If you'd like to refresh your memory by reading Part I, you can do so here
The perfect level of intoxication for a situation like being alone and lost in downtown New Orleans at 4:30 in the morning includes both the lack of proper fear for your surroundings and the lack of excessive pride which would otherwise prevent outside assistance.
A cab is hailed and the captain is every white taxi driver ever depicted in modern cinema. He's overweight, 90% bald and one look at him makes it clear that he's seen people in 75 times worse shape than the guy climbing into his backseat.
My request warrants a three second pause.
"You know that's about 15 seconds that way?" he says gesturing to the left with his head.
I'm the fly in the car with four open windows who still can't quite figure out the path to freedom. This isn't the time to take chances.
"Yeah, I'm sorry, man. I'll tip you well."
The hotel really is about 15 seconds away (think Love Actually prime minister limo ride...actually just think Love Actually, period...good flick) and I really do tip him well. Just like that disaster is at least momentarily averted.
When I get back to the room, all three of my bunk mates for the evening are tucked solidly in bed. It feels like a situation which warrants a conniption that's equally minor and unnecessary, and so I oblige until the desire for sleep overtakes misplaced liquid pride, which isn't long.
Three separate alarms go off at 7:30, which leads me to assume that there was a request made at some point before the lights were flipped off for the last time. It's the day of the biggest Louisville basketball game of my lifetime and I'm facing it with three hours of sleep to my credit.
The expected "I can squeeze in 45 more minutes" thoughts begin to hit home before I remember that we're on Central Time and the work day has already started for the folks I have to answer to. I check my email and at the top of the list is a message from my editor simply titled, "ETA?" This is not ideal.
CC Headquarters co-habitant Brandon's boss - who made the fairly bold move of claiming a bed approximately eight hours after having met me - is the only other person willing to accept that a new day is here, and he's making it known by throwing out all the expected "you young guys can't hang with the old timers" lines. My struggling mind hates him until he brings me a cup of coffee that tastes more like pity than gratitude.
I'm not even two paragraphs into my "feel for the scene" piece before a crisis pops up on the other side of the room.
Dan, whose fiancé was already none-too-thrilled about him taking this trip the weekend before his bachelor party in the Bahamas, is staring at his phone like it's one of his high school report cards.
"So I meant to text Ron (some people call me Ron) 'OMG down 500' from the casino last night, and I f---ing sent it to Kim. So now she's wondering why I'm gambling when I promised her I wasn't going to spend a lot of money, and why I'm sending her that message at 4:15 after I'd already told her we were in the room and going to bed at 1. I mean, this is a f---ing nightmare."
This is f---ing hilarious.
Ordinarily my M.O. would be to keep laughing at the situation before assisting in the equally hilarious damage control effort, but my own situation doesn't permit that type of wiggle room.
Everyone else soon decides to go eat, and the resulting solitude is much appreciated. The voice notes on my phone and the videos I recorded on my flip cam are more helpful than I ever imagined they could be at the time, both in terms of providing quotes and sparking memories of what actually transpired last night.
Somehow, 5,000 words are pounded out over the course of a couple of hours and both pieces are submitted, edited and placed without grievance. It's not until this weight is removed that it really feels like this is actually the day where this is actually going to happen.
My next move is the first Twitter check of the day, where several people are letting me know that they ran into CBS writer Jeff Goodman the night before and asked him about the contest prize he's owed me for two and-a-half years. I'm still reading through these when my temporary roommates return.
"Dude, I forgot to tell you, we ran into Goodman last night," Dan says. "We asked him about your prize and if he was taking us out tonight or tomorrow. He said he brought a signed picture of Steve Masiello down for you. Pretty sure he was joking."
"What'd you say to Kim."
"Ok, first I was go---well let me just read it to you: 'haha. i was trying to text ron to tell him we were down 500 canal st. bc he was asking where we were. can see how that could be misconstrued. lol.'"
"That's the worst f---ing thing I've ever heard."
"Dude, I think she bought it. Either that or she's just stopped caring."
"My guess is the latter."
"Yeah, I'm getting a lot of one word responses. But I mean it makes sense, you know, our hotel is on 500 Canal St."
Just let him have this one.
The shower rotation begins as I dive into a bag of Chex Mix and start to take care of all the Chronicling that needs to be done before we leave for the game. A couple of pre-game stories are written and the Santa Strong game thread is set to post. It's the first time I really realize that being here means breaking almost all of the traditions that had become sacred over the past three weeks.
