Last weekend, I did something that was maybe three-fourths of the way to crazy. After K-State defeated Kentucky on Thursday night, the thought crossed my mind to find a way to Atlanta for the Elite 8 matchup with Loyola.
For all the great K-State memories I have, there are relatively few from personally attending really big games, the 2003 Big 12 Championship notwithstanding. I have never attended a bowl game. In 2010, I was on a plane to Vegas and missed the entire classic with Xavier, then had to endure the loss to Butler from a cabana at Mandalay Bay.
So when K-State made only its third Elite 8 in my 34-year lifetime, it crossed my intoxicated brain on Thursday night to find a way. What follows is not exactly fear-and-loathing in the southeast, but it was an experience.
Thursday, 11:12 p.m., home: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s three-point attempt misses the mark and K-State is officially in the Elite 8. Almost immediately, I start considering the possibility of making the 12-hour drive* from Kansas City to Atlanta for the Loyola game. But after shushing me toward the end of the game, lest I wake the kids, my wife is already off to bed, so final decisions will have to wait.
*I’ve already checked flights and I’m not spending $800 for this.
Friday, a.m., work: My wife is decidedly not thrilled about the prospect of me driving to Georgia and back, but really only conditions the trip on finding a travel companion and renting a car**. My car is overdue for an oil change, so that’s probably sage advice.
**My rental ends up being a black Dodge Charger with a Hemi, a decidedly great/terrible choice for someone genetically incapable of keeping a car anywhere close to the speed limit.
Finding a travel companion is more difficult. My three closest K-State friends have a combined 8.5 kids, making snap travel decisions difficult. They’re all out, so I take it to Twitter just after noon.
Friday, 2:30 p.m., work, KCI Airport: After spending an hour presenting a CLE, I check my phone to find a message from a friend with contact information a guy, Dan, I met at his birthday gathering last year. We’ve interacted on Twitter, but are not exactly close friends. Still, he seems like a good dude and he’s a devoted K-State fan, so I give him a shout. After a bit of discussion, he’s in, and I’m off to the airport to rent a car.
Friday, 7:45 p.m., home: I finally get home with my dinner, which I need to eat before packing and leaving in 45 minutes. No big. The kids are a disaster and I can tell my wife is really going to extract concessions on this one.
Friday, 8:30 p.m., I-70 eastbound through Missouri: We’re off, destination St. Louis, no hotel bookings and no tickets.
Dan is five or six years my senior. We spend the drive to St. Louis mostly exchanging stories about our few mutual friends, along with some discussion of the upcoming game and our fervent desire for K-State to finally break through and make a Final Four in the modern era. Some discussion of advanced analytics is had, and I can tell this is going to work out.
Saturday, 5:30 a.m., St. Charles, Mo.: Thunder and my alarm awaken me, a minor miracle given how poorly I sleep in hotels. After showers, we grab coffee and breakfast for the road from the hotel breakfast bar. The same clerk who checked us in the night before at nearly midnight is still on duty.
We’re off on a generally southeastern trajectory toward Atlanta. Dan mentions along the way that the driving route traces the flight arc from KC to Atlanta with uncanny accuracy. Later in the trip, this will strike me as fortuitous, given that a length of the trip is close to the maximum that’s physically possible in the time frame we have available.
Our conversation meanders from friends to general stories, with frequent diversions back to the game. The possibility of a trip to San Antonio the following weekend comes up, which Dan is considering should we win. It will not be in the cards for me, unless divorce court is my goal.
Saturday, 11:30 a.m., 30 miles north of Nashville, TN: We come to a dead stop on I-24. Dan wisely built an hour into our planned drive time to account for traffic, which I probably would not have considered on a weekend. We lose 30 minutes inching forward while a wreck clears, and any hope of stopping and sitting down for lunch in Nashville is lost.
Saturday, 1:00 p.m., southern Tennessee: While navigating mountainous terrain, Dan informs me that, according to Google Maps, we still have 3 hours and 48 minutes of travel time to Atlanta.
