I went to my second Husker game of the season on Sunday night. After I went to my first game (against Minnesota, in late January) I decided to purchase tickets for myself and a visitor from the great basketball state of Michigan for the Wisconsin game. After sitting in the second-to-last row of the arena for the Minnesota game, I decided to splurge on some face-value ($30) tickets in the lower bowl. I didn't know where they were until Mochila and I decided to look them up on Saturday. It turns out that my extremely uncharacteristic moment of foresight had landed us in Row 9 for the most hotly anticipated game of the year.
On Sunday, Mochila and I headed down to the Haymarket area, home of Pinnacle Bank Arena and a slew of new bars and restaurants (and one venerable and delicious homemade ice cream establishment, Ivanna Cone, which you simply must try if you're ever in town) to take in the pre-game atmosphere. It was shockingly... football-like. Sure, it helped that it was 70 degrees and sunny. But there were swarms of red-clad people in every bar and on the street. We finally made our way to a cluster of bars/ice skating rink/beer garden with a huge outdoor TV screen right across from PBA so that we could see the MSU-OSU game. Husker fans, Husker fans, everywhere. I wasn't the only one who noticed the significance of the crowds--I caught numerous Nebraska fans, long accustomed to ignoring their basketball team, taking phone pics of the excitement. The buzz was palpable, and so too was the faint disbelief that THIS is what basketball in Nebraska could be like.
We headed over to the arena early so that we could get a good look around the place before the game started. As it had been in January, courtside access was available to those arriving early, and many were crowded in taking photos of the arena and the players warming up. The student sections were already mostly full. We walked around the entire building, checking out the view from various vantages along the way. The entire facility is clean, spacious, and well-designed. We checked out a large outdoor terrace on the second floor of the building, from which we could see the large outdoor TV at the Railyard, and watched the unfortunate end of the MSU/OSU game (it was a very pro-MSU crowd).
We finally settled down in our own seats, and found that regardless of how things worked out for the Huskers, we already had luck on our side. We felt like Jack Nicholson at a Lakers game--ok, so we were a few rows off from that, but they were truly great seats, and even though they were on a corner, we could see the action on the court extremely well. It was a wonderful surprise and unexpected treat. All the seats were filled before the game for the honoring of the two seniors on the team, and one of them even surprised his girlfriend with an engagement proposal. Awww.
Then, of course, the game started. There has been talk about how the Tunnel Walk at Husker football games has perhaps stagnated a bit, and it seems that the crew in charge of basketball games really took that to heart, and strove to create something entirely different for the basketball team. Personally, I think they achieved that. The introduction ceremony involves total darkness, spotlights, fog machines, etc. I'd call it borderline overkill, except that it has apparently worked so well for firing up the team and the fanbase this season, I'll refrain from the critique. The student section has taken in the past few games to chanting "Husker Power!" over the introduction of the visiting members. This has caused controversy in recent weeks in Nebraska, as many feel it is "disrespectful" and "rude." Seeing it in person, I didn't think it was so bad. I'd have more problems with it if they were actively tearing down the visiting team ("You suck!" "Eat sh*t!" etc.) But they aren't doing that, so honestly, the concerned section of the fanbase should probably count their blessings. It could be worse, and it is worse, at other places in the conference.
Miles had issued a request for a "No Sit Sunday" and we did our part to fulfill that edict, as did pretty much everyone we could see (there was an older woman nearby who did not, but I think that's forgivable--and she was wearing a silver poncho with "Huskers" written in sequins, so I don't question her dedication). It was as loud as I could imagine. When Nebraska went up 10-3, I couldn't hear anything except the solid roar of the crowd. It was as loud as anything I've ever heard (the only rival I can think of recently would be the successful Hail Mary in football this season). I'm not sure I've ever experienced such palpable excitement and anticipation--all game long, you could almost literally feel the crowd quivering with how much they wanted the win. Every call against Nebraska was booed with more passion than reason. Every basket was met with the enthusiasm of a last-second game winner.
