KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There are posters and banners and people slapping high-fives. I am walking through the hotel lobby where the team is staying. You know which team. The team with the big NCAA tournament game tonight. The team we all knew would do it. The team from our home state. “When did Michigan change to green and white?” I ask people. “Pardon?” they say. Must’ve done it before I got here. There are all these green and white jackets, green and white banners, green and white faces. “What happened to maize and blue?” I ask. “Pardon?” they say. Well, the main thing is they’re here, just as everyone predicted. The Michigan Wolverines, in the NCAA regional basketball finals, just as everyone predicted. Only two victories away from the Final Four, just as everyone predicted. Where is everyone, anyhow?
“Have you seen Bill Frieder?” I ask people.
“Pardon?” they say.
I shake my head. The folks here sure are hard of hearing. I am glad I arrived early.
My boss said, “Wait until the second round games are over. Let’s see who wins.”
I said why bother? Michigan was the Big Ten champ. Michigan had been ranked No. 2 in the nation earlier this season. Prestigious magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Inside Sports had been very high on Michigan, said the Wolverines were the best in the Big Ten. And those magazines are never wrong.
“What about Michigan State?” he said.
“Nobody’s picking Michigan State,” I said.
I wonder what happened to Michigan State, come to think of it. Go State? Which state?
I am walking through an empty Kemper Arena, where they’ll play the big game tonight. There are no Wolverine banners. There are banners for Jayhawks and Cyclones and Wolfpacks. There is a poster hanging over the rafters that reads “GO STATE!” How about that? People rooting for the entire state. Soon there’ll be “GO COUNTRY!” And maybe “GO CONTINENT!”
Very nice. But there should be at least one with a picture of a wolverine. Shouldn’t there be one? No matter. I am ready for a good game. I am ready for the Michigan defense. I am ready for passes to the big man.
“How’s Tarpley looking?” I ask people. “Who?” they say.
I take out my Michigan media guide. I open to the photo page. I hold it up. People just shrug. “Joubert? Rellford?” I ask. “Who?” they said. Something funny is going on. I walk outside. People are talking about the team from Michigan. They are talking about the guards. The guards? They are talking about the running game. The running game? They are talking about Skiles and Johnson. Skiles and Johnson? Must be new recruits. That Michigan sure can recruit. Even during a tournament. Very impressive. “And how about that Terry Mills?” I say.
“Who?” they say. Why all the green and white?
This is the NCAA tournament. Isn’t it the NCAA tournament? This is where the best come to play. Isn’t it where the best come to play?
A bus from Michigan pulls up to the curb. At last, I figure, people with some sense. The door opens. Out jumps a huge man in a green and white jacket. He runs past me with a beer in his hands.
“Go Spartans,” he mumbles.
“Pardon?” I say.
He could not have said Spartans. The Spartans were picked for seventh in the Big 10. The Spartans have no center. The Spartans are too small. Any expert can tell you that. This is the NCAA, the final 16. What a shame when a guy has to drink so heavily this early in the morning.
A middle-aged couple gets off the bus. They are dressed in matching green and white sweaters. They are talking about the great coaching job Jud Heathcote has done. Poor people. Must have had a tough ride. I should tell them that Heathcote does not coach the Michigan Wolverines. But they’re probably deaf like everyone else down here. “Frieder, not Heathcote,” I whisper. “Pardon?” they say. Told you. Suddenly there is a big commotion.
“The team!” someone yells. I strain to get a good look as the men from Michigan walk by. What I see is remarkable.
They’ve got all new players. And new uniforms. They have new gym bags and new sweat suits. They have a new mascot. They even have a new coach. What a make-up job! The team that everybody knew would be here looks nothing like itself. In fact, it looks like . . . Michigan State. Boy. Wait’ll the folks back home hear this.