BENNER: A bigger--and better--Final Four awaits fans

March 20, 2010

The Road to the Final Four has begun, filled with twists, turns, probably a couple of straightaways for No. 1 seeds and certainly a pothole or two waiting to swallow up a contender.

For the sixth time, it all ends here in White River City.

But over and above its predecessors, this Final Four is going to blow you away. And I’m not talking about anything like the tornado that tore through downtown on that Sunday night in 2006, the last time Indianapolis hosted the NCAA’s big show.

For starters, this is the first opportunity to showcase Lucas Oil Stadium as a 70,000-seat basketball venue, just shy of double the attendance of previous Final Fours in the RCA Dome and—think about this for a moment—four times the capacity of Market Square Arena when it hosted Indy’s first Final Four 30 years ago.

Back in the day, who would have thought?

And even though the stadium hosted the Midwest Regional last March, curtains shielded the upper level while a new lower-bowl seating design this year should offer a better pitch and improved sightlines.

It will be a great 70,000-seat basketball venue—if there is such a thing. What continues to amaze me is that there is demand for 70,000 seats, which underscores what a huge national event the Final Four has become.

From the NCAA’s perspective, however, what will be best about Lucas Oil Stadium is the part fans won’t see, which is the back-of-the-house space designed to accommodate the media, teams, the CBS broadcast crew and corporate entertainment.

But if you think the Final Four has grown inside the venue, wait until you see and experience what has happened outside.

The master schedule shows no fewer than 32 events and/or attractions spread over five days.

Only a few of them are actual basketball games. These days, the Final Four is just as much about hoopla as hoops, the result of the desire of the NCAA in general and local-boy-makes-good Greg Shaheen in particular to share the fun among ticket-holder and non-ticket-holder, visitor and resident, corporate bigwig and Average Joe and Joanne Fan alike.

From the open (and free) team practices and all-star game on Friday at the stadium to the interactive fan fest known as Bracket Town—the erstwhile Hoop City—in the Indiana Convention Center to the Big Dance concerts (also free) strung over Friday, Saturday and Sunday at The Lawn and White River State Park, there is a mind-boggling array of things to do.

There will also be a lot of feel-good, do-good during the weekend. The Indiana Blood Center is staging a blood drive in the parking lot next to the Hall of Champions. There will be a shoe drive for Samaritan’s Feet. Second Helpings will benefit from the catering and distribute food to 30 locations throughout the city. Youth clinics featuring NCAA coaches and student-athletes will take place at Butler University, the University of Indianapolis and Warren Central High School. There will be a Sports Career and College Expo in Hinkle Fieldhouse. Two thousand youngsters will participate in a “Final Four Dribble” on Sunday, bouncing basketballs on city streets from White River State Park to the Convention Center.

That night, a special ceremony will take place at King-Kennedy Park, commemorating Sen. Robert Kennedy’s calming speech there 42 years ago exactly, on April 4, 1968, after Martin Luther King was assassinated. The park will also undergo a sprucing-up that includes tree planting. In honor of King, there is also a “Dream Keeper’s Spring Break Camp” that lasts March 29 to April 2, offering enrichment programs for area youth.

Finally, I want to put in a shameless plug for the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Awards Breakfast at the Columbia Club April 2, at 8 a.m. The breakfast will feature the presentation of the USBWA’s player of the year award (Ohio State’s Evan Turner), freshman of the year (Kentucky’s John Wall) and coach of the year (to be announced the week of the Final Four). The player of the year award is named for Indianapolis legend Oscar Robertson and, yes, the Big O will be in the house. So, too, will be IUPUI basketball coach Ron Hunter, who is being recognized for his amazing efforts on behalf of Samaritan’s Feet.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m a former USBWA president and will serve as emcee for the event. If you’re interested in attending, tables and individual seats are available. Just call (317) 456-2345.

It will be a great way to get into basketball mode.•


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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