Our big basketball week is upon us. With it, I have some hopes.
For starters, I hope we don't take the event and all that comes with it for granted.
The NCAA's Men's Final Four is one of the few moveable mega-feasts in sports. That local visionaries dreamed big dreams and put in place the venues, forged the relationships, and formed the partnerships to make Indianapolis the only city to be part of the Final Four's permanent rotation is an incredible coup.
I hope there is recognition that having a Final Four is not about just the economic impact (although it is substantial) that takes place during the event, but also the potential to expose our assets and attractions to audiences who might not have discovered our Midwestern gem. Everyone from corporate bigwigs to college students who might be looking for a place to settle down after graduation will have the opportunity to see what we're all about. That's a good thing.
I hope we keep in mind that for all the bricks and mortar and convenience we can offer our visitors, the best we will provide is our hospitality. By and large, we've got good folks here who enjoy putting their best foot forward, especially if it's clad in a basketball sneaker.
About 1,500 volunteers are giving their time to this event. Believe me, most aren't doing it for the uniform or the possibility of seeing some of the basketball for free. In fact, most will not be in the RCA Dome, but at area hotels, at the airport, on buses, at Hoop City (the interactive fan fest), all doing what they do best, which is being friendly and informative and helpful to our visitors.
Our volunteerism always has been a marvel, topped by the astounding 36,000 citizens who helped pull off the most successful Pan American Games in history. Better still, a number of local employers see the value of volunteerism and allow their employees the time off to participate.
I hope we don't lose sight that many of our youth will not only have an enjoyable time, but may be inspired by their experiences. About 200 kids, many from lowerincome backgrounds, will attend free the Final Four Salute Presentation March 30 at the Murat, a chance to see the Final Four teams and their coaches in person.
About 3,000 youth will be involved in the Circle City Dribble that takes place April 2. The dribble concludes at Hoop City, where the participants will have free admission.
The Middle School Madness program has involved 1,200 Warren and Wayne Township youngsters in writing sportsmanship essays. Winners receive free-there's that word again-Final Four tickets.
Area youth, including Special Olympics athletes, also will participate in four NCAA YES (Youth Education through Sports) Clinics that take place April 1. The clinics are conducted by NCAA coaches.
And speaking of young people, I hope we don't lose sight that those are still relatively young people representing their universities in the Final Four. They are not yet professionals and, in most cases, never will be. A mega-event brings with it megascrutiny, and with that comes-for the members of the three teams that will lose next weekend-the desire to affix blame and designate "goats" and "chokers," all because of a missed free throw, a bad turnover, a blown layup or a night in which the shots just didn't fall.
I hope we maintain some perspective as we read and hear stories-and we most certainly will-about the excesses of this event and the so-called exploitation of student-athletes for the benefit of the NCAA or the universities.
Sure, playing college basketball-or any sport in college-is tough. It's time-consuming and demanding, and requires considerable sacrifice. But a point I continue to make is that the vast majority of the NCAA's 360,000 student-athletes are taking advantage of an opportunity and benefiting from the experience. And the graduation rates-currently at levels above those of the general student population-will continue to improve as the recent academic reform mandates take root in the culture.
I hope local residents take advantage of all the cool activities this weekend. Why should visitors have all the fun? The concerts on the Circle, Hoop City and many other activities are geared to locals as much as they are to fans from around the nation.
Finally, I hope for the one thing over which we have no control: good weather. But even if not, there's still a good time to be had. Naptown, no more.
Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.