An hour after the hourlong celebration of the UMBC men’s basketball team had ended, on a chilly Tuesday that had been proclaimed as UMBC Men’s Basketball Making History Day by Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, the line still stretched up the seats of the UMBC Event Center.
Among all the things that have changed for the Retrievers since they stunned top overall seed Virginia in the NCAA tournament March 16 — the job offers, the visits to the governor’s house, the Sports Illustrated cover, the commemorative T-shirts — the most obvious difference is a recognition of the team’s very real celebrity. On Tuesday night, hundreds wanted something signed by the team that was anonymous until it became America’s darling. So these fans, new and old, queued up alongside one baseline and up the stairs and deep into the lobby, clutching posters, T-shirts and basketballs.
“Looking at this, it’s pretty crazy,” reserve forward Brandon Horvath said at one point during the celebration. “I never thought … ” He trailed off, deferring to the rounds of applause reverberating around the arena. “This is about [the attendance of] everybody at the games this year combined, so it feels good. It feels better.”
After a season-ending loss to Kansas State in the second round March 18, the team scattered for spring break. The Retrievers’ reintroduction to public life this week has taken them to unexpected places and gotten them to do unexpected things. (Chief among them: Joe Sherburne and Nolan Gerrity singing the lyrics to “One Shining Moment” on Tuesday.)
On Monday, UMBC was bused over to Annapolis to meet Gov. Larry Hogan at a formal function at the Government House, where they noshed on appetizers near a portrait of Frederick Douglass as some of the state’s most important people told them how impressive they’d been. Later, the Retrievers were honored at the nearby Maryland State House in the House and Senate chambers.
On campus, life just isn’t the same. On Monday, senior guard Jourdan Grant (Archbishop Spalding) wore a UMBC men’s basketball sweatshirt, because he always wears a UMBC men’s basketball sweatshirt. People noticed. Strangers came up to him and introduced themselves.
“They want to talk to you, stop and say hi,” he said at the end of the autograph line. “It’s a great feeling.”
“You guys have such great smiles,” said a middle-aged woman, having overheard the conversation as she had a T-shirt signed. “Of course everybody wants to stop and talk to you!”
That goes for the coaches, too. Tuesday morning, assistant coach Nate Dixon went to get a coffee on campus with head coach Ryan Odom. Other than the autograph and photo requests they got along the way, it was a totally normal trip.
But then, they haven’t been safe from fans anywhere. A couple of nights earlier in Annapolis, Dixon and Odom were out for dinner with their wives. A woman came up to Odom, told him she had so enjoyed watching his team play.
“Y'all were amazing,” Odom recalled her telling him. “Go coach my school now because we've got an opening.
“I'm like: ‘No, I'm locked in.’ ”
So, too, is the unlikely hero of the Retrievers’ tournament run. Zach Seidel, UMBC’s director of multimedia communications and the millenial behind the keys of the overnight-sensation @UMBCAthletics Twitter feed, said a lot more people know who he is, too. “Which I’m not necessarily comfortable with,” he added.
While his parents, both UMBC graduates, assembled a collage of his various media appearances, from The New York Times to CNN to SBNation, his inbox was flooded. There have been a lot of job offers, he said. And a lot of companies just wanting his advice.
“I'm now some social media maven,” he said. “It's just really bizarre, and I just want to go home and play 'Call of Duty' and not be bothered. But I like it.”
There has never been a better men’s No. 16 seed to be a part of, because there’s never been another men’s No. 16 seed to do what UMBC has. A school spokeswoman said Monday that the admissions office expects a surge in applications next year, along with a higher share of already accepted applicants choosing UMBC this spring. As school President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski said during the celebration: “We have never had a more celebrated period in the history of UMBC.”
Of course, there’s an awareness around Catonsville of how special, and how rare, this moment really is. And how important it is to capitalize on and memorialize it. As Odom signed off at the end of the celebration, he mentioned that season tickets for 2018-19 were available.
Later, Dixon recalled how, as an assistant to former Florida coach Billy Donovan about 15 years ago, he was part of the Gators staff that landed Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green. But when Florida won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, he’d already moved on to an assistant coaching role at Louisiana-Monroe.
“It's funny, I got some tweets and texts from those guys like, ‘Coach, man, you missed out on one,’ ” he said. “ ‘But you actually got one that's going to go down in history.’ ”