Several moments of silence ensue. I assume Dan did the same, but I kept looking at the clock, considering the time, wondering if we had somehow taken a wrong turn, and wondering how we were going to park, acquire tickets, and get to our seats on time. Missing any significant portion of the game would render the trip a colossal failure, and we haven’t even encountered Atlanta traffic yet.
Fortunately, a few minutes later a relieved Dan informs me that his phone hadn’t updated our location, and we actually have about 2.5 hours left. Sighs of relief all around.
Saturday, 2:00 p.m., Chattanooga: Even allowing for the fact that the local terrain precludes better options for infrastructure development, Chattanooga’s traffic sucks. Another 10 or 20 minutes are lost.
Saturday, time undetermined, I-75 in northern Georgia: A stretch of road is traversed very quickly and loudly.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m., northern Atlanta suburbs: Dan announces “it’s time” and proceeds to put on Sandstorm. Because you can’t stop us, John Currie, and fuck you for ever trying. We fist-pump with the windows down, undoubtedly to the bewildered amusement of the other cars stuck in traffic with us.
Speaking of traffic, a wreck has two lanes of I-75 closed, and we are really cutting things close now.
Other mood-setting musical selections include the K-State Fight Song, Wabash Cannonball, and Ludacris’ “Move Bitch.”
Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Atlanta: I drop Dan off and he heads toward the arena to buy tickets while I park the car. I wish I had taken a picture of the parking situation, because when I first saw it, I almost laughed at the attendant, who apparently expected me to drive a charger up a three-foot high ramp to a concrete stage, turn hard left, and back a goddamn Charger in between two cars already parked at right angles to each other, and then back it all the way up to the cinder-block wall behind. In the first stroke of good luck of the day, I manage to pull this feat off without undue embarrassment, and head off to the arena.
Saturday, 5:00 p.m., Phillips Arena: We get to our seats with almost exactly 10 minutes left before tipoff. A couple of K-State fans, not elderly but certainly older than me, is behind us, but most of the rest of our section is Loyola fans.
And then, “that fan” walks in. He’s wearing one of those scarves, sunglasses, and a very fashionable five-o-clock shadow. And he’s loud, the kind of guy who is convinced that every event is about him. Over 12 hours of travel, Dan has apparently gotten a good enough read on me that he taps me on the shoulder and says “no matter how bad you want to punch him, you can’t punch him.”
Saturday, 5:09 p.m. - 6:00 p.m., Phillips Arena: The first half disaster happens. K-State’s fans are disappointingly listless even before the game, while Loyola’s fans, along with their swollen bandwagon, are energetic and loud. The actual game action quickly dampens even our enthusiasm, which devolves into witty*** analysis, interspersed with occasional discussion of how K-State can get back into the game.
***At least in Dan’s case, I may be giving myself too much credit here.
Saturday, halftime, Phillips Arena: Several of the Loyola fans in front of us are apparently college students. One is overheard saying “I go to DU, but I had to see this.” I assume DU means DePaul, in which case I can’t blame the guy.
Saturday, second half, Phillips Arena: Despite valiant efforts from Barry Brown, Cartier Diarra and others, K-State never really gets within striking distance. Loyola’s excellent spacing, hot shooting, and surprisingly strong post play make it difficult for K-State to string together stops. And even when they do after turning up the pressure in the middle of the half, the Cats can’t hit enough shots to climb into it.
As the clock hits zero, I watch the utter joy that erupts from the Loyola bench, players on the floor, and fans in the stands. There’s no guarantee K-State will ever achieve a moment like that in my lifetime, but seeing it in person makes me feel validated for driving halfway across the country and seeing my team lose. Going to the game was a hedge against the possibility that K-State won. Had I considered going and stayed home, and K-State had won, I would’ve been miserable.
Given my snarky commentary about a couple of Loyola’s fans in the arena, it’s necessary to point out an observation Dan made on the way home the next day. The fans who sat next to us, ostensibly a father and his grown son, were consummate opposing fans. They never said anything directly to us, not even a passive-aggressive comment. They cheered for their team and left us alone. Here’s to more fans like them.
