Final Four Weekend In New Orleans Diary: Part I

First and foremost, a big thank you to the folks at Buick for making this trip happen. The folks we dealt with could not have been more pleasant or accommodating.

And after that big thank you comes an equally big apology for ultimately not leaving the car where I was supposed to on Tuesday morning. It was a long four days, we were flustered, and...yeah, just gonna raise my hand and give a "my bad" there. Your understanding is and was appreciated.

I wanted to get this done last week before leaving for the Bahamas, but it quickly became apparent that a single post would not do the experience justice, so we're going to have to give each day its proper due. Except Tuesday...sorry, Tuesday. Loved what you did with Pizza Hut in 2009.

FRIDAY

After cramming in several work projects in the preceding days to make trip doable, my travel partner (we'll call him "Dan," because that's his name) and I are equal parts giddy and exhausted. He picks me up round 8:30 a.m. at the Headquarters. I'm going Louisville hoodie and jeans, he's going freshly-purchased Cardinal track jacket and khaki shorts.

Dan's parents are flying in from somewhere (non-Final Four information isn't computing at this point) the next day, so we're able to drive ourselves there and leave the car in the long-term lot for them to pick up. A quick shuttle ride has us at the airport's entrance with plenty of time to make it through security.

"I couldn't be a bigger pro at this," says Dan as we head to the security check. Five seconds later he's reprimanded for not taking his computer out of his backpack and leaving his belt on. The worker doing the reprimanding asks why I didn't help him out.

Everyone here is wearing red or blue, except the airport employees, a fact the ones who cheer for UK feel the need to overcompensate for by making an annoyingly cliche remark to every U of L fan who walks by.

We are insanely early for our first flight, but it's good because I haven't eaten yet. Five minutes later I'm enjoying the time-tested airport combo of giant beer and Quizno's. It's 10:30 a.m.

Our bartender is a motley looking fellow wearing a tight Kentucky t-shirt to accompany his long ponytail. He stares at my ID for approximately 35 minutes before permitting me the beer that was ordered on my behalf while I was getting the sandwich. He ignores us after that to discuss how "he won't be able to live in this city if Louisville wins" with another patron.

After a civil conversation with both working bartenders about, among other things, Mike Bush and Doug Beaumont, we opt against a second beer in favor of heading to our gate, which is starting to fill out.

"Only guy here in shorts," observes Dan. "No one to blame but yourself, Dan."

The initial flight takes us to Charlotte and I'm in first class while Dan is relegated to coach. I flaunt my thin blanket and sandpaper pillow at him as he walks by. He makes an awful "can I offer you a wet towel" joke while passing. My response is to turn away and begin a futile attempt at a 45 minute nap.

Fifteen minutes or so of dozing has me feeling a little bit more chipper once we get to Charlotte, and as a result Russ Smith puns begin to fly in the direction of anyone who looks willing to take them in. I tweet about this. It's then that I realize I accidentally didn't uncheck the "tweet this" box on my Final Four predictions post for SB Nation, which I'd scheduled for publish that morning. Several people are upset with one of the two predictions made.

Because there were no flights left into New Orleans on Friday and neither one of us could leave on Thursday, our second flight takes us into Gulfport, MS, where we learn the Buck Regal is waiting for us. There's a message on my phone from contact Dan Moon letting me know that they left the car unlocked and the keys under the passenger-side mat because they couldn't find a help desk. This doesn't turn out to be a problem.

What does turn out to be a problem is starting the car. It's a "no key, push to start" vehicle, which I'd had some experience with, but the Regal's simply not cooperating on this day. I still have no idea what eventually gets it going, but I know that we can't turn off the car in a public place from this point on without fear of humiliation coming into play.

Humiliation is right around the corner, however, as first Dan can't figure out why he can't get "New Orleans" to come up on the GPS until I point out that his selected state is "Ontario." This took about five minutes and resulted in us parking the car after a 25-foot joyride in the garage. We're immediately met with yet another dilemma when we approach the window to pay for parking.

"I guess we have to pay," says the driver.

"No, we'll just explain the situation to the lady," is the passenger's brilliant response.

We pull up to the window, and the worst attempt at getting out of an $11 parking fee in the history of mankind ensues.

"Yeah, uh, we won this...for the Final Four...from...like, Buck. They gave this to us."

"So it's a rental?"

"Yeah."

"Ok, well I still have to have your red or blue parking ticket. The lever won't go up unless I scan it and you won't be able to get out."

