It's surrealistic," Utah coach Rick Majerus said last week of being in the Final Four, and that was before I a Stanford sophomore in a Kevlar-and-rayon tree costume was chased away from the Alamo by gun-toting Alamo Rangers. "We have bylaws," drawled one law-enforcement official on the scene. "I mean, look at him. He's in a coonskin cap."
While it's true that the Tree was wearing a stapled-on coonskin cap at the time, not to mention complimentary Air Jordans, per his endorsement deal with Nike...well, perhaps we should revisit this incident later. Suffice it to say that everything is surreal at the Final Four, the only basketball gathering in the world at which even the coaches suffer multiple floor burns and a reporter can earnestly ask a tree, "If you were a person, what kind of person would you be?"
First, about the floor burns. In San Antonio last week, coaches slept four or five to a single room at the Hyatt, which was hosting the annual convention of the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC). This didn't approach the record set at the 1989 Final Four in Seattle, where 15 cheap coaches bivouacked on the floor in a room at the Sheraton. Still, countless coaches awoke last week to see Nikes sticking out of sweat suits sticking out from under scores of lumpy blankets on the floor, so that hotel rooms looked uncannily like the headquarters of the Heaven's Gate cult.
As for the sweat suits and sneakers, everyone is in a sweat suit and sneakers at the Final Four. The Final Four is Sweat Suit Nation. The rank and file of the NABC are low-salaried high school and college coaches happy to wear whatever complimentary apparel is handed out by shoe companies, which were omnipresent in San Antonio. Thus the corollary: The larger the salary, the more lavishly attired in nonsweat-related garb a coach can afford to be. So prominent coaches wore manifold accessories, which sent the same swaggering message that points do on deer antlers.
UNLV coach Billy Bayno sauntered along San Antonio's famous Riverwalk after dark in crushed-velvet loafers with gold buckles, no socks, triple-pleated chenille trousers, silk T-shirt, royal-blue sport coat, multiple gold-rope necklaces, bracelet, cigar and cell phone. ("We didn't get any looks tonight," North Carolina forward Antawn Jamison said after the Tar Heels lost to Utah last Saturday night. Maybe not, but Bayno must have gotten plenty of them all week.)
Like those Heaven's Gate cultists, conventioneering coaches were all looking to "go to the next level"—in this case, from Division II to Division I or from Division I to the NBA. The NABC convention is a job fair for career-climbing coaches, who "do the lobby" (coachspeak for networking in the Hyatt) while giving one another the "Division I stare," which is to say, looking past a colleague while shaking his hand and scanning the room for more powerful people to suck up to.
This leads to all manner of dubious bonhomie. "I saw [Northwestern State coach] J.D. Barnett and [Purdue coach] Gene Keady in a bear hug that neither one wanted to be in," said a 15-year veteran of the NABC, shuddering at the recollection. "People were actually turning the other way in the lobby. They couldn't look." Trouble is, everywhere one turned in the lobby, he—and we do mean he; the Hyatt lobby was an all-male preserve of cigar smoke and Aqua Velva fumes—ran into something more unsavory, like one of the 100 or so ticket scalpers staking out the hotel.
NABC coaches with at least 17 years of membership under their belts were eligible to purchase a pair of Final Four tickets at their $50 face value. Many, if not most, coaches resold these tickets immediately to scalpers, who then reresold them on the street. "Wink at me when you're ready [to sell], then meet me in the bathroom," a scalper said mischievously to a coach who had just picked up his tickets last Saturday morning. The deal was consummated in a Hyatt John. Though scalping carries up to a $2,000 fine in San Antonio, most transactions were made brazenly in broad daylight. One man wore on his T-shirt a HELLO MY NAME IS Sticker on which he had written I NEED FINAL 4 TICKETS. Either the guy was a scalper or he had the best and oddest name in the entire tournament, with the singular spectacular exception of UConn's Monquencio Hardnett.
Last Friday evening, mercifully, students began arriving in San Antonio, and this grim pursuit of jobs and tickets—March Bidness—gave way, at last, to actual March Madness. Which is where the goofy-looking Tree came in. "Somebody once said the Tree is everybody's hypothetical drinking buddy," said the guy in the Tree suit, a Stanford sophomore named Matt Merrill. "Well, this week, it's been more than just hypothetical."
The Tree is Stanford's sports mascot, a kind of antimascot who dances manically and incessantly for the duration of all public appearances. Why a tree? Because Stanford's nickname is the Cardinal, and it's hard to rally around a color. And there's a California redwood in the school logo. And Palo Alto—where the school is located—is Spanish for "tall tree." All of which is to say that it didn't seem inappropriate for the Tree to visit the Alamo, which is itself Spanish for "cottonwood."