Final Four puts spring in St. Louis’ step

Monday, April 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:58 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 10, 2008

ST. LOUIS – As they stretched out on top of the steps leading to the arch, it was apparent there was no place they would rather be.

A refreshing breeze swept out toward the Mississippi River. Banjo music played on a nearby riverboat. A few patches of white speckled the blue canopy overhead.

But as this couple’s Michigan State apparel showed, the city was enjoying more than the smell and sounds of spring.

Thanks to thousands of fans who flooded the downtown area Saturday to enjoy college basketball’s Final Four and root for their favorite team, St. Louis proved it is starting to warm up to sports again.

It was a harsh winter in the city living with the pain of a World Series sweep and no hockey.

So Saturday, hot chocolate was traded for beer, coughs for cheers. And much like someone trying to get rid of that nagging cold, people were desperate for tickets to the day’s games.

“Not a scalper. Just a fan! I need two tickets only,” one sign read.

If they weren’t searching for tickets, they were looking for some good luck.

One North Carolina fan found his hope in a penny that rested heads-up in the cobblestone streets of The Landing.

Springing ahead, this fan enjoyed good fortunes, though the same couldn’t be said for the Michigan State fans who watched the game later that night on a big screen outside the Morgan Street Brewery, two blocks from the arena.

After enjoying a pleasant first half in which the Spartans held the lead, these fans anticipated more of the same in the second half, but instead a surprise thundershower swept up from North Carolina to douse their hopes and left them more somber than sober.

Spirits were higher earlier in the day at Union Station, courtesy of a lovable spring character.

Although the Easter Bunny had hopped away, it didn’t take fans long to spot ESPN’s Dick Vitale at Hooters in Union Station.

Some even donned their Easter best for the occasion.

Two Tar Heel fans wearing Carolina blue tuxedos with Carolina blue shirts and Carolina blue bow ties topped off with white top hats that featured flashing lights, waited eagerly in line to get their pictures taken.

The experience left Illinois fan John Bilenda awestruck.

Not only did he get an autograph, not only does he have a picture to show his buddies back home, not only did he believe an Illini victory was probable, but it was also his 19th birthday.

“If, that’s with a capital I and a capital F, IF they lose, which is highly unlikely, it will still be a great weekend,” he said. “This is probably the greatest weekend I’ve ever experienced.”

Not everyone had as unbelievable a day as Bilenda.

Tim Kenyon, 38, a hotel manager from New London, Conn., would have preferred to spend his spring weekend in San Antonio, like he did this time last year.

“Not to knock St. Louis, but (the Final Four in) San Antonio was unbelievable. They should have it there every year,” he said.

It didn’t help, of course, that Kenyon’s team, the Connecticut Huskies, saw its shadow in the second round.

But what caused Kenyon the most frustration were the thousands of fans who awoke from hibernation and created long lines to get into the Edward Jones Dome a half-hour before game time.

“This is a big problem,” he said.

Yet it is funny to note how spring seems to put most people in a better mood, not excluding fans from opposing teams.

The Michigan State fans outside Morgan Street Brewery even acknowledged their Big Ten counterparts, leading a chant of “I-L-L” “I-N-I.”

Maybe the good spirits were because of the color orange, which bloomed vibrantly across the city.

Illinois orange was everywhere.

Even those who didn’t have an orange shirt did their best to compensate. One fan wore jeans and a greenish-brown button-up shirt, but made sure to remember his orange headband.

The biggest budding orange-tree was at Al Hrabosky’s Ballpark Saloon, which served as the Illinois headquarters.

Here, several thousand Illinois fans who didn’t have tickets watched the game, waiving their branches in the air throughout.

From the smell of cigars to the showers of beer celebrating a trip to the national championship game, it was clear that basketball had helped usher in a change of seasons in the city.

As a North Carolina fan said to his wife earlier in the day, “I called and left a message. I said: ‘The weather’s beautiful, I wish you were here.’”

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