CC Headquarters had played host to the watch party for every game of Louisville's postseason run up until this point. Brandon and I had gone through the same HQ preparations, we'd all worn the same clothes, we'd all sat in the same spots, I'd tweeted and posted the same pre-game stuff at roughly the same time before tip, and all of it - or at least some of it - had worked for eight straight games. Being in New Orleans was a once in a lifetime opportunity that couldn't be passed over, but the part or parts of me that longed for home and for the routine at this monumental moment were impossible to repress.
The one tradition that was easy to keep alive was the unwashed game outfits. Although "easy" might be a poor choice of words considering Dan is now wearing a track jacket in 85 degree heat as we stroll down Bourbon St. to meet friends for pre-game drinks. His only coping devices are self-deprecation and third-person references.
"F---ing track jacket for Seton Hall? What are you thinking, Dan? You've got to plan for these types of things to happen."
My ill-fitting 2009 Big East Tournament championship t-shirt paired with brown shoes and jeans doesn't have me feeling like Lagerfeld either, but a glance in any direction reveals superstitious Cards fans with forced hands that are far more unfortunate.
We arrive at a location dominated by red and see plenty of faces from the night before who appear to be in almost miraculously good shape. The parade leads outside where Eric Wood is sporting his now exalted Gorgui jersey and talking with Joe Tronzo.
I spot "Mayor of New Orleans" Art Carmody, who just got into the city this morning. He has an excited look different from everyone else around him that I've seen before; it's the look of a displaced Cardinal fanatic on cloud nine over the fact that he's finally able to celebrate an event like this with hundreds of others who feel the same way he does.
After receiving a world-famous Carmody hug and talking for a couple of minutes, there's no longer any doubt: this is the happiest person on earth.
"Man, I'm just really glad I got to see you. I've gotta tweet about this."
Wood comes over after a while and the conversation turns to the three of us doing something where we can talk about sports once his playing career is over. The details are a shade below sketchy because there are none, which is perfectly fine since all parties concerned knew from the moment it started that the conversation was destined to devolve into nothing but more Russ and Gorgui stories.
Word starts to circulate that Mike Marra is inside, casually drinking and interacting with fans. Brandon goes on a recon mission and comes back with confirmation.
Despite the lack of sleep and the hangover, this is about as close to Cardinal Heaven as I've ever been, and maybe ever will be. And maybe the lack of sleep and the hangover are a part of it. Hell, maybe they're a really big part of it.
We keep drinking and suddenly cautious optimism has cleared out to make room for talk of where we're all going to meet to start the victory celebration. Suddenly, I'm reminded of my favorite piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut.
I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'
Regardless of what happens tonight, this is pretty nice. That recognition deserves at least a moment.
There's some confusion over how far away the Superdome is, and we all agree to err on the side of caution and leave earlier than we probably should. I'm not sure what the plural form of "let's do this" is, but several of those are shared as we all part ways.
A Big Blue high school friend who won $27,000 at the casino the night before (and who I now hate for the rest of the weekend) goes to buy road drinks and accidentally purchases several triple bourbon and ginger-ales. I'm not much of a bourbon man to begin with anymore (a single 19-year-old night of poor choices can completely ruin an acquired taste), and one sip provides a clear indication that this can't happen. After walking a ways, I hand the drink to a friend of a friend who might very well be the last person in New Orleans who needs it. He's overwhelmed by the gesture and promises to "put it on the Card Chronicle tab." I choose to blame his state for the lack of fundamental understanding of how a tab works.
Dan, whose hangover has somehow gotten progressively worse as the day has gone on, chooses to go another route and simply places his giant drink on the ground. It's not more han five seconds later when we hear the unmistakable sound of the drink being knocked over followed by a man's voice and "it's all over my Goddamn leg." The gift route proves once and for all to be the superior route.
The walk to the Superdome is not a fun one, and the endless stream of people coupled with the giant structure being forever visible rebuffs any potential false belief that the journey might be more brief than it actually is. This is frustrating, but it also provides ample opportunity to people watch and fully absorb the event.
The strange combination of confidence and fear in the eyes of just about every Kentucky fan is impossible to miss. They know their feeling of superiority is justified, but they're also fully aware of just how much is at stake here.
Louisville fans, supporters of the biggest Final Four underdog in over a decade, also have a complete understanding of the situation. Not surprisingly, they're far more willing to embrace the "what if" aspect during this period than their rivals are. The result is a far greater number of C-A-R-D-S chants on the walk than its 1/5 smaller counterpart, despite Kentucky fans existing in greater numbers.