I realize that she's talking about the ticket which was stuffed in the envelope along with the keys, but Dan does not.

"Here, I can give you this," my travel partner is reaching to hand the woman Dan Moon's business card. As if Dan Moon's name and contact information printed on a tiny section of card stock paper is going to miraculously transform the entire situation.

I tell him that the card we need is in the backseat. He can't reach it. Then he can't open his door.

The crisis ultimately concludes and I'm 11 bucks lighter but glad to finally be on the road.

It's about an hour drive from Gulfport to New Orleans, and it's also probably the least scenic stretch of 63 miles in America. It rains a little, we pass Southern Miss (it looks hideous from the highway) and we find a way to work Dan Moon's name into every song that comes on the radio.

Are you with Dan Moon right now? (Drake, "Marvin's Room")

So go on, go on, Dan Moon leave me breathless (The Corrs, "Breathless")

M. Period. Fresh. Comma. Your wife is Dan Moon's baby mama. And. What the f--k, hold on. Can't even get the motherf---ing car turned on. (Big Tymers, "Get Your Roll On")

New Orleans is a zoo, and the cab drivers are more aggressive than any I've seen in Chicago, D.C. or anywhere else. This makes getting to the Marriott on Canal St., where we've learned nearly all the members of the media are staying, an adventure. We make it without having to call Dan Moon and tell him we've already wrecked the Regal (success defined), and promptly see former Vermont coach and ESPN analyst Tom Brennan (for the first of approximately 15 times) and Oscar Robertson in the lobby.

After a short amount of downtime in the room, it's time to hit Bourbon Street, where it sounds like everyone we know in New Orleans has already been for the better part of the day. The place is pretty much exactly how it looks in pictures and on television, except littered with Louisville and Kentucky fans. It also smells like the infield tunnel at Churchill Downs on Derby Day.

Our first stop is at what anywhere else in the world would be an ice cream shop. It has the same fluorescent lighting, counter-tops and seating as any Baskin Robbins in the country, but it serves slushy mixed drinks...and beer...and liquor. There is one of these "parlors" about every 50 feet or so on Bourbon Street.

We meet up with a group of friends that includes Eric Wood and Breno Giacomini, a solid duo to have in your general vicinity on this night. Breno greets me by picking me up in the same manner a husband does his newlywed wife on their wedding night, except with far more ease. Breno is large and he is having a good time. Who could blame him?

Wood got into town early enough to take in the open practice, and being the basketball connoisseur that he is (seriously, he could easily run this site), is anxious to get right into the details. He talks about how Elisha Justice buried 28 of 30 three-pointers at one point, how Pitino joked on Russ throughout the practice, and gives his description of the now infamous Gorgui soccer juggling act.

Since he donned the big man's jersey in Madison Square Garden during the Big East Tournament, Wood and Gorgui have formed a bit of a relationship. Dieng has actually taken to referring to the Buffalo Bills center as "boss," which is fantastic to think about.

When Louisville made the Final Four, Gorgui texted Wood to ask if he would be making the trip to New Orleans. Wood, who will be married later this year, jokingly responded that he might have to dip into his wedding funds, but that he would be there. Gorgui's immediate and dead-serious text response: "Oh no. Save your money for your wedding. It is far more important."

The fact that Gorgui Dieng is an icon is established for the sixty-infinitieth time.

Suddenly, there's a small outburst behind me.

"Is it? Holy shit, it is! IN THE FAACCEE!"

Rob Riggle, aka the "in the face" guy from The Hangover has just strolled in solo. As it turns out, just about everyone on Bourbon Street has seen or will see him.

"Saw him about a half hour ago," says Colin, Dan's brother and the driving force behind the Peyton and Russ/Woody and Buzz conversation. "Don't even think about asking him to flash an L. Dude is a hardcore Kansas fan."

He snaps a picture with a group of friends and then proceeds to order a slush drink before presumably moving on and hoping a crew of females is the next to recognize him.

We make our way to another bar across the street where there appears to be even more red. I have my first encounter with a "hand-grenade," which is akin to whatever the vodka/beer/lemonade "liquid crack" mixture of choice was at your school or amongst your group of friends. Basically, it's equal parts sugar, alcohol and danger. Dan spends about 15 seconds squeezing the plastic grenade that comes with the drink - maybe hoping for some lemon juice? I dont know, I stopped trying to understand him when I was 15 - before realizing that it's just for show.