When it seemed that Nebraska really, truly was going to pull this off, the student section started to empty, and people began crowding the aisles and the area around the court. I think this preparation diminished the spontaneous joy of the court rush, and it lacked a certain explosive excitement at the final buzzer because everyone had been getting in position for five minutes. But there's no way to explain that to a crowd of college students, so que sera sera. Ndomukong Suh and Bo Pelini were across the court from us, so we can neither confirm nor deny if they were a part of the court rush. But you know Bo, he's such a lover of fun and basketball, I'm sure he was in there somewhere.
My only disappointment with the entire evening is that I didn't get to see Bo Ryan screaming at anyone. Honestly, I just kept forgetting to keep an eye on him. There was so much going on, and so many other things to watch, I just missed out.
Here are my big takeaways from the night:
1) This was surreal. This was the word that kept coming to my mind even as we walked around before the game. People were scalping tickets to this game. To a Nebraska basketball game. Thousands and thousands of people were arriving hours early--for a Nebraska basketball game. It may be hard to appreciate the implausibility of this if you're not a Husker fan, but take your school's most futile sports program and try to imagine it suddenly being the lead story, commanding over $100 a ticket, drawing out a stadium full of people eager to yell until it hurts--and that's some idea of what is happening here. I wasn't the only one who felt this way--I overheard many, many comments in this vein before we went in to the arena.
2) Props to the longtime fans. Like most that are now passionately supporting this team, I haven't been a faithful basketball fan. My parents took us a fair amount when we were young, but as a college student, I didn't attend a single game. I followed along a bit last season because Tim Miles is nothing if not intriguing, and I've been following along all this season, but I think it'd be fair to label me a bandwaggoner. But there were three or four thousand hardy souls who have been getting season tickets and attending games for decades. Decades of utter futility. Decades of bad, bad basketball. Decades of seemingly impossible hope. No one is enjoying this more than them.
3) I'll never experience something like this again. The hope from here, of course, is that this isn't some magic season of wonder that is never duplicated. Everyone hopes that this is the first step of many, of creating a long-lasting success, of making basketball an institution of its own at a "football school." We will all have to wait and see if that comes to fruition. But even if it does, it will never feel quite like this again. Nebraska fans (and perhaps college sports fans generally) are prone to feelings of entitlement. Once success is tasted, expectation and demand for the repetition of it fill the space where unadulterated joy once, and only once, resided. The feeling of pride in our unlikely band of heroes (I mean, how tall is Benny Parker? 5'2"?), the joy mingled with surprised that comes with every single win, the pleasure of achieving so far past where anyone not on that team even dared to dream, isn't likely to occur again. I think that a real, true rising-from-the-ashes experience is almost as rare in sports as the different joy that comes from winning it all. And for that reason, I'm so glad that I was able to be there on Sunday, and why I think I will remember this game for a long, long time.
Breaking Into the Vault: An Outsider's Perspective
by Mochila03I'm that guy. I'm the one who complains about the court rush these days, and harkens back to those when the court rush "meant" something. It seems like every week there's a court rushing and every time I can't help but think that kids feel they're entitled to it. As the seconds wound down and I watched as Nebraska's students prepared to rush the court, these same feelings welled up in me. But as the clock hit zero and the crowd rushed the floor, I shared in that moment of exultation.
As BRT mentioned, entitlement comes quickly for sports fans. But what I realized that night is that sense of entitlement comes at great expense to the purpose of sports: to enjoy them. I felt during that game a sense of excitement that I have not witnessed at a Michigan State basketball game in some time (although I'm guessing the 23-point beat down of #4 Michigan last year approached that). I was completely drawn in by the atmosphere, and amazed that nearly all 15,000+ fans really did stand up for every second of game play. The sound in that incredible arena was magnificently loud as seemingly everyone present screamed at the top of their lungs. After the game was over, writers, sportscasters, and fans were likely quick to analyze whether or not Nebraska had "made it" in the world of basketball. But for at least that night, nobody in that arena (except the grump behind us) cared. We were all too busy having a great time.