Beyond the Boxscore
When is a floor not just a floor?
When it becomes a rock star complete with its own cushy travel digs, a crew in tuned to its every quirky whim and an adoring set of fans who only want an autograph. Say hello to the Houston Final Four's custom-made basketball court. Yes, we're talking about a basketball court. Not Charlie Sheen.
The court that will be installed in Reliant Stadium for the Final Four is on a tour of the Southwest as it makes its way to Houston. Yes, a tour. For a floor.
The Final Four floor started its trek (at least the public part of it) to Houston in Salt Lake City, stopped in Stillwater, Okla. on Monday, hung out at the SMU campus in Dallas on Tuesday (no doubt scouting for coeds), will hit Austin and the University of Texas on Wednesday (maybe Rick Barnes will visit?) and then make a symbolic stop at NASA's Johnson Space Center on Thursday before rolling into Reliant on its truck Thursday evening. The floor should be completely installed in Reliant by Friday, even as the regional games rage on to determine which teams will actually make it to Houston.
Which do you think's the bigger star? BYU scoring machine Jimmer Fredette or the Final Four floor? Don't answer that too fast.
For the floor signs autographs — or does that practice one better. It gets everyone to sign it. Or at least, the side of its touring bus ... er 18 wheeler. That's as close as one can get to the talent.
Yes, while the custom-built basketball court goes on tour, it stays safely wrapped up in its ride. It never comes out. Its fans never actually see it.
"We can't take it out," floor tour member Kurt Kosmowski explains in Oklahoma. "It's very carefully packaged and sealed on the truck so it can withstand any type of weather or adverse condition."
You don't get floor time on these tour stops. You get truck time. Or more precisely banner on the side of the truck time. People show up — and there was pretty good-sized smattering of people in Stillwater, which is a good hour and 20 minutes from the closest NCAA Tournament site and has no real natural tie to Houston — to just sign the banner, check out the Final Four logo and if they're lucky, get a mini basketball or T-shirt thrown their way.
"People just want to feel like a part of the Final Four," Kosmowski says. "I'm always surprised by how many people come out. It's a real basketball brotherhood almost. People love college basketball.
"They want to come up and sign that banner. Sometimes they want to sign the very top and you'll have college kids getting on each other's shoulders to do it. Sometimes they want to sign the side or some other place they think no one else has ever thought of. Some people sign it upside down."
So the Final Four floor gets all the adoration without any of the strain of an actual public appearance?
John Mayer's probably wondering when he can sign up for this gig.
So what makes this floor so special? After all, its playing dimensions will be the same as any other official NCAA basketball court.
To start, there are some very Houston-centric touches to this showcase surface. The logo at midcourt is a basketball play off of Houston's Space City history and the NASA logo. Stars and Saturn included. But it's the smaller touches, particularly the edges of the court that those who've seen the floor put together believe will wow most.
"It's a NASA theme, but there are a couple of standout touches I don't people are going to expect," says Jeff Morton, the marketing manager at Connor Sport, which has manufactured every Final Four court for the last six years and recently signed an extension with the NCAA to do the playing surfaces for next five Final Fours (men's and women's) as well. "The border on the court really gives a feel like you're taking off. It looks like space. It's almost like the court is hovering."
And you thought a basketball court was just a basketball court?
Houston's Final Four floor was built in mid January in Amasa, Mich., a tiny town (population 250 tiny) in Michigan's remote Upper Peninsula. Six or seven people worked on it on the line at Connor's plant, Morton says. It's made out of Northern hard maple and consists of four-by-eight foot panels, 230 of them in all.
When the truck arrives at Reliant, all those panels will be unpacked and a few Connor reps will oversee the putting together of what's essentially a giant jigsaw puzzle.
After three Final Four games are played on the court — the Saturday night April 2 semifinals and the Monday night April 4 championship game — the floor will go to the victor. Right along with that national championship trophy.
Or at least, the champion school gets first dibs. To buy.
Hey, stars don't come cheap.
"A Final Four floor will typically cost between $100,000 and $120,000," Morton says.
That's a price that no one's been able to turn down so far. Every school that's had a chance to purchase the floor it won the Final Four on has done so. Some rip out the court they have in their own arenas and put the Final Four court in its place. Others cut the floor into small pieces and sell it to their fans as souvenirs.
Wait till you see what I've got on the mantle, Bob. This is part of where Gordon Hayward fell down and sweated after just missing that halfcourt heave at the buzzer against us.
Birth of a star
When did this all happen you ask? You remember when a basketball court was just a basketball court, you say. Did floors become stars while you were sleeping?
Well, yes. Or at least in the buildup to the 2009 Final Four in Detroit. That's when floors hit the big time. Michigan was more than a little down on its luck at the time and Connor, with that facility in that UP town with less souls than some high school cafeterias, felt that the entire state could use a little pick me up.
So a Final Four floor went on tour for the first time.
"This was during the height of the recession and Michigan had really been hit even more and harder than almost anywhere else," Morton says. "The idea was to show some pride in this floor that had been made right there in Michigan. To show that great things could still be produced right there."
So the floor — packed away in its sealed truck — started making whistle stops. Every Final Four since, the tour's pretty much been demanded.
"The floor gets bigger every year," Kosmowski says. "I don't know what to say. People want to be near the floor. It's a pretty wide mix of people who come out.
"From college students to grandmothers to cops, they all want to sign the banner. We get a lot of cops."
Hey, step back from the floor. And bow.