John Feinstein: Indianapolis has long history with Final Four, but this chapter is one to forget

This is the 41st time I have attended the Final Four.

I have never seen anything like this version. And I hope never to see anything like it again.

It isn’t just sitting in 70,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium with fans filling the place at about 10% capacity. It isn’t sitting in a football press box several miles from the court.

It isn’t even feeling grateful for a bottle of water and a national anthem performed in less than three minutes.

It’s being in a ghost town.

This is the eighth Final Four held here, dating from 1980, when Louisville beat UCLA in the championship game in the old Market Square Arena, which seated 16,530. UCLA is here again this weekend, but that 1980 team doesn’t exist in the NCAA record book. It is one of many wiped from the history books for getting on the wrong side of the NCAA police.

The last time the Final Four was played here, in 2015, the attendance in this building for the title game between Duke and Wisconsin was 71,149. Chances are the total attendance for the 66 games that will decide this championship (one game was lost the first weekend to COVID) won’t be a whole lot more than that.

But there was never any doubt that this tournament was going to be played, despite the ongoing pandemic. Not having a tournament last year cost the NCAA almost $500 million in television revenue. Losing ticket sales or concessions or parking may hurt a little. Losing TV money is catastrophic.

And so, even if this year’s event has been simply a television show, it was going to happen. It didn’t matter that the players for the four finalists have been in Indianapolis for nearly three weeks, going through constant coronavirus testing and quarantines. It didn’t matter that their lives have been nowhere close to normal to reach this point.

Last summer, Dan Gavitt, the NCAA vice president who runs the tournament, convened a weekly Zoom call with prominent coaches to discuss one topic: How do we get the season to March intact enough to hold a legitimate 68-team tournament?

“Every decision we made was about making sure we could have a tournament,” said Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has won three of his five national titles in Indianapolis. “Everything else was secondary.”

But Duke is nowhere to be found here and neither are so-called blue bloods such as North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky or Michigan State: The just-retired Roy Williams got to his First Final Four here with Kansas in 1991. Tom Izzo’s national title took place here in 2000. No Final Four city has more history than this one.

What makes this site so great for an event such as this is that everything is in walking distance in downtown. The Dome is a short walk from most of the major hotels. There are great restaurants—notably the iconic St. Elmo Steak House, but plenty more—within a few blocks. The convention center, which would normally host all the meetings and seminars conducted by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and the “Fan Fest,” is steps from the hotel where all four teams are housed.

Of course, NCAA headquarters is also downtown. No place is perfect.

But there’s no coaches convention and there’s no Fan Fest. Normally on a beautiful Saturday such as this one, the streets would be teeming with people and traffic would be close to a standstill.

Instead, there were few people and fewer cars. There were no fans chanting back and forth at each other, no crowds teeming on street corners. Circle Centre mall, smack in the heart of downtown, had just a few stores open, but many places were closed—some forever.

When some joker who forgot to pack pants for the trip—it was his first business trip in a year—asked a security guard for directions to Eddie Bauer, she shook her head sadly and said, “They went out of business.”

In a normal year, someone who has been to 40 Final Fours (with or without pants) would be hard-pressed to walk five steps without running into a friend—or an enemy. On Friday night, my friend Dick Weiss, who has been to 48 Final Fours, and I walked five blocks from our hotel to dinner. We didn’t see one person we knew along the way. The same was true today when we walked to Circle Centre mall to pick up credentials.

That’s what a Final Four is supposed to be about. Seeing friends you haven’t seen for a while and friends you see all the time. Seeing John Chaney and John Calipari hug. Seeing Bob Knight and his coaching mentor Pete Newell strolling down the street. Heck, seeing Dick Vitale hawking pizza. Or insurance. Or anything else.

That’s all gone this year. The streets are empty and the building where the games are being played feels like the fourth quarter of a Washington Football Team game—except there aren’t thousands of people fleeing to the parking lots.

If there had been more people in the building, they might have fled during the Baylor-Houston game. The Bears led 45-20 at halftime, and the second half was 20 minutes of garbage time. The final was 78-59, and it wasn’t even that close. The Cougars beat four double-digit seeds to get here. Baylor was a step up – several steps up, as it turned out.

The NCAA filled the lower sections of the building with about 4,000 cutouts, which cost $100 apiece (proceeds going to charity), and filled space with their many corporate logos—sorry, corporate “champion” logos—and with their innumerable trademarked phrases: “The Final Four,” “March Madness,” “The Big Dance” and my favorite, “The Road Ends Here.”

That last one is on the floor directly across from the four rows of team benches, the better for TV cameras to pick it up. But there was no road this year. There was just the state of Indiana—six sites the first week, four the second week—and the basketball world coming together this weekend.

Except most of the basketball world had to stay home—fans, media, coaches, even ticket scalpers. The man who created “The Road to the Final Four” in 1982 was a then-CBS executive named Len DeLuca.

He’s not here, either.

The games are still being played here. But this isn’t really a Final Four.

John Feinstein is a Washington Post contributor who also writes for Golf Digest, Golf World and does TV color on college basketball games.

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