Final Four: Fans Take Over Downtown Indianapolis

I didn’t know what to expect when I exited off I-70 and headed into downtown Indy on Friday afternoon to watch the Butler Bulldogs practice. I figured it’d be crowded, but considering Friday’s part of the work week and all, I wasn’t planning on encountering massive crowds of juiced up basketball fans. I was wrong.

Streets were shut down, makeshift drinking tents were set up, and crowds of people — most of them wearing Butler gear — were flowing in the same direction; towards Lucas Oil Stadium. I followed the crowd, and when I finally arrived at the base of the stadium — I had to park about a mile away — I was amazed at the amount of people assembled outside. If the sky had been grey and the temperatures in the 40’s, you would have thought the Indianapolis Colts were minutes from kickoff, that’s how much buzz was in the air.

I entered The Luke, and immediately took in the altered decor. The duo of dragsters that normally greet patrons were covered up with a blue tarp, and there was a giant black curtain blocking the view of the stands and court. After a bit of wandering, I penetrated the curtain and got my first glimpse of basketball in Indy‘s football fieldhouse. And what a glimpse it was. The hometown Bulldogs had just taken the court, and the stands were filled. I heard afterwards the attendance was rumored to be as high as 40,000 people. I don’t know if there were that many, but I did have to coax a little girl to move her candy wrappers off an empty seat in order to find a remotely good view of what was happening on the court.

The action I saw wasn’t impressive, the Butler players weren’t actually practicing, just shooting around and adjusting to the surroundings, but being in the building with that many frenzied, like-minded people was exhilarating.

When the Bulldogs wrapped their shooting exhibition, they began to gather at center court for the obligatory team breakdown, and the crowd, sensing a final opportunity to show their support before Saturday night’s game against Michigan State, began to slowly applaud. As the team gathered in a group around Brad Stevens, the clapping grew louder, and vocal cheers rang out through the stadium. I can’t say it’s the loudest ovation I’ve ever heard, far from it, but for a noontime “practice” session, it was a sound to behold. The players, in turn, broke their huddle and began applauding the fans, thanking them for their enthusiastic backing during the Bulldogs improbable tourney run.

Stevens was interviewed directly afterwards by Jim Nantz, and when he told the assembled crowd (I’m going by memory here); “I know some of you may not be Butler fans, but we’re planning on converting on you by the end of the weekend!” the place erupted for a second time. Just imagine what it will be like come Saturday night, when there’re 60,000 fans cheering actual game action. I’m getting goose-pimples just thinking about it…

Not wanting to hang out and watch Tom Izzo and the Spartans show off their shooting touch, I ventured outside and spent the next couple of hours wandering aimlessly around, taking in the sights, which included:

Indiana University coach Tom Crean surrounded in the tunnel over Capitol Street, shaking hands, taking pictures, signing autographs, and smiling a winner’s smile the whole time. As a diehard Hoosiers supporter, it was great thing to see, even if he was only in town to schmooze and recruit, not actually coach a meaningful game.

-A 12-year old kid wearing a Jimmy Chitwood Hickory Huskers jersey. I thought that was pretty cool.

-Enough hot women to keep a grown man’s head on a swivel all afternoon. I thought that was pretty cool too.

-An apparel store at every corner. The prices were pretty outrageous — I’m not spending $25 on a t-shirt unless it dispenses beer and gives me massages — but I have to admit, I really wanted a logoed shirt commemorating the event, inflated prices or not.

-A line a mile long, or so it seemed, waiting to get into “Bracket Town,” an interactive fan experience located inside the Indiana Convention Center. I was pretty intrigued at what “Bracket Town” was all about, but my abhorrence of long lines and empty wallet prevented me from finding out. Seemed like a good time though.

-Bars packed wall-to-wall with giddy fans wearing paraphernalia from schools all over the country. I saw people from as far west as UC Santa Barbara, and as far north as North Dakota State. I even saw one fan wearing a coon skin hat, an obvious sign he was a West Virginia supporter.

-A man being carried down the streets in handcuffs. Remember people, the crazies will be out in full force all weekend long, so be careful. And don’t yell at the cops.

Overall, the experience couldn’t have better. It’s easy to see why Indianapolis is quickly becoming a preferred spot to host major events. In terms of fan friendliness and convenience – visitors can take in all the festivities without ever having to hail a cab – Indy is unrivaled in the sporting world. Now if only we could guarantee temperatures in the high-70’s and a cloudless sky for the 2012 Super Bowl

If you’re an Indianapolis sports fan looking for more Bulldog coverage, be sure to check back with all weekend long.