Basketball-filled month awaits downtown planners: Indianapolis set to host 35 big games in 36 days

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Next month will bring new meaning to “March Madness” in Indianapolis.

In a 36-day span starting March 1 and culminating April 5 with the crowning of the women’s NCAA basketball champion, the city will play host to 35 high-profile games in 36 days.

The Hoosier state’s love affair with the sport has endured for decades. But next month will truly be “Hoops Hysteria” here. While the city has welcomed basketball tournaments before, it never has offered so many games at so many levels of the sport.

“It’s pretty special,” said Dale Neuburger, president of the Indiana Sports Corp. “Without question, [the games] give the city a chance to be the center of the basketball universe for several weeks.”

During the span, about 300,000 people will trek downtown to soak in everything from girls’ and boys’ high school state tournaments to Pacers games. The crown jewel this year, however, is the NCAA Women’s Final Four at the RCA Dome April 2-5.

While visitors will drop a lot of dollars at downtown hotels and restaurants, the national spotlight thrust on the city will be invaluable. Indianapolis has never hosted a women’s Final Four before. Officials have prepared for months to ensure activities go off without a hitch, after learning in 2001 the city would host the tournament.

Organizers more than a year ago corralled a committee that consists of about 70 people led by five appointees: Melina Kennedy, deputy mayor of economic development; State Rep. Carolene Mays, D-Indianapolis; Susan Williams, former executive director of the State Office Building Commission and incoming Sports Corp. president; John Parry, Butler University’s athletic director; and Jonathan LeCrone, commissioner of the Horizon League. Butler and the league are the event’s co-hosts.

The committee, the ISC and the NCAA have been working together on the project. The fact the tournament is in Indianapolis this year, where the NCAA is headquartered, has made preparations easier for Sue Donahoe, vice president for the association’s Division I Women’s Basketball Committee. Normally, she would have been traveling at least once a month to the host city for the nine months preceding the event.

Instead, she can meet Allison Melangton, the ISC’s vice president of events, for lunch to look over plans. Melangton has been appointed executive director of the Final Four and began working on it full time last fall following the World Swimming Championships at Conseco Fieldhouse.

“Every city is unique and every city has its own personality,” said Donahoe, who’s been involved in six Final Fours. “Basketball has a deep tradition here. It’s a lot of fun getting ready for it. It’s just a unique and great opportunity for us.”

The popularity of women’s basketball has leaped from obscurity into the mainstream since the inaugural Final Four was held in Norfolk, Va., in 1982. In the NCAA archives, former Cheyney University basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer recalled that she hoped some people would show up. The championship game drew less than 10,000 spectators. This year, all three games are sold out, with capacity for each set at 29,000.

Louisiana Tech beat Cheyney to win the first women’s championship. Coincidentally, Donahoe was an assistant coach on Tech’s staff then.

While the games are the main event, festivities will be plentiful.

April 2 is known as “Super Saturday” and will feature numerous events for children. One of those is the Circle City Dribble, in which the NCAA hopes to draw 2,500 people to its headquarters. From there, participants will dribble their basketballs to the dome to attend practice sessions, which are free to the public.

No games are slated for April 4. To entertain visitors, a tour of Indianapolis is being organized to showcase the finer points of the city.

The ISC is set to conduct a press conference March 1 to bring attention to the unusual month, “because we don’t think there have been this many basketball games in the city before,” Melangton said.

On the women’s side, the city also will host the Big Ten Tournament March 3-7 at Conseco Fieldhouse. The first and second rounds of the Midwest Regional for the NCAA men’s tournament will be held at the dome March 17 and March 19. The IHSAA girls’ championships will be at the Fieldhouse March 5. The boys will follow with their tournament March 26. And not to be forgotten, the Pacers will play seven home games during the month.

In conjunction with the women’s Final Four, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association in Georgia will hold its national convention. The meeting will draw 3,000 coaches from around the country who also will attend the games. The WBCA Night of All Stars, a game featuring top high school players, will take place April 2 at the University of Indianapolis

For Indianapolis Downtown Inc., the month is another opportunity to show off the heart of the city.

“March is always a big time for downtown, and this year is even more exceptional, said IDI President Tamara Zahn. “It gives a new meaning to ‘March Madness.’ It’s very exciting.”

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