HOUSTON — Traffic along Interstate 69 is starting to get heavy as I navigate my car towards downtown Houston. Catching a glimpse of Minute Maid Park off to the right brings a rush of adrenalin. The Houston Astros, the reigning World Series champions, open their season this weekend. The Los Angeles Lakers are also in town attempting to secure a spot in the NBA playoffs.
I’m here for the men’s Final Four, college basketball’s premier event, that is experiencing a bit of a shake-up this year. Miami, San Diego State, Florida Atlantic and UConn, with no top seeds reaching the Final Four for the first time in history? While the fans of those schools celebrated like they won the lottery, I’m still recovering from an NCAA bracket that sits at a near-zero percentile.
As I pull up to the media hotel on Thursday, downtown Houston’s lack of acknowledgement of the Final Four is surprising. The fans have yet to arrive and there’s scant Final Four signage near the hotel on Main Street. You’d never guess one of the biggest events in sports is just two days away.
During my drive to pick up my credential from NRG Stadium, six miles from downtown Houston, I’m wondering what it’s like in Dallas, the site of the women’s Final Four.
In Dallas, there will be more top seeds (South Carolina and Virginia Tech).
In Dallas, there will be more celebrated players (South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark and lSU’s Angel Reese).
In Dallas, there will definitely be more buzz, with the advance hype at levels the men’s tournament can’t match.
I have my men’s credential. I was approved for a women’s tournament, which I’ve never attended.
Why not do both?
It’s a 225-mile drive to Dallas, a straight shot north on Interstate 45. Nearly three hours into the drive, the first imagery of the women’s Final Four appears just as you enter the city: a digital billboard with an image in its rotation congratulating the South Carolina basketball team.
Give the women’s basketball committee credit: hosting the Final Four in a basketball arena that’s close to the other events creates a sense of connection that the men’s tournament can’t replicate at domed stadiums (like Houston’s NRG Stadium) that are far from the city center.
“I love the women’s Final Four because everything is in one location,” said Denise Gaylord, who lives in Lakeland, Florida. “Every year since 2012 the Final Four has been my winter vacation and it takes me to a lot of places that I’ve never been to.”
While Gaylord has adopted South Carolina as her team — she traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, for the regional final and attended Friday’s game wearing an Aliyah Boston jersey —she became a women’s basketball fan while living in New York during the emergence of former WNBA star Chamique Holdsclaw, a Queens borough native.
“This game is special, and I’ve taken friends to women’s basketball games and they’ve become hooked,” Gaylord said. “Here at the Final Four, you get a chance to see legends walking around.”
Besides the legends walking around the venues holding tournament events (Lisa Leslie, Cheryl Miller, Seimone Augustus and Nancy Lieberman are among the former WNBA stars attending games during the weekend), there are legends in the making on the court, including Iowa’s Clark. Known for her shoot-from-the-logo range similar to Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Clark’s the reason the Kulow family — Keith, Jenn and their daughter, Dolcey — traveled to Dallas for their first Final Four.
“Having Caitlin Clark has completely changed the interest in women’s college basketball,” Keith Kulow said. “The atmosphere at Carver-Hawkeye Arena [which hosted a viewing of Sunday’s championship game] is insane. Every game’s a sellout.”
And those Iowa fans travel well. At the start of Friday’s South Carolina/Iowa game, the roar for Iowa in the American Airlines Center gave the building the feeling of a home game.
“This environment just gives you goosebumps,” Jenn Kulow said. “This has been an unbelievable experience. It’s usually the men’s tournament we watch, but I had to give up on my bracket after the first round.”
This year’s Final Four feels different in the sense that it’s the first time that the conversation about the women’s event is more elevated than the men’s.
The women are just as intense as men.
The women play defense with the same tenacity as the men.
The women shoot 3-pointers with the same extended range as the men.
And then there’s the trash talk and emotions that maybe exceed what occurs in the men’s college game. New rivalries have put the women’s game among the top trending topics since the tournament began.
Reese, one of those trending topics over the weekend, has embraced her place — it’s a love-her or hate-her place — among the discussions and debates on social media, especially following LSU’s win over Iowa on Sunday for the title.
“Twitter is going to go on a rage every time, and I’m happy,” Reese said from the podium following Sunday’s win. “I feel like I’ve helped grow women’s basketball this year. I’m superhappy and excited.”