Saturday, postgame, leaving Phillips Arena: A couple groups of K-State fans don’t exactly cover themselves in glory in the wake of a tough loss. One blames the loss on Bruce Weber, while another chimes in that he’s “been criticizing him for four years.” Some fans can’t enjoy anything.
Somewhere around here, Bill Connelly texts to helpfully inform me that I can be on Main Street in Nashville by midnight, and that fried bologna sandwiches are available until 3 a.m. He’s a good friend, that Bill.
Saturday, time undetermined, somewhere near the Georgia/Tennessee/Alabama border: Dan is playing Drive-By Truckers music for me, and we pass the exit off I-75 for Lookout Mountain. Moments later, the station plays DBT’s song “Lookout Mountain.” Not gonna lie, that was a little creepy.
Saturday, 9 p.m., northern Georgia: Despite our goal of staying in downtown Nashville, Dan informs me that the hotel options in downtown are “fucking exorbitant.” Given that we are going to use our hotel for literally nothing but a place to sleep for six hours and a shower, and that we have another eight hours of driving the next day, we opt for cheaper options.
I won’t go into details regarding that cheaper option, but let’s say that it had a tractor-trailer parking lot and an attached Mexican restaurant that was called “Mexican Restaurant.” As we are leaving the hotel the next morning, a discussion is had about the over/under for the total number of people with college degrees who slept at the hotel the night before. It leads me to silently contemplate the life circumstances of the other people who need such a lodging option.
Sunday, a.m., Tennessee, western Kentucky, southern Illinois: The conversation has trailed off somewhat and 1990s music dominates the car’s atmosphere for the most part, but the conversation that is had takes more of a turn toward the philosophical and political. It’s funny how spending the better part of two days in a car with someone you don’t know well leads to the little dances around socially sensitive issues, as you read the cues you get from the language chosen to figure out where they stand.
Sunday, 2:30 p.m., Columbia, Mo.: One final meal is procured at my beloved Sub Shop in Columbia. As we leave, I tweet to gauge input on whether I will be able to return the car to the airport by its 5 p.m. deadline. Doubt ensues.
Sunday, 4:55 p.m., KCI Airport: Deadline met.
Sunday, 5:45 p.m., home: The universe gives me one last kick in the nuts, as I get home just in time to see Grayson Allen’s last-second shot rattle out, and then watch as KU secures another trip to the Final Four.
As I walk in the door, my wife asks if I got any speeding tickets.
On Monday at work, the few who knew about my exploits from the previous weekend asked how it went. By any conventional standard, the weekend was a disaster. I spent about 25 out of 45 hours driving, barely got to Atlanta in time to see the game, K-State lost, and we were in such a hurry the entire time that we didn’t get to enjoy a good meal in Atlanta or stop and see the Ryman in Nashville. I didn’t consume a single drop of alcohol the entire weekend. The only drugs involved were psuedoephedrine, for my stuffy nose, and caffeine. A whole lot of caffeine.
But even though it seems like there’s no way this could go down on the positive side of my life’s ledger, it does. This is a trope by now, but I do believe that life is about acquiring experiences, not acquiring things. Sure, I could have put the $400 I spent on the trip to other, arguably better uses, but that would’ve required me to do what I do most weekends: sit on my ass at home. I do too much of that as it is, and at 34 years old, I’m falling behind on my travel and personal goals.
And while traveling with someone you barely know may be a bit of a risk, in this case it turned out great. Dan was certainly a positive acquaintance before, but the shared interests we discovered during the trip have me looking forward to meeting up for more K-State games in the future.
We will delve more deeply into the state of the basketball program over the next few weeks, but the overall program trajectory is undeniably positive right now. These guys found an identity this year and they played their asses off. You can’t ask for more than that. Here’s hoping me and Dan, and maybe some of you, will be traveling for a big game a year from now.