who has the same iron-filing eyebrows as his famous brother.
So again on Saturday night-Sunday morning in San Antonio, at the Rio Rio Cantina restaurant, Albert Jr. tried to make his big brother's eyebrows dance a little bit with laughter. Sure, a national championship was no longer possible. But Jamison, a junior, did seem to want to seize the night. He had the presence of mind to kiss the court at the Alamodome when the final horn sounded, for no other reason than he may go into the NBA draft, and he had a sudden awareness that he may never pass this way again.
Sure, he will come to San Antonio on NBA road trips. But it's likely he will never feel so empty in the NBA as he did on this night. There will be nothing as interesting or intense, as weird, awful or all of the above, as college basketball's Final Four.