Between St. Patrick's Day, Super Sunday and a slew of community and charity events in the days since, you can be forgiven for forgetting that the NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four will be coming to New Orleans March 30-Apr. 2. Downtown New Orleans is about to be the site of a basketball spectacle on a scale not seen before in the Crescent City.
New Orleans has hosted the Final Four on four other occasions, most recently in 2003, a tournament that began with coverage preempted by the start of the Iraq War and finished with Carmelo Anthony leading Syracuse University to the school's first national title. Nearly a decade later, the tournament has only gotten bigger (four games were added last year), more lucrative (the television rights alone cost $500 million) and more ubiquitous (you can watch every game on digital cable or streaming online). There's a reason it's the Big Dance, and that's not even mentioning the 67 games spanning 12 cities over 18 days that lead up to the finals.
The tournament can be a dizzying affair. Luckily, all New Orleanians have to worry about is what to expect as the city is flooded with national media, corporate sponsors and fans from four different universities over three days. With the BCS National Championship recently concluded and the Super Bowl coming up in 2013, everyone expects New Orleans to be a great host city for big-time sports. But unlike the two football games — with LSU playing for a championship this year and the possibility of the New Orleans Saints hosting one next year — local interest isn't as strong unless you're a diehard sports fan or an alumnus of one of the competing schools.
Fan of college basketball or not, the tournament and all its spectacle will come to a head over April Fool's weekend, and we need to be ready. In the spirit of college, we bring you a brief syllabus and some crib notes ....
Final Four and New Orleans 101
After this year, only five other cities will have hosted the end of the Big Dance as many or more times as New Orleans. and from a history standpoint, we hardly disappoint. The first Final Four New Orleans hosted, in 1982, had a final that went down to the last seconds and featured three future Pro Basketball Hall of Fame players (Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Patrick Ewing). The 1987 tournament had another thrilling one-point game in the final, marked the introduction of 3-point shot and was the first time CBS used its now-iconic "One Shining Moment" tournament epilogue.
The 1993 final will be remembered for Michigan's "Fab Five" freshmen team, which could have won a national title if Chris Webber didn't call a timeout in the closing seconds — a timeout that the Wolverines didn't have. (Not that the win would have counted, as Michigan's entire season was later vacated after it was revealed that Webber received improper benefits from a booster.)
Though coverage of the 2003 tournament was partially obscured by CBS' continuing coverage of the Iraq War, the final featured two future Hall of Fame coaches — Roy Williams of the University of Kansas and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse University — and a game that came down to Syracuse's Hakim Warrick blocking a Kansas three-point attempt with less than a second remaining in the game.
At press time, the New Orleans Hornets were the third-worst team in the National Basketball Association (NBA), giving them a 15.6 percent chance of drawing the number one pick in the league's draft lottery and a guarantee of getting no worse than the sixth selection. On top of that, New Orleans also has the Minnesota Timberwolves' first-round pick thanks to last fall's trade of superstar Chris Paul. The Wolves are currently outside the NBA playoff picture looking in, meaning the Hornets could get two out of the first 14 draft picks.
What does this have to do with the NCAA tournament? Plenty. The Universities of Kentucky and North Carolina, both favorites to make it to the Crescent City, have four players that many scouts believe could be lottery picks in three months. The guy everyone wants is Kentucky's Anthony Davis, the six-foot-ten-inch power forward with the seven-foot-six-inch wingspan, but his teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is no slouch at small forward. UNC also sports a pair of dynamic and highly coveted forwards in Harrison Barnes and John Henson. But no matter what picks the Hornets get and who they choose to get with them, there's a high probability that at least one of the players in this year's Final Four will be in a Hornets uniform next season.
Master's Seminar in Public Works
Unlike the SEC men's basketball tournament (which New Orleans hosted in early March), the Final Four will take place at the Superdome and not the New Orleans Arena. This increases the crowd capacity for the final game but also means the Superdome has to undergo a major transformation from a stadium to a basketball arena.
This year, the court will be installed at the center of the Superdome floor, with 17,000 lower-bowl seats being built around it. This configuration will accommodate more than 74,000 fans. The transformation was marked by a "court-cutting" ceremony in which the tournament floor was, in true New Orleans fashion, paraded from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to the Superdome.
That doesn't even include "Bracket Town," which will be set up in the Convention Center and the 3,000 volunteer workers at all the tournament event sites and hotels. There are also 12 official NCAA corporate sponsors which will be looking to make a mark through product reps and ad placement.
All this means that much of the area surrounding the Superdome and Convention Center will be altered that weekend, and with the increased crowds and the new streetcar line on Loyola Avenue under construction, expect a lot of traffic. Any city that can successfully pull this off without turning downtown into a mess of gridlock and mayhem deserves an honorary doctorate degree. And a drink.
If following the college games, the Hornets or attending any of the tourney's auxiliary events isn't your cup of tea, you'll still have something to consider every time you see an out-of-town fan or a Final Four sign downtown. Right now the NCAA is under the harshest level of scrutiny it's ever faced since it was formed more than 100 years ago. For years, the NCAA has made billions of dollars in revenues from the men's basketball tournament — and the players who are the main attraction haven't seen a cent of it. Several lawsuits against the NCAA, including one featuring Hall of Famer Bill Russell as lead plaintiff, are making their way through federal court and there's a good chance the outcome of those suits could dramatically alter how the NCAA operates.
The lawsuits come as the tournament's revenues and exposure have increased. College athletes are a huge unpaid labor force and men's basketball players are the most lucrative attraction. Serious questions have been raised in the pages of The Atlantic and The New York Times about the legitimacy of institutions of higher learning profiting off those unpaid athletes in return for scholarships that must be renewed on a year-to-year basis and can be terminated on a coach's whim.
Reacting to the criticisms, NCAA president Mark Emmert tried to institute new rules that mandated schools provide $2,000 stipends and four-year scholarships to athletes, but he was challenged by member schools. Because of that, we won't know what, how, when or even if any significant rule changes will be put in place until after the tournament at the NCAA's annual convention in April. All in all, though, the current system has proven unsustainable and, one way or another, this may be the last time New Orleans hosts the Final Four — at least in its current incarnation. Enjoy it while it's here.