by Shawn Martin
Excelhsports Columnist


Glendale, Arizona –

With Purdue advancing to the Men’s NCAA Final Four at the Arizona Cardinals stadium, I get to cover this event for the first time.

I’m retired from my real job, so I decided to make it a little vacation out of it. I left cold and extremely windy Indiana Tuesday afternoon and began the long drive to the desert oasis in the Southwestern US.

Made it through St. Louis and a few hours past, stopped for the night. The trip itinerary via my Ford Escape’s navigation system took me into Oklahoma City. I detoured south a dozen miles or so and spent more than an hour Wednesday evening at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. Very moving. If you haven’t been, I would suggest you visit if you find yourself that way. I may stop on the way back home and see the museum that was closed when I got there.

I had never been in Oklahoma, Texas, or New Mexico before. The one time I have been to Phoenix, we flew in.

From Oklahoma City I felt good and was going to go as far as I could before stopping. I really didn’t get tired until it was really too late to get a room – so I stopped a couple of times and took naps and continued on my way.

I did make Amarillo by morning (2 in the morning).

About daybreak, I hit New Mexico and through Albuquerque. I FINALLY hit Arizona after passing by Gallup, NM. Stopped and got gas and rested for a bit.

A few miles down the road, my GPS took me off the interstate and onto a two-lane state highway through desolate desert terrain. It was 65 mph speed limit!

That was 35 miles or so on basically a dead straight road. Turned right and went several more miles and the landscape changed significantly. Lots of trees, signs signifying not deer crossing the road – but elk and wild horses.

As I continued on the drive, I started seeing what looked like snow on the side of the road. It’s Arizona and I had just spent most of the daylight hours Thursday driving through desert in New Mexico and Arizona. It’s almost dusk and I’m seeing snow piles and several spots with 6-8-inch-deep snow on either side of the road.

Oh. Then there were two horses just standing alongside the road grazing on the grass – not ten feet from my vehicle passing them. They didn’t have a care in the world.

Me and deer don’t have a good relationship on the roads – I was a bit nervous.

From there, I went through a small town and then onto US60 – a four lane highway through the mountains that reminded me very much of Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia where my mother was born and raised. So yes, I am half hillbilly.

It was dark, so I didn’t get to see much of the scenery. But the drive was fairly smooth, windy, and serious elevation changes. A friend told me that part of the area I drove through is actually a higher elevation than Denver.

I may take a drive back that way Sunday to see it in the daytime. Am thinking now I will visit Sedona on Tuesday when I head for home, then go stand on the corner in Winslow.

I got up Friday morning and headed to State Farm Stadium where the Final Four is being held. Got there early so I could grab my press credential and get a lay of the land of where I need to be during the games Saturday and Monday.

The public practice sessions are a 50-minute session for each of the four teams. North Carolina State was first, then Purdue, Alabama, and Connecticut last.

After some “challenges” finding the media credential place (not at the stadium – and let’s say, I got A LOT of steps in), I received my credentials seamlessly and was on my way back to the stadium. I only missed ten minutes of Purdue’s practice session.

Headed down to the event level, walked in the court area walked behind one of rhe baskets, high-fived Purdue Pete, and then walked down the sideline media tables where I found Lafayette Journal and Courier Purdue reporter Sam King standing. We talked for a bit. Then the Indianapolis Star’s Kyle Neddenriep came up and talked with us both. They headed off and I was needing to sit down after walking my marathon, so I took an open seat on the first row of the press row. Gold and Black Illustrated Purdue reporter Mike Carmin was sitting behind me talking with colleagues.

Looked to my right and Duke/NBA star Grant Hill was sitting on the table (because, who was going to tell Grant Hill that he couldn’t sit on the table?) talking with Bill Raftery and others.

The several thousand fans sitting across the way during the Purdue practice, were significantly dressed in black. One ticket reselling company allegedly said that their ticket sales to Indiana addresses surpassed the COMBINED total of tickets resold to residents of Alabama, Connecticut, and North Carolina.

It is a football stadium, and that will lessen the decibel levels, but from the looks of it, Purdue will have plenty of backers in the stands yelling BOILER UP!

One of the neat things about events like this is where people from different areas congregate together.

My friend and author Jerry Lewis Johnson. His book “A Dark Night in the Fieldhouse” is about one of the most pivotal Indiana High School Basketball state championship games – the year after the “Milan Miracle” – where the world was introduced to how the game is played nowadays with players like Oscar Robertson and teams Crispus Attucks and Gary Roosevelt, who faced each other in the 1955 state championship game in Butler (Hinkle) Fieldhouse.

Jerry and his wife have lived in Phoenix for many years. Jerry played football at Lafayette Jeff and at IU, and he playfully ribs his many friends that favor black and gold. The favor is always returned in kind.

I met him, his wife, and probably 18 more of their friends, most who now reside in the Phoenix area. They were all wearing Purdue garb, while Jerry was faithful and had his IU shirt on.

The group of old friends were there together celebrating not necessarily their favorite teams, but the experience of seeing their favorite team – well except for Jerry – being on the biggest stage in college basketball.

My friend Dave Mecklenburg from Lafayette was walking out about 50 feet from where I was sitting. He waved. I’m blind in one eye and can’t see out of the other (that is a standard joke for me) so I really didn’t recognize him at first – those of you that know Dave might have a hard time believing that. He came over and knew most of the people at the table. His buddy Trent Johnson then came over and spoke to all of us.

That is what the Final Four about.

They all left, and I headed to the bar and ordered something to eat. Sat down next to two other guys who were finishing up eating. Both had Purdue shirts on, one was from Ohio, the other Virginia, I think. Both were Purdue grads. The guy from Ohio played high school basketball at Delta high school near Muncie three years ahead of a 6-6 basketball junkie guard named Matt Painter.

They asked me what I thought about the weekend. I said I think Purdue has a good chance. They left to go on their way, nervous, but pleased with my assessment.

A couple then came up and sat on the other side of me. They also were decked out in black and gold – you see the pattern here. They are from Greensburg, have season tickets for Purdue games, 12 rows behind the Purdue bench in Mackey. He is a large farmer, she teaches school. Both are Purdue grads, as are their three girls, one a Lilly Scholar.

We sat and talked – mostly about basketball, but farming and other things too – and watched the end of the South Carolina NC State women’s Final Four game and the beginning of the Iowa UCONN game that followed.

There was an NC State fan that came and sat down at the bar with us – our vetting was obviously lacking – and we all had a great time talking about whatever and having a little fun poking fun at each other.

I have been to a women’s Final Four back when Purdue advanced in 1994. With work and other things, I have never been to a men’s Final Four before.

It has been a cool experience so far – and exhausting from all the walking this old man has done today – and hopefully Purdue can give me something good to write about over the next three days.

Purdue’s semifinal game tips off just after 6 pm Saturday (eastern time). If they play on Monday, that tip time is after 9 pm. So maybe take a nap while the sun is covered up with the eclipse!

Let’s do this! BOILER UP!

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