The Superdome disappears behind a couple of buildings for the last few blocks of the walk, and then it makes its triumphant return and absolutely knocks you on your ass. The size of the dome along with the fact that we're so close to entering it strikes some sort of "holy shit this is overwhelming" core inside of me, and I no longer want to talk to anyone.
Dan doesn't share the feeling.
"I feel like this is the culmination of all my work as a Louisville fan. Like, going to all those games for all those years, the Decemer games against Coppin State and all that stuff; it's like, this is your reward."
Things suddenly take on a dreamy state, so much so that I almost expect be on the verge of falling into a pool before violently jerking awake in bed. A Kentucky fan borrows my phone to make a call that fails, pictures are taken, the most blasé security check of all-time happens, and then Dan and I hug Brandon as we part ways once inside. None of it really feels like it's actually taking place.
We're about 45 minutes early, but the dome, especially the designated fan sections, is already heavily populated. Our seats are literally right at midcourt and about halfway up the interim level. Again, proper respects, Buick.
My first borderline meal of the day is the worst-tasting mini-pizza I've ever had in my life. I'm legitimately concerned that it was left over from the last Saints game. It's still gone in less than five minutes.
Dan, meanwhile, is battling with the enormity of the situation and a hangover that apparently possesses the drive and ambition of Jack's beanstalk.
"I'm struggling, man. This is bad. God, this is exactly what you didn't want to happen, Dan. So stupid."
Glenn Logan, who runs the Kentucky SB Nation site A Sea of Blue, and his wife wind up sitting next to us, sparking proper introductions. They're both very pleasant, but for their benefit as much (probably more) as ours, I kind of wish their tickets were at least a couple of rows away.
The teams leave the floor after their shoot-around and then come back for the pregame routine. I hadn't even noticed but the dome is now completely full and suddenly it feels like both sides are on the verge of an unparalleled outburst. Any glimpse of a Cardinal or Wildcat on the jumbo tron elicits cheers worthy of a game-winner from halfcourt. C-A-R-D-S cheers are countered with "Go Big Blue."
This is actually happening.
Since we never had a replete with Cardinal heads game review, that's going to happen in an abbreviated form right now.
When the brackets came out, I jokingly said that if Louisville played Kentucky in the Final Four I thought I would just die right when the ball was tipped off. I'm still kicking, but the 20 or so minutes before that game were unlike anything I've ever experienced. I was glad I was there, but it was overwhelming to the point of not really being any fun. I wound up just looking forward to the time when I'd be able to lose myself enough in the game enough that my mind would be tricked into believing - or at least partially believing - that this was just another game or that this was just another opponent.
Most of the people in our section were non-partisan fans who got tickets through their jobs, and just about all of them said they were rooting for Louisville because they didn't like Kentucky. At one point before the game when the two sides were offering up dueling cheers, the guy sitting to my right looked at me and just said, "this is f---ing insane."
I think I said "it's too much" at least five times before tip. It really was.
Having said that, this will still go down as one of my favorite two-minute spans ever:
You've been forever-redeemed, "Party Rock Anthem."
To cope with the nerves, I spent the bulk of the pregame trying to muster up enough cell service to send out my traditional "Let's go right now" pregame tweet, but it just wasn't meant to be. I still blame this for the loss.
Didn't know Monica was still making public appearances, but she killed the national anthem. Figuratively.
I'm not sure I could have been more proud of our student section. They were incredibly rowdy from start to finish. Well done, kids.
The funniest part of the game, in hindsight, took place pretty early on. Twice, the jumbo tron featured a Kentucky player and then Louisville player in succession talking about something briefly (couldn't really hear over the cheers). The first time it happened, it was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist followed by Kyle Kuric. The second time, Anthony Davis popped up and UK fans went absolutely apeshit. The U of L answer to the consensus national Player of the Year was...Kevin Ware. I mean, we still cheered, but it was...interesting.
And that was it. Those were the four players selected to give individual monologues on the Superdome jumbo tron: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kyle Kuric, Anthony Davis and Kevin Ware.
Gorgui played as poorly during the first ten minutes of the game as he had all season, but it was also clear from pretty early on just how special Anthony Davis was. Him hitting the heavily contested left-handed baby hook a possession after scoring with his right hook was probably the most helpless moment of the season for Louisville fans, because you realized there was just nothing to be done about this.
The Wayne Blackshear follow-up dunk was the hardest right fist I've ever thrown in my life, and that's 100% not hyperbole. It also resulted in about seven random high-fives and just as many "let's go's." I'm getting chills just thinking about it.
