What's Changed at George Mason, Part II (Inside)
So I enter the Patriot Center, and sprint down the stairs, and when I get to court level George Mason is raising its Final Four banner. That was something new.
There were other changes. Like, 9,800 people screaming. Like, some of them screaming "Final Four" during the National Anthem. Like, smoke pillars bellowing up in the corners as the Patriots were introduced. Like, ESPN2 banners in plentiful supply. Like, enough fans being in the building that you could notice when they started filing out early.
(One negative comment on the fans: they cheered when Hofstra's loss to Manhattan was announced, and they cheered again when Northeastern's loss to Oakland (Mich.) was announced. Not correct, Mason fans. You want your conference schools to win in November. You can spend November rooting against Maryland and Georgetown and GW, but not Hofstra, not yet.)
The press room was filled with new posters of laminated newspaper pages. "Cinderella Men," from the Indianapolis Star. "How to Win Games and Influence People," from your friendly hometown Post. "Eleventh Heaven," also from The Post. "Cinderella's Off to the Ball" from the Washington Times. "Astonishing," also from the Times. "Sweet Surprises" from Sports Illustrated. "Psyched" from the New York Post.
And the post-game press conference? In the old days, it would be me, maybe someone from the Potomac News, some kid from the campus paper if school was in session, the CAAZone guys, and that was about it. On Saturday there were 27 people and four or five video cameras, and I had to pick my way through the crowd to find an empty seat. The crowd included such internet hoops celebrities as Yoni Cohen from YocoHoops and FoxSports, and Kyle Whelliston from The Mid-Majority and ESPN. Kyle being so insanely dedicated to college basketball that he claimed not to know which two teams were meeting in a high-profile football game on Saturday. Really.
"I heard something about Ohio State," he said. "Who are they playing? No, who are they playing? Tell me? Who are they playing?"
I still have no idea if he was serious.
And one more thing was new: the pep band's director. He looked like he had just wandered in from the set of "Superfly": green knee-length pin-striped suit, gold shirt, gold shades, green crocodile shoes, shiny rings and a glittering "Kryptonite Kane" that he was using to direct the band. It was like bringing a little bit of the old 14th Street out to Fairfax.
"He and a few girls went out and they pimped him up," piccoloist Shauna Quinn said.
"He's trying to be a pimp and he's pulling it off, he's definitely pulling it off," sousaphonist Kevin Thielemann agreed.
"I think it's incredibly perfect," said Jeremy, a guitarist and trumpeter.
So during halftime I went up to talk to Dr. Michael Nickens, known universally as Doc Nix. He's a 30-year-old music professor who just got his doctorate from Michigan; "don't talk about that," he said, when I asked about missing the Ohio State game. The Mason pep band had been student-run in the past; it was Thielemann, for example, who had commissioned the "Livin' on a Prayer" arrangement that became Mason's anthem last year. But things change, and now the pep band has a new name ("The Green Machine") and a faculty director who dresses like a pimp. The kids I talked to universally had good things to say about Doc Nix, but some were a bit anxious about the transition, about losing control of something they felt they had built themselves.
There are new songs: "Sweet Caroline" and "September and "Simon Says" and "The Kryptonite Fanfare" or something like that, from "Superman." There are new arrangements of a bunch of tunes, including "Livin' on a Prayer." There are more cooks in the kitchen than there used to be, one member said.
But like I said, they all said great things about Doc Nix, and how could you not? He's a local kid, went to West Potomac, spent time at James Madison and Yale before doing his doctorate at Michigan, and he told me he wanted to increase the Mason funk: more Earth Wind & Fire, more Chicago, more Motown, "anything that rocks." And the current songbook is also being studied; "Livin' on a Prayer" will not necessarily be a staple, which was shocking to me.
"That was something attached to last season," Doc Nix explained. "As we build up a tradition, that might not be relevant. If we build this thing the way it's supposed to be built, we won't be livin' on a prayer."
I also asked about his get-up.
"My get-up?" he said. "These are my clothes, man. What are you talking about? As time goes on, I'll expand my wardrobe to all reaches of the universe. You have no idea what you're going to see."
Right on. So we have tailgaters and ticket scalpers and parking lot arrests and sold-out crowds and Final Four banners and packed press conferences and pep band directors dressed like pimps. Not bad.
"Everything you saw today was new," said longtime fan David Pierpont.
(Mason fans, anything particularly strike you?)
Two more things I'd like to briefly note:
1) Much of the Wichita State team gathered in one corner of the arena after the game and made fun of Gunston when he/she/it walked by.
"Hey, tuck your tail," one Shocker yelled at Gunston.
I asked what they thought of this most controversial of mascots. They said they thought it was even worse than their Shocker mascot. They said it was laughable. They asked what was Patriotic about a green blob.
"Man, that's terrible, that's terrible," Karon Bradley said. "I didn't know what it was. When it came out, I was scared. I consider myself a big dude, and I can fight too, but when that dude came out I didn't know what to do. I was scared. I don't know what it is. I think they need to switch it up."
2) Sean Ogirri, brother of OffTheMeter from the UltimateHoopsChallenge, left his fro in place for the game. (You can see photos of both his real fro and his fro-wigged brother at UltimateHoopsChallenge.) (And for the record, this is different from the Fro who was taken to jail.)
Anyhow, I asked Sean about OffTheMeter's 337-basketball-arena quest.
"If he does it, that'll be amazing," Sean said. "He's crazy to think about that, but if he can pull it off, that'll be amazing."
I also asked about his hair. He said if he picked it out, the fro would have been more impressive, and that students back in Wichita are sort of taken with the 'do.
"They love it," he said. "Especially the girls, too. You know that."
November 20, 2006; 5:23 PM ET
Categories: College Basketball
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