Mason passion wears well in Indianapolis

April 01, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS -- On Thursday night, it didn't look as if the George Mason faithful would be represented at the site of the Final Four in any comparable way with the other three national championship contenders. Nor did it look as if the apparel stores had to worry about their skimpy stock of Patriots gear running out.

Yesterday, that was all proved wrong.

Mason is here, and if there aren't enough T-shirts, caps and giant foam fingers to go around, then so be it. With the shortest distance to go to get to Indianapolis, the fans showed up last, but not quietly.

More important, they're finding fellow supporters emerging from anywhere their alumnus have landed - and from any corner of the country that loves the underdog. At the practices and press conferences at RCA Dome yesterday, the phrase "America's Team" wasn't taken lightly, and it might have diminished the widespread appeal of the longest shot ever to reach the last weekend of the men's college basketball season.

"We've gotten e-mails from Japan from fans pulling for us, alumni and just fans who love what we've done," said George Mason president Alan Merten in a Dome hallway, as coach Jim Larranaga sat nearby and told the national media the familiar stories of how he and his team got here. "Alumni in Europe are setting up viewing parties for [tonight's] game. It's a story that keeps on giving."

The Dome stands yesterday were awash in purple (for LSU), orange (Florida) and blue (UCLA), as well as red for the state's dominant program, Indiana. But in every section, green and gold popped up in various shades and combinations, including pompoms worn as wigs by students who managed to get a day off from classes - granted, in many cases, by faculty and staffers making the trip themselves.

They drove all night and all day yesterday, some after standing in lines that stretched a mile for student tickets during the week, some with no tickets and not much of a chance of getting them. They crammed into cars and vans, and planned to sleep seven to a room if necessary.

"We brought blow-up mattresses with us," said junior Melissa Hunter, who claimed that her contingent was one of the first to make it to Indy yesterday, "so it won't be too bad."

Students were hardly the only Mason supporters roaming the city. Partly because one of the George Mason players, reserve guard Jordan Carter, is an Indianapolis native, and partly because it's the nearest school geographically, plenty of fans were there to pull for the Patriots. And, again, as one fan near the railing behind one of the baskets yesterday said, "You've got to pull for Cinderella."

Many of the fans already had their shirts and sweats with the Patriots logo, and in some cases the Final Four logo - which put them ahead of thousands upon thousands who are, and will be, left without their team's gear this weekend. Local stores clearly underestimated the support for America's Team; supplies for the other teams were far more available.

A day earlier, with fans from the other teams staggering about shouting in much larger numbers, that didn't seem to be a problem. But there was a hint of what was coming. At a sports cap store on the concourse of the Indianapolis airport, a rack displayed hats featuring all four team logos, and hats for LSU, Florida and UCLA. Conspicuously missing was a George Mason cap.

"But everyone's been asking about it," the store manager said. "The downtown store is supposed to have their stuff. I think we'd better get some here."

It wasn't going to be easy. "A lot of retailers are scrambling to get product in," said Aaron Colbren, a representative for Collegiate Licensing Company, which produced official Final Four apparel.

Because interest in George Mason gear leaped from purely school-focused to practically worldwide, demand has shot toward the heavens. Lines at the campus bookstore snaked out of the building and around it all week. The online store started promising deliveries in seven to 10 days, instead of its usual one or two.

The hottest rumor around the Dome yesterday was that George Mason gear was outselling that of the other three schools by 800 percent. That one was true, said Colbren, the licensing rep; his company had been told that by the NCAA's online sellers. It also reported that Mason was selling 200 percent more than had been sold for eventual champ North Carolina at last year's Final Four.

"I saw it firsthand. I was in the [campus] store tearing open boxes and separating shirts to help get them out," Colbren said. "They were looking for all the help they could get."

By tonight's tip-off, George Mason - small school, mid-major, long shot - will be represented. At the Dome, around the country and the world - in a major way.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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