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Day 2 in Omaha: Lots more basketball than Day 1

What a great day of basketball — and we didn’t even have any games Thursday here in Omaha.

It was practice and press conference day for teams at this NCAA Tournament site. Teams involved with Friday’s early games went first, followed by the teams involved in the late games, which included Oklahoma State, starting around 4 p.m.

But of course, there was lots of basketball to watch from other sites before that.

John Helsley and I got our busy day started with a quick trip to Starbucks. John got two drinks — a sweet coffee concoction for now and an iced tea for later — while I had a regular coffee and some oatmeal.

Then, it was back to the hotel to get in some work. Because the press conferences were so late in the day, both John and I wanted to get most of our writing done on our main stories. He had a piece on OSU point guard Anthony Hickey while I was working on a column about LeBryan Nash. I had audio from interviews to transcribe, and I wanted to knock that out before tournament games came on TV just after 11.

I got done with plenty of time to spare, so I decided to go ahead and do my hair and makeup, so I wouldn’t have to do that while games were on. You don’t want to risk missing something.

And boy, there was plenty to see.

You knew almost from the start that the games were going to be close. Northeastern was hanging with Notre Dame. UAB was doing the same with Iowa State. As those games neared halftime, I knew that I wasn’t going to want to miss any of the second half. So, I figured I needed to find some lunch and bring it back to the room.

I did a Google search and realized that there was a Paradise Cafe, a chain that I’d been to before, just across the street from the hotel. I hadn’t seen it, but there seemed to be some mall of some sort there. And hey, Google assured me it was there, so it much be there.

I walked across the street and entered glass double doors that had business hours but not much else. I wasn’t even sure I was supposed to go in the doors. But no one seemed to be there to stop me. Inside, a waterfall. Pretty cool, but if felt like an office building. Maybe a bit like the old Sheperd Mall or even 50 Penn Place in Oklahoma City. I wondered if I was really in the right spot. But a sign told me that restaurants were this way and down the hall, so off I went.

After walking down a fairly long and narrow hallway, I walked into an atrium area where I realized what a crazy thing I’d stumbled into. What had seemed like a non-descript office building was instead something of a high-end mall. It had a Pottery Barn and a Pottery Barn for Kids. An Anthropologie. A White House Black Market. There was even a store with fur coats and hats. Wild.

Even better, there was the deli that I’d been promised by Google.

I went with a salad, dressing on the side, of course. But I also got a couple chocolate cookies. It was two for the price of one. How can a girl pass up one chocolate cookie much less two?

I went back to the hotel and caught the end of Notre Dame-Northeast and Iowa State-UAB.

So much fun.

I kept up with as many games as I could while writing as much as I could. But then around 3 p.m., I packed up to met Hels in the lobby. We had to drive too to the arena. Hels punched up the directions on his cell, and off we went down Dodge Street. It was another wide thoroughfare. Not seven lanes like the highway that we found ourselves on Wednesday, but always three lanes and many times more.

We went up and down hills; that’s apparently what you do in Omaha. I had no idea that this town was so hilly, but the hills also mean you get some interesting views. When we topped a hill after about 10 minutes, the Omaha skyline came into view.

We spied a Mutual of Ohama building. I told John that Mutual of Omaha made me think of “Wild Kingdom,” the TV show that featured all sorts of footage from wild animals. I know this may surprise younger readers, but there was a time when you couldn’t just go to YouTube and find 7,342 videos of lions in Africa. Back then, “Wild Kingdom” was it.

Downtown Omaha is an extreme mix of old and new architecture. And by old, I don’t mean 19th century. I mean mostly 60s and 70s. It’s got some buildings that definitely have that retro 70s look. But then, of course, it’s got the new arena where the regional games are being played and the new baseball field where the College World Series is played every June.

We ended up parking in a lot directly between the two facilities, so we got a decent look at both. The baseball park looks grand. Massive light towers. Gigantic scoreboard. Lots of seats. The basketball arena, CenturyLink Center, is well done, too. It’s attached to a massive convention space — that’s where our media work area is — so the whole structure is bigger than The Peake. But in the arena, it feels a lot like The Peake. Or pretty much any other new arena. These days, arenas are built largely the same.

Hels and I spent the next five hours or so working but trying to keep an eye on games. Most of the time, we knew when a good ending was in progress because we’d hear someone who was watching holler or curse.

After we finished working, we got to turn our attention more fully to the games going on. We met up with a few OSU folks at Burger Theory, a restaurant at the Cowboys team hotel. The team is staying on the other side of the baseball stadium from the arena, and that area is full of hotels and restaurants. I have to think that before the ballpark was built, none of that stuff existed. But now, when the CWS is in town? I could see the streets being blocked off and having a street party type of atmosphere there around the park.

We walked into the restaurant and found Dave Hunziker, radio voice of the Cowboys, and Kevin Klintworth, who oversees PR in the athletic department. We were joined later in the evening by Mark Cooper, who covers OSU for the Tulsa World, John Holcomb, who works for the CBS affiliate in Tulsa and is also the color analyst on the radio broadcasts, and even Dave’s daughter, Mara.

It was a fun night.

Sure, watching games was great. Burger Theory had TVs everywhere, so our biggest problem was figuring out which game to watch. But more than that, it was good to sit and talk with those guys. We see each other all the time, but we don’t often get to slow down and chat. We talked about the tournament, about our families, about all sorts of things.

We even got to talking about the 1988 NCAA Tournament. Kevin was working at K-State then. Dave was a student at Missouri. And I was a kid growing up in central Kansas who loved the Jayhawks. And that year was such an amazing year in the Big Eight. The depth of the talent of the teams was off the charts. Kansas beat OU in the national championship game, but K-State was the team that KU beat in the Elite Eight. Missouri had a great squad, too.

And that got us talking Big Eight ball and all the characters that it had. Johnny Orr. Norm Stewart. Larry Brown. Danny Nee. Billy Tubbs. And those were just the coaches, of course.

Dave mentioned the night that OU played Missouri and Tubbs took the microphone in Norman and told people not to throw things on the court, even if the refs did stink. I’m not sure I knew this, but Norm Stewart was in the hospital that night. He wasn’t on the Missouri bench. Rich Daly was coaching the Tigers in his absence. Dave insisted that if Norm had been there, there’s no way Billy would’ve said what he said because Norm would’ve put him in a headlock and beat the tar and feathers out of him.

Honestly, that sounds about right.

After we finished our burgers and beers, Hels and I headed back to the hotel. We listened to the end of Arkansas and Wofford on the radio. Still need to watch that sometime today. Sounded like a crazy flurry.

I’m not sure Friday can live up to what we saw Thursday, but here’s hoping.


Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›