Peyton's three might have been the defining moment of my life to that point (Ok, that's hyperbole), but I still think actually evening the score was the worst thing that could have happened for Louisville there. Up to that point the Cards had been working only to minimize the gap between them and UK, and when that gap was completely erased it was sort of like our guys went, "well, mission accomplished" and then stopped playing for a second.
On the possession right after Peyton tied the game, Kentucky missed a shot in transition, but then Kyle and Gorgui just stared at the ball instead of going after it, and UK wound up with an easy put-back. Then the next possession was Kyle falling down and MKG ending up with an easy dunk.
When our guys got their bearings back and realized that they had to keep playing, the shots stopped falling.
I noticed that it was Darius Miller who was wide-open and about to receive the pass for that big shot before it was even thrown. At that moment, I came to terms with the fact that the shot was going to go in and that we were already down seven.
That kid was like 97% over his senior season on key momentum shots.
That sequence at the end of the game was really bizarre with Peyton walking the ball up the floor and then setting up the offense with us down eight and 30 seconds to play. Of course it didn't matter, but it seemed like a pretty clear indication that all the build-up and all the emotion did have at least some affect on the players.
Kentucky would wind up cementing its status as one of the better teams in the history of modern college basketball, and the best shot they would take during their run to the national title would come on this day from our guys. Still, seeing the Wildcat players and fans celebrate after defeating Louisville in the Final Four is an experience I would have gladly gone a lifetime without.
Once things died down, I shook hands with Glenn and his wife and told them I hoped they'd go ahead and bring the title back home. It was a fairly obvious lie, but one I feel like both sides are obligated to tell and accept in that situation.
The Logans and most of the other fans around us left their seats momentarily, and only then did it the fact that I was completely and utterly drained truly set in.
We've talked enough about Louisville basketball and the Kentucky rivalry on here that I don't feel the need to fully defend or explain the "it's just a game" angle in this situation. I wasn't coaching, I wasn't playing, I wasn't on the sidelines, but this was still one of the most emotionally-draining three-hour periods of my life. And sadly, the natural epinephrine shot that's inherent with victory wasn't coming afterward.
For about half an hour, I just sat...in the truest sense the action can take on. I didn't talk, I didn't really look around, I didn't strain to think about anything that didn't come naturally; I just sat.
A select couple of people sent the necessary "I'm sorry" text messages, which was appreciated, but not to the extent that I could force myself to muster up a response. If you're close enough to send the immediate post season-ending-loss text, then you're aware of and Ok with the fact that a heartfelt "thank you" won't be received in a timely fashion. These people know what they've gotten into and what they're dealing with.
We elected to stay for the Kansas/Ohio State game primarily so we could prolong the numbness and not have to interact with other people for as long as possible.
At one point, Dan made an effort to liven the mood.
"Nick Young...I mean Kevin Young...Kevin Young looks like he plays for Sam Jacks--Coach Jackso---Coach Carter's team. Shit, I've got no idea where I'm going with this. I've got nothin' left."
More texts started to come in near the end of the second game, a strong majority of which included "please be safe," or something along those lines. An unprovoked 3 a.m. right cross several weeks earlier was enough to stir the concern of friends and family, but the scene both at the dome and throughout downtown was far more cordial than I think anyone envisioned during the preceding week.
Kentucky had won by about the amount it was expected to prevail by, but Big Blue Nation had been given far too much of a scare to gloat excessively. Louisville had seen its season ended by its arch-rival, but cardinal fans also knew that its team had been beaten by not just a better one, but the best one. The result was any contentious behavior being overwhelmed by "that was a hell of an effort" and "the better team won" give-and-takes.
We got back to the hotel room and talked excessively with each other and others on the phone about what had just taken place. The conclusion was always the same: that was a hell of an effort, it was a hell of a run, it just sucked that it had to be Kentucky.
A brief debate over whether or not to go out was settled when Dan fell asleep and Brandon put on pajama pants without an announcement. I opted to start hammering away at my piece for the morning and ignore the fact that Twitter had made it known that Russ Smith and Chane Behanan were both on Bourbon Street.
Just as I was about to make the day's final commitment, a call came in from Dan's brother Colin, the other force behind the Peyton/Russ - Woody/Buzz Lightyear theory. He said he had just bumped into Russ on Bourbon St. and talked to him for five minutes about the Toy Story angle.
I'd been previously informed that Peyton had seen the resulting photoshop and had been a fan, but who knew where the space ranger stood on all of this. The last way I wanted this night to end was with an insult from Russ Smith.
"He f--king loves it. I told him I was the guy who started that conversation and right away he was like, 'oh man, me and Peyton think that is hilarious.' It was incredible."
The first push back towards happiness is always the most important one.