March Madness

March 30, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA - The competition was fierce, and the tip-off was still a day away.

Vendors had begun their paraphernalia wars, selling $20 T-shirts - and those were the cheap ones - from tents, stands and storefronts. Scalpers were dogging coaches outside the Hilton, offering big bucks - thousands sometimes - for spare tickets. And a new Hooters, just opened Thursday, was giving the Hard Rock Cafe across the street a run for its money.

Thousands of fans heading for the NCAA men's basketball tournament's Final Four poured into Atlanta yesterday - Maryland's fans among them - and were met with healthy doses of free enterprise and Southern hospitality, though it was sometimes hard to distinguish between the two.

"I am just so sorry," said a motel clerk at a Days Inn that was charging Hyatt prices - $199 a night. "We didn't have any choice."

Those who came without tickets were subject to far more brutal gouging. Tickets - with a face value of $120 to $160 for all three games - were, in some cases, fetching upward of $3,000.

"I've already spent $3,000, and I just got here last night," said Ken Bell, 31, a 1991 University of Maryland graduate who flew from his home in Tampa for the finals. And he doesn't even have tickets yet.

Bell, wearing a Maryland T-shirt and a Maryland banner draped over his head beneath his Maryland cap, said he spent $5,000 at the Final Four last year. "I have a lot of people to shop for," he said, a bag of souvenirs at his side as he watched the teams practice in the Georgia Dome yesterday.

A psychology major at Maryland who now sells advertising, Bell said he paid $1,000 for his tickets last year and this year will spend "whatever it takes - within reason."

Walter DuPriest, a junior majoring in studio arts, got to Atlanta Thursday with two friends after spending spring break in Panama City, Fla. DuPriest, who is from Atlanta, said he might be getting tickets from "a friend with connections." Otherwise, he said, "it's just a matter of what we want to pay. We're fired up, though. This is really exciting."

The Atlanta Sports Council projects the Final Four will bring $50 million into the city, which has doubled in size since it last had the event in 1977. The price of a ticket then, $14, isn't enough to buy a respectable souvenir now.

But there were plenty to be had.

"A lot of time people think this is all about the money," said Ron Brovold of Minneapolis, working for a company that had set up temporarily inside a closed-down Planet Hollywood downtown, renaming it the Planet Final Four Superstore. "It's not. It's just fun. It's just one big celebration. It's like we're all one big family."

Across the street was the Hard Rock Cafe, and across from that was the new Hooters, where, for its serendipitously timed grand opening, waitresses in scanty outfits stood outside and worked their hula hoops to attract customers.

Asked if there were any Maryland fans inside, a Hooters hostess couldn't contain her enthusiasm. "Oh, my God, I'm a huge fan! I've seen all her movies ... Oh, wait, you mean the state? I thought you meant Marilyn Monroe."

At the Hard Rock, a hostess smiled when she heard the story about the new competition.

"Well, they don't hire them for their brains, honey."

Downtown businesses like the Hard Rock, and bars and restaurants in the rollicking entertainment district north of downtown, known as Buckhead, expect to pull in huge crowds for the weekend.

"I was last here 30 years ago, and this is nothing like I remember it," Gordon Williams, wearing a Maryland Final Four sweatshirt from last year, said as he strolled down Buckhead's main drag, where dry ice smoke and soap bubbles spewed out of clubs with names like Uranus, Tongue & Groove and Chaos, and club employees handed out beads, whistles and fliers.

"This is pretty wild," said Williams, from Gaithersburg, who got his tickets through the Terrapin Club, a group of Maryland's bigtime athletic boosters.

With Maryland students on spring break this week, most did not arrive until Friday in Atlanta, where at least two "Welcome to Garyland" billboards, sponsored by "Team Terrapin," were spotted, honoring coach Gary Williams. The Terrapin Club, which funds athletic scholarships, received nearly 3,400 of the 4,500 tickets made available to the university by the NCAA. Terrapin Club members who have donated at least $2,000 were guaranteed tickets.

Of the 1,100 remaining tickets, 450 went to students and were distributed through a lottery last week. The rest are held for university and team officials, band members and others.

About 20,000 tickets are distributed by the NCAA to the National Association of Basketball Coaches (3,500), athletic directors (3,500), NCAA governing members, broadcast partners, sponsors and the local organizing committee.

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