The emergence of Reese and LSU, the shooting accuracy of Clark and the continued dominance of South Carolina had the women’s game leading the discussion of college basketball in the past three weeks.
“You can always think about people making negative comments about women’s basketball, women’s sports in general, but it’s proof that the numbers are going up,” Boston said. “Everyone is excited to watch the women’s game. You can’t really deny that people are interested in watching women’s sports. It’s just really exciting to be part of the generation that’s continuing to help it grow.”
Watching two incredible semifinals on Friday — LSU beat Virginia Tech in the opener, and Iowa defeated South Carolina in a nightcap that smashed television ratings records with an average of 5.5 million viewers — made the trip to Dallas worth the drive. (The ratings numbers for Sunday’s LSU/Iowa title game, televised on ABC, were expected to soar even higher.)
Arriving back in Houston at 3:15 a.m. Saturday, I wondered just how the men could top a night that set the sports world on fire.
Entering George R. Brown Convention Center early Saturday afternoon, I spotted Tristan Frederick on the top of a ladder with a pair of scissors doing what Final Four champions do: cutting down nets.
He’s actually mimicking cutting down nets, one of the many exhibits at the Men’s Final Four Fan Fest.
What a difference two days make: I arrived Thursday to a downtown that resembled a ghost town and came back to a vibrant atmosphere with basketball fans from across the nation filling the streets.
Frederick, who lives in Houston, is at the festival with his mother, Alisa Hubert, and friend Ethan Pressley.
“Cutting down the nets was fun,” Frederick said. “Now I want to go back inside and play some more basketball.”
Inside, the atmosphere resembles one big sports party. Kids of all ages — there are quite a few 70-something kids here — shoot baskets, hit wiffle balls on replica fields and kick footballs. The biggest crowd surrounds the court where NBA legend Magic Johnson is representing a soft drink company.
Colby Williams, who lives in Houston, is inside snapping photos of the wall with logos of each of the 68 NCAA tournament participants. When asked the difference in buzz between the men’s and women’s tournaments, he takes a moment to think about the question.
“It’s amazing to see the progression of the women in terms of skills,” Williams said. “And what Iowa has with Caitlin Clark? Her skill level is amazing and she’s a bucket. The Rockets should draft her.”
In the parking lot on the grounds of NRG Stadium, James Carter has backed his SUV into a spot in the shadows of the abandoned Astrodome. His trunk is open to a spread that includes Cajun turkey, chips and beverages. “I know people,” he tells me when I ask how he got the hookup.
The conversation turns to a comparison between the two Final Fours and his buddy Robert Walker chimes in.
“The talent is evolving in women’s sports,” Walker said. “Caitlin Clark, she’s like another Larry Bird and her presence and ability is really shaping the way people look at college sports right now.”
While Clark’s name comes easily for Walker, I ask him to name a few players in the men’s game he’s about to attend. “That’s a good question,” he says, as he can’t come up with an answer.
The lack of stars at this year’s men’s Final Four didn’t equate to a lack of excitement. There’s a high level of intrigue in a tournament featuring four teams not expected to be here, and when San Diego guard Lamont Butler hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer in the opening game win over Florida Atlantic, the roar was deafening.
“Once I looked up, it was two seconds left, I knew I had to make a shot,” Butler said. “I’m just so happy that we’re in this position and we have a chance to win the national championship.”
Watching Butler’s shot from the top of the arena in the 600 level were Houston native Julius Keys and his two sons, Dylan and Dawson, all rocking Miami T-shirts and rally chains.
“My favorite part was the game-winning shot,” Dawson, 11, said. “It was so exciting and the building went crazy.”
While the building went crazy, did Julius Keys actually see the shot fall?
“It’s pretty tough for me to see from way up here, but they have better eyes, so it’s good for them,” Keys said, laughing. “But the Final Four is here in Houston, and it’s just good to be in the building with my sons.”
Being in the building at a Final Four, that’s what it’s really all about.
Whether you’re watching the women’s tournament, or the men’s.
Watching in an arena in Dallas, or a dome in Houston.
Seeing a Final Four with two top seeds, or a Final Four with none.
“It’s a chance of a lifetime,” Keys said. “We’re having a great time.”