What's Changed at George Mason, Part I (Outside)
Tailgating, for one thing. When I showed up at George Mason on Saturday afternoon, the parking lot was filled with people and cars and grills and empty containers of alcohol. There was no mistaking what was going on. Sure, this had previously happened in Fairfax, before big conference showdowns, but for the first game of the year? A non-conference game? Against some school from Kansas?
"Dude, I can't tell you how surreal this is," said Tom, the first fan I met. "This is not the George Mason I went to. This guy over here just got approached by a scalper! At a Mason game!"
(Note: John Feinstein--who greeted me on Saturday by asking "Do you miss journalism?"--writes about the changes taking place at George Mason by hanging out with big-money donors in their private reception room and probably eating caviar or something. Me, I'm out with the people.)
So anyhow, I went over to "this guy over here," who turned out to be Mason message board celebrity Fro, clad in a winter hat and sunglasses and riding a skateboard. Ticket scalping, it turns out, is also new, and Fro was excited.
"Honestly, that was the greatest moment of my life," Fro said. "Some dude just tried to sell me tickets at a George Mason game! I've been here when there were 1,000 fans, and the opposing team was shooting free throws at the opposite end, and I could heckle them from across the court, and they would hear me and laugh. And now there are people asking me, "Do you need tickets?' That's ridiculous. That is [bleepin'] ridiculous. My pants are tight, that's all I can say. Quote me on that."
Done. Nearby, I saw one of those weird obscure record-label booths that are also de rigueur at tailgates. Capital Hill Records, it was called. They were pumping beats and handing out sexually suggestive postcards. I asked them about the crowd.
"Definitely better than what we expected," said intern Dave Lord, a former Mason student. "We weren't sure when we came here what the scene would be like. We were a little surprised how many people were here....Last year this kind of stuff wasn't going on."
Those words were used a lot on Saturday, inside and outside the Pat Dome.
"Last year there would have been one-quarter this many people," said Will Curley, a current student, as he broke down his own tailgate. "Obviously, things have changed....My parents are Penn State alumni, so I know how to tailgate. I felt really at home tonight."
I briefly argued the point with him--you didn't really just compare Penn State football tailgating with George Mason basketball tailgating, did you?--but what the heck. People were having a good time. Kids were handing out face paint. Charcoal was being extinguished. Alcohol was being downed. And, what's this, a fan was being handcuffed for having too much fun?
Turns out the fan was Fro, who had attempted to avoid a police car on his skateboard, had wiped out and was now being shoved into that same police car. His friends had chosen to keep walking toward the Pat Dome so as not to miss the Final Four banner raising. Since I was still feeling grateful toward Fro for the above quote, I went over to see if I could help. Suddenly, it was 1992 and I was in high school, again as the policemen asked me to back off and mind my own business. One officer said that Fro was drunk and was being taken to jail, and that I should try to gather his skateboard, which I did, and that we could pick him up in a few hours. I also wound up with two pairs of sunglasses, one of which might have belonged to Fro, and the phone number of a non-basketball fan who had witnessed the whole incident, beginning to end, and wanted to serve as a character witness for Fro, who he said had done nothing wrong.
And so anyhow, I entered Mason's home opener carrying the skateboard of a man whose name I didn't know, which was also a new experience, at least for me.
"Did you skateboard here?" asked Colonial Athletic Association Commish Tom Yeager. "Does The Washington Post like its reporters skateboarding to assignments? I was gonna say, if you're that hard up, we can throw the skateboard in my trunk and I'll give you a ride home."
See, this day was all about new experiences. And incidentally, I always knew message boards were nothing but trouble. (Second part on the way.....)
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