My Tourney Trip: From Phantom Row to Front Row

Gene ZarnickCorrespondent IMarch 29, 2011

Gus Johnson Posing for a Pic in Front of Me
Gus Johnson Posing for a Pic in Front of Me

It’s amazing how much can change in a single year.

Last year, my Dad and I were first row upper deck for the NCAA Tournament.

This year, we were first row from the court.

If you had the chance to read my tournament trip column from last year, then you’ll understand just how much has actually changed in my life.

I’ve got a new job and a new state of residence.  I’m living in my own place without my family or best friends around.

Though it’s been a big change, everything has been positive.

Not that I wouldn’t want to live closer to my friends or family, but I understand that with new changes come new opportunities.  Change is always unnerving, but sometimes it’s goodor should I say greatwhen things change.

After my father and I traveled to Buffalo last year for the NCAA tournament, I was already planning for the next tourney trip the following year. 

Last April, I received a presale offer from Ticketmaster to get first dibs on NCAA tournament tickets in Cleveland.  I jumped right on the offer.

I purchased two tickets for all three sessions, added $500 to my credit card, and I waited nearly 11 full months to find out which seats I was going to get.

When the tickets arrived, my parents called me to let me know the seats were in Section 113, Row 10.

I’ve sat in The Q plenty of times, so I knew that lower level seats in the corner would be great.

Wednesday, March 16th, I left work around 2 p.m. en route to Erie, PA; a solid 500 mile drive that I’ve been able to master in a little less than 7 hours.  Thursday I worked from home so that I’d be able to watch the games all daywhile attending all my meetings of course.

When I finally went to bed on Thursday night, I felt like I was eight years old again; going to sleep knowing that the next day I’d be headed to Disney World.

Cleveland, Disney World, they’re pretty much the same place.

My Dad and I left Erie around 10:30 a.m. to head to our hotel in downtown Cleveland.  We got pre-checked in and parked atop the parking garage around 12:30 p.m.  I had planned to go out to lunch to catch the earlier games on TV, but every place we stopped at was extremely crowded.

Our best bet was to enter the arena and pay the inflated prices for food inside. 

Once in, we decided to go to our seats first; I wanted to check them out, my Dad probably just wanted to take his coat off.  We walked through Section 113 and started heading down the stairs; the last row there was 11.  Very odd, considering that my tickets said Row 10.

We asked the usher, who instructed us to sit in row 10.  Of course this was row 10 in Section 114, and an entire family would descend upon us nearly 50 minutes later, once the game had already started.

Again we spoke to an usher.  This one at least understood the mishap going on and decided to call his supervisor.  We waited another 20 minutes for the supervisor to arrive while we watched the game from some nearby empty seats.

I didn’t know what was going happen.  I was just ready to get some actual seats because I didn’t want this musical chairs fiasco to keep reccurring in the upcoming sessions.

It didn’t.

Instead, we were moved to the front row, seats 1 and 2, right on the court behind the two rows of media members.

I was in awe.  I’m still in awe.

The seats were pretty solid before, but now, amazing!  I’m 10 feet from the court and can hear the players talking to one another.  Gus Johnson is walking by me at every halftime and before and after every game.  I even had the Ohio State Buck-I-Guy sit a row behind me.

I guess dreams do come true.

If the seats weren’t already great enough, I got to experience one of the best games of the tournament when George Mason came back from 10 points down with less than four minutes left to defeat Villanova in a thriller.

The game was exhilarating. 

My Dad, who I assume still hasn’t watched another college basketball game since last year in Buffalo, was actually yelling at players for taking bad shots and cheering raucously like everyone else in the crowd.

Those moments are exactly what the NCAA Tournament is all about.

During halftime of the Ohio State/University of Texas San Antonio game, I decided it would be a good time to get my picture taken with the Buck-I-Guy.

Wrong decision.

Everything was going well to start out; the Buck-I-Guy, decked in his cape, cowboy hat, and usual red mustache was gracious and posed for a picture.  I handed my Dad my phone and instructed him on exactly what to do.

Hold up phone, look on screen to what you’re taking a picture of, and then click the gold button on the side and it will take the picture.  Simpleor so I thought.

Fifteen seconds later, and I have the first five rows of the Ohio State Family and Friends section watching my Dad somehow flip the phone around as he snaps pictures of himself while we’re all watching from the phone’s screen, which is now facing me and the Buck-I-Guy.

I’m laughing over the memorable miscue so much at this point that I dismiss getting my picture taken with the Buck-I-Guy.  No more cameras for my father for the rest of the weekend.

Later that night, I still had two more games to attend.  This time I asked my best friend James, who lives in Cleveland, to join me.  It was difficult, but the entire day I didn’t let him know that the seats would be front row.

I texted him after the first session and told him I had a surprise for him.

James showed up to the arena right around 8 p.m., and I went and delivered him his ticket.  We’re walking towards my section entrance and I tell him to just flip the ticket and tell them Leo sent you.  I could tell he was a little puzzled by this.

We got down to the front row for the night session, and I could see the amazement on his face; the same that had been on mine earlier.  I explain the entire story to him as the game is beginning.

The funniest part of sitting in the front row was that it actually is reserved for media members, but all the media members sit at the tables on the court.  Anybody who tries to sit in the row immediately gets questioned by security and forced to leave.

Speaking of the media members there, why are they there?  Literally 85 percent of reporters sitting in front of me were on Twitter or Facebook the entire weekend.  I mean, I know how necessary it is to sit on the court so I’m able to tweet the whole time.

Back to the story.

For both night games it was just the two of us sitting back and relaxing as others were shunned and told it was for media members only.

A lady behind us from the Indiana State friends and family section asked us if we were media members, which I of course said “yes” to.

I then told her the real story.  She then asked who I was there to see.

This was the surprising thing for me over the weekend.  I had at least 10 different people ask me who I was there to see.

My answer every time: no team.

Am I really the only college basketball fan who goes to the tournament just to enjoy the tournament experience every year?

I don’t know, but people were definitely puzzled when I told them I just loved college basketball.

As James and I enjoyed the games, I asked him what he thought my surprise was.

He said, “A big bag of peanuts.”

The answer was hilarious.  I probably also would have had no clue if my friend had said he had a surprise for me.  I guess a bag of peanuts is conceivable.

We stayed through both games and finally left around 12:30 a.m. to spend the night at James's apartment.

The next morning, I woke up and walked the few blocks to the hotel, just contemplating how unbelievable Friday had been.

Front row seats, great games, amazing endings;  what could be better than that?

It was then that I realized that the day hadn't been great for the reasons mentioned above, but more for the fact that I got to experience the front row seats and amazing endings with my Dad and my best friend.  They would’ve been great on their own, but being able to share them means a lot more than if I would’ve been by myself.

It was the moments like the “peanuts surprise” or the “Buck-I-Guy Snafu” that I cherish the most from that day, and will always remember.

The random looks at one another signifying that we'd seen something amazing, but didn’t have to say it.

Having the security guard kick everyone else out of the row, and knowing what was going to happen as someone new sat down.

Those are the things I will remember.

There were 21,000 other people in the crowd that will remember the spectacular games, but there are only three of us who will remember our experience.

The best part of it all? My Dad and I got to relive the experience on Sunday for two more great games.


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