The bar is overwhelmingly stocked with Louisville fans, and thus the C-A-R-D-S and "Beat UK" chants are flowing as freely as the booze. A few misled Ohio State supporters try the "O-H" bit a few times with little success.

Things start to get a little hazy, and nervous/excited/heated talk of the next day's game starts to pick up.

Rondboy_medium

The funny thing about this picture is that I remember the conversation - shared with the (unofficially) 34th best point guard in Wittenberg basketball history - in question vividly, and I'm pretty sure at least 95% of it was spent laughing. The only explanation is that the photographer accidentally flipped the dial to Dorian Gray mode.

Wood and Giacomini have to leave to walk Eric's lovely fiance - who I'm quite certain despises me for constantly sparking Louisville basketball talks - back to their hotel, but they vow to meet back up shortly. Until then, any unsought defense of the Cardinal name will have to be done by myself and a like-sized crew. Strength in numbers becomes key.

I spend a little bit of time trying to talk to folks in hopes of stumbling upon a sexy quote to use for a feature I have to write in the morning, but nearly every word spoken is far too civil to be of any interest. And that's the amazing thing about the night: the dueling "C-A-T-S" and C-A-R-D-S" chants and the occasional cliched barb are about as confrontational as it's getting. More than anything, this is just a massive celebration of the rivalry.

Kansas and Ohio State fans are a presence about as commanding as cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving.

We stumble into a lightly-occupied watering hole where we can grab a drink, make our way up to a balcony and catch our breath. The scene below is madness, and while there are almost undoubtedly more Kentucky fans in New Orleans than any of the other three fan bases, Cardinal fans appear to be sort of taking over Bourbon Street. We're fun.

Finally, someone says what we've all been trying to keep bottled up.

"If this is Friday, what happens if we actually win tomorrow?"

We laugh and try not to let imagination take us to a dangerously magical place before someone else chimes in.

"I mean, look at this. It's like, 'you did this, Russ, this probably wouldn't be happening without you.' Think about that. It's true."

Russnawlins_medium

We make our way over to Bourbon Heat (I only know the name because I just checked my bank statement for the first time in three weeks), where Joey Wagner - the fan emcee at Cardinal home games this season - is supposedly throwing a U of L party.

Surprisingly, I'm pointed in the direction of Thomas Beisner and Drew Franklin of Kentucky Sports Radio fame. I've never met either outside of the occasional online discourse, but a few of my close friends from high school knew Beisner in college and have spoken highly of him. Multiple people who know both of us have also said Franklin and I would get along because we both enjoy the occasional drink, and...well I guess that's all you really need. We discuss html code, linking ethics, Jarrod Polson (the usual), and then take shots. It's with great reservation that I report that both are actually solid company.

By this point, New Orleans has taken over at least a quarter of everyone I'm with. Slurred references to Villen videos, Russ puns and Rick Pitino impersonations are being tossed around as liberally as the beads outside. It's awful, but it's great. That could actually be the city's tagline.

As tends to happen on memorable evenings where partial memory loss is inherent, the party goes from well-attended to packed during some unconscionable period of time. Suddenly, I get the overwhelming sensation that the dance floor may crumble beneath us. The song sparking the frenzy is a familiar one.

The next thing I know I'm in the middle of a group that includes high school friends, college friends, Wood, Perrin Johnson, Chris Current (missed out, Gianiny), and we're all belting out "We Found Love in a Gorgui Place." I'm told I made my way onto the little stage above the dance floor at some point, which I sincerely hope isn't true. If I'd remembered all of The V!ille's brilliant lyrics, then I wouldn't have hesitated or felt any day-after regret. Sadly, I'm quite confident the words escaped my brain on this evening.

A few more drinks and conversations about Saturday's game are shared before it's no longer deniable that the time to call it a night has already come and gone. Dan and CC Headquarters co-habitant Brandon had previously made the hasty decision to make a run at the shoddy casino in the area. Reception is terrible and I can't get ahold of anyone staying at our hotel.

I'm not sure there's an aspect of my being that could ever be labeled as John Wayne-esque to start with, but the least manly thing about me is without question my sense of direction. That's mostly because I don't have one. A few drinks, as might be predicted, exacerbates the condition.

About 30 minutes after the lights came up at the U of L party, the streets are looking strangely desolate. I do recognize a few faces and I talk to them about God knows what before moving on in what may or may not be the right direction. Still no service. The pink razr would be doing me just as much good here.

A few more blocks and it's no longer debatable: I'm lost in downtown New Orleans. I also have two features that need to be submitted in a handful of hours.

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