Baltimore Police Officer Dino Gregory Sr. can't afford… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
COLLEGE PARK — Few people yearn to attend the NCAA men's basketball tournament as much as Dino Gregory Sr.
It's not only that the Baltimore police officer is a fan and former college player. It's that his son, also named Dino, will be playing for Maryland when the Terrapins begin the tournament Friday night, some 2,475 miles away in Spokane, Wash.
But like many frustrated fans, Gregory will be watching on television when the game tips off. "I can't afford it, man. Nobody wants to be at the game more than me," he said. "But you can't get those discount flights because of short notice. And I work for the Police Department, and it's hard to get the days off."
The NCAA tournament is testing fans' loyalty - and their budgets in tight economic times - as Maryland and Morgan State supporters ask themselves whether it is March Madness to drive hours by bus before sunrise (as Morgan fans are doing) or spend upward of $1,000 or more (as Maryland fans must) to see their teams play in far-flung sites.
Last season, Maryland was dispatched halfway across the country, to Kansas City, Mo., for the tournament. This year, the NCAA sent the fourth-seeded Terps the rest of the way - all the way to Spokane. Maryland will face Houston, a No. 13 seed,.
"I guess tournaments aren't set up for parents who work," said Kaona Milbourne, a Georgia hair stylist and the mother of Maryland starter Landon Milbourne. She said the airfare was beyond her means because the game sites and times were announced Sunday, and she couldn't qualify for an advance-purchase ticket.
Morgan State will play in Buffalo, N.Y. By early Tuesday afternoon, about 50 Bears fans had paid $130 each for a ticket and a seat on a bus that will leave campus for the roughly eight-hour trip at 4 a.m. Friday. Fifteenth-seeded Morgan State faces No. 2 seed West Virginia at 12:15 p.m.
The NCAA schedules have caused fans and players' families to make painstaking calculations about how much they can commit in time and money. In many cases, hard reality is winning the mental tug of war.
"I would have considered traveling to anything east of the Mississippi River or a major city on the West Coast, but Spokane is too difficult or expensive to consider, " said Terps season-ticket holder Fabian Jiminez, a systems analyst from Potomac. "I have my first son hitting [Maryland] in the fall, thus spending close to [$1,000] to see an opening-round game is out of the question."
John Bowie had a different sort of decision to make. The father of Maryland guard Adrian Bowie recently fell on ice and fractured his ankle.
"The doctor said it wouldn't be a good idea to fly with a broken ankle," the elder Bowie said. So he sweated out Selection Sunday, hoping the Terps would be sent "somewhere I could have driven to. If we would have stayed on the East Coast, I would have been there for sure."
The closest opening-round sites - there are eight overall - include Providence, R.I., Buffalo and Jacksonville, Fla.
After also playing in Kansas City last season, Morgan State considered itself fortunate to be at a site this year that fans could bus to - even if they have to wake up in the middle of the night to get to the game. "When it comes to being in the NCAA tournament, we're die-hards," said Morgan State alumni relations director Joyce Brown.
The NCAA says it does its best to accommodate fans, but that keeping teams close to campus at tournament time can be a difficult proposition.
"We look at the history of the last several years to determine if, in fact, a team has been, for lack of a better word, disenfranchised," said Dan Guerrero, the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee chairman.
But Guerrero said things become complicated "when you have muiltiple teams from the same conference" in the tournament because those teams can't be bunched together into the same sites. There are six teams in the tournament from the Atlantic Coast Conference, Maryland's league. Morgan State is the only representative from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
By midafternoon Tuesday, Maryland said it had just over 100 tickets to sell from its allotment of 550. Morgan State said it was still determining how many tickets its fans needed.
Not all Maryland fans were disappointed to see the Terps heading so far from campus.
Terps fan Lee Huber, a graphic designer, lives in Montana and plans to drive about five hours to the game.
"I know there must have been 1,000 people in Maryland angry about them getting sent out here," Huber said. "But to me, it was great."