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Die-Hard College Basketball Fans Anxiously Await Final Four Showdown, Saturday - 2004-04-03

In the Saturday night semifinal games of the national college basketball tournament, Duke University plays the University of Connecticut and Georgia Tech will meet Oklahoma State The winners of the two games will play for the National Championship on Monday night. The game is a huge event for millions of U.S. sports fans.

"Sixty-four teams started the tournament. It gets down to two teams over a three-week span. You know, it's the American way, I guess," says a patron at Grevey's Sports Bar in Falls Church, Virginia, where on a recent night more than 200 people watched about 30 televisions tuned to the college basketball tournament.

The tournament is known informally as "March Madness" because most of the games take place in March leading up to the final four matches the first weekend of April. The "madness" well, that describes the often nail-bitingly close contests, many of which are decided at the last second. "Madness" also describes the fans' reactions: many are loyal alumni of competing colleges: one minute, exuberant that their team has taken the lead, the next minute nervously silent as the lead slips away.

At Grevey's, William Ratchford, 70, is biting his fingernails.

"There's a minute and 24 seconds to go," he says, anxiously.

Mr. Ratchford went to the University of-Connecticut, or "U-Conn," a half century ago. "My wife went there. My three sons went there. My daughter-in-law went there, and I've been following it [the team] for 50 years. So I've been doing this for a long time," he explains.

BAROCH: "You invest so much emotion in just a basketball game. How do you explain that?"

"Well, if you were a basketball fan, you wouldn't say 'just a basketball game,'" he quips.

Ed Cooney, 58, is another U-Conn alumnus and fan.

"I wear a T-shirt that says 'basketball is life, the rest is details," he says.

BAROCH: That sounds pretty hardcore."

"I play four hours of basketball, myself, every week," he adds.

Some of the patrons at Grevey's say they'd rather be at the game in the arena -- especially for the final four games in San Antonio, Texas. But ticket prices range from $300 to an incredible $8,000 apiece. Then, there's the cost of airfare and hotel accomodations. Most people attending the games end up paying thousands of dollars.

Patrick, 30, a native of Boston, sits at the bar at Grevey's and says you can't beat a courtside seat.

"You hear every movement, every grunt, squeak. That's what you hear," he says.

BAROCH: "How does that compare to here?"

"It compares in a way because you have the fans still around you, having a good time, listening to them, sharing along with different teams," he explains. " Just interaction is what you need to watch the game."

At Grevey's, a lot of people sit with friends they'd met at college people they can share stories with like Ryan, a graduate of the University of Connecticut. He says that when he was a U-Conn student in the early 90s, he had a great job -- as a security guard in the arena during the games.

"Gampel Pavillion is one of the loudest places across the country. At the end of the game, everybody wanted to just run on the court when U-Conn won," he recalls. "So it was just a great place to watch the game. As a matter of fact, I ran out on the court even though I was supposed to be keeping people off the court. As soon as U-Conn won, I threw off my jacket in the air, took off my security shirt and ran out there with the other students.

It was pretty cool," he adds. " It's just students trying to slap the players on the back, and once they [student crowd] get out there, they jump up and down like crazy college kids. It was a great experience."

Then, there are some basketball fans who aren't sitting in a bar watching the game. They're out playing the game in a gym -- or like these guys outdoors at a playground.

BAROCH: "Why aren't you watching?"

"Because I felt like getting out on this nice day. It's a nice day out today," responds one of the guys.

"I mean, we were watching the game last night, and I was, like, 'I can't wait until I can go out and shoot around,' you know," adds another.

The last few games of the national college basketball tournament coincide with the onset of Spring. Warmer weather guarantees there'll be a lot of men and women on the courts emulating their tournament heroes.