Beyond the Boxscore
Sleepy in Tulsa with no sight of Charlie Sheen: Long wait for games exposessmallest NCAA Tourney city
TULSA, Okla. — College basketball players lead a cloistered existence on the road. It's the hotel and the arena, the hotel and the arena, the hotel and the arena — with maybe a trip to a separate practice gym thrown in for variety.
No matter the city, the schedule stays the same.
It's just a little easier to keep in Tulsa.
"It's more of a small town feel," Arizona guard Lamont Jones says. "It's real laid back. Real laid back. You don't have a lot of distractions."
Welcome to the second smallest of the 14 cities that will host NCAA Tournament games this year (and the smallest not involved in the First Four games that started in Dayton before many had even filled out a bracket). If Houston is the nexus with the Final Four barreling to Reliant Stadium, Tulsa (population 389,625) marks the small spoke in the NCAA Tournament's multi-billion-dollar wheel.
It had been 26 years since Tulsa last hosted an NCAA Tournament game before Texas and Oakland tipped off on Friday afternoon and it's a matter of civic pride unlike even what Houston will experience during college basketball's signature showcase, the championship weekend. Houston is Houston after all, the fourth-largest city in the country. It doesn't need major events to validate it. Instead the NCAA was drawn to Houston by its scope, for the buzz that's sure to accompany such a Final Four.
Tulsa is ... well, a little sleepier. Sometimes literally.
"I've been getting great sleep this week," Texas forward Tristan Thompson says.
No wonder why the coaches here have almost universal praise for Tulsa as an NCAA site. You can get in trouble anywhere if you try hard enough. But anywhere where it's a little harder is a coach's best friend.
And it's easy to think — especially if you're being driven around parts of downtown — that even Charlie Sheen would be challenged to create chaos in Tulsa. Sure, the arena where the games are being played pops out — looking like a tilted spaceship dropped onto the bail bonds epicenter side of town. But you don't have to walk that far from the BOK Center to wonder if anyone's home.
This sense is compounded when the wait for the games is long. And the four teams left in Tulsa will have some of the most interminable waits of the entire NCAA Tournament. Texas-Arizona and Kansas-Illinois are two showcase third-round match ups, and the NCAA's television partners plan to take advantage of that. So both games at the BOK will take place in the new later Sunday night TV windows, the ones that the tournament didn't even have when CBS (the home of Sunday powerhouse 60 Minutes) was the only network broadcasting the games before this year.
Texas finished its first game against Oakland at about 1:25 p.m. Friday. It will not start its second game against Arizona until 5:10 p.m. Sunday. And Kansas and Illinois have to wait until 30 minutes after Thompson and Derrick Williams are done with the NBA scouts' dream matchup to wag that coaches' war.
That means a long wait for tipoff. In Tulsa.
Did UNLV roll over to Illinois on Friday night because the Vegas team knew winning would mean two days of waiting in wholesome Oklahoma?
"I'd rather play at 11 a.m. again," Texas senior forward Gary Johnson says. "That was about perfect to me. This is gonna be a little killer. That's a long time to be sitting around."
But you can use that time to see the sights of Tulsa!
Hipster surprises — and traffic too
Yes, it's easy and fun to kid our neighbors in Oklahoma. It's also true that the first night I arrived in town and saw how quiet the street was by the media hotel (a tumbleweed didn't blow across the road, but the stray cat that did could have taken more time crossing than Donald Trump does defending his hair), I automatically assumed that the only place that could be open to eat after 11 p.m. had to Domino's.
Of course, this was reinforced when a call to a local pizza shop produced an owner who proudly explained that he had stayed open extra late for the tournament — till 9:30 p.m. — but was closed now.
It turns out that the Domino's nightmare was avoidable however. All you have to know is which streets to turn on. Or which street, singular.
For if you go the right way down 2nd Street, you'll run into several places to eat late and even more bars. This is where you'll find Yokozuna, a happening Asian restaurant and sushi bar which attracted an eclectic mix of customers on the night I visited, included a heavily-tatooed punk band with a leader named Vin who wanted everyone in the place to know how major he was. Yokozuna is part of the Blue Dome District, which is named after a 1920s gas station with an art deco blue dome that's now part of the club scene.
On weekend nights, you can also found a food truck run by a Culinary Institute of America graduate that turns out unbelievable $2 pork tacos.
Of course, the truck doesn't come out until after the Texas players' curfew.
Coach Rick Barnes might make an exception for the ONEOK Field district. This is the nightlife area by Tulsa's still-new, $60-million minor league baseball stadium. It's a talked up district. Then, you get there and find Fat Guy's Burger Bar and about two other shops. Good luck locating trouble here either.
Everyone may just be out in strip mall central. For if you leave Tulsa's quiet downtown, going past the oddly-located giant Borders that's on the closing block, and drive out near Woodland Hills Mall and 71st Street, traffic jams that LA could appreciate suddenly appear. Who knew?
Tulsa's Strengths & Sleep
Once the games start, Tulsa has few equals though. The BOK is modern, yet intimate. It blows places like Washington D.C.'s soulless Verizon Center away as a venue. No matter where you're sitting, it feels like you're close to the action. It's like basketball in a theater.
It's hard to imagine people being more excited about hosting an event either. One of the shuttle-bus drivers came out of retirement just to be part of this week. If it's raining, volunteers rush over to put media members under their umbrellas for the shortest of waits.
It's a little embarrassing. Prince isn't a sports writer.
And there's always ... well, the sleep.
"I love that it's a late game (Sunday)," Thompson says. "That's more time to sleep. It's going to be great. I love sleeping."
Thompson's found his city.