WASHINGTON — As the Big Ten Conference men's basketball tournament unfolded in Washington this week to tepid attendance expectations from league officials, a curious trend took hold inside Verizon Center: People were talking about who was at the games, not who wasn't (which, judging by the largely empty upper decks, was a lot of people).
On Wednesday, Flavor Flav, member of the rap group Public Enemy and former reality-TV star, was three rows from the floor as he rooted on cousin Shep Garner, a junior for Penn State, alarm clock dangling from his neck.
On Thursday, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Emmy Award-winning star of HBO's "Veep," cheered her son, Northwestern reserve Charlie Hall, as the Wildcats closed out their win over Rutgers, the fourth 20-plus-point rout in as many games that day. This counted as news, of course, only because the games themselves were not very newsworthy.
On Friday, for the first of four quarterfinals, there was an honest-to-goodness competitive basketball game. A Big Ten tournament matchup felt more like an NCAA tournament game than a neutral-court exhibition. It mattered not that the conference's basketball showcase was in Washington, instead of Indianapolis or Chicago, as Michigan coach John Beilein pointed at friends and family after a riveting overtime win over top-seeded Purdue.
The attention was back on the hardwood, not the hard time vendors had selling tickets to the conference's first tournament in the nation's capital.
"It was great to just see that, and all the maize and blue behind them is terrific," Beilein said after the Wolverines' win. "I hope we continue to do that."
For two days, the Big Ten branding hadn't been a problem. Just the on-court product. Fans taking the Washington Metro to Verizon Center could not miss posters showing the Lincoln Memorial or the U.S. Capitol dome stamped with the conference logo and shaded in the league's blue-and-white colors.
Underneath Verizon Center banners honoring previous champion Washington Bullets and Capitals teams were ribbon ads for companies unfamiliar to locals: Pizza Ranch, Taco John's, Tire Rack. Midwest commerce had come to the District.
So, too, had its fans, at least Friday. As the Wolverines and Boilermakers traded blows, Verizon Center's lower bowl filled with fans and noise.
There, seating geography made for awkward acquaintances. At one end, Purdue fans sat just behind the Michigan band. Michigan State supporters were off to the left of both, doing the emotional calculus of whether to pull for the upset (and an easier path to the title) or to root against their in-state rivals. Animus mostly won out.
The game's final minute of regulation offered perhaps the best advertisement for the tournament. A camera caught a couple in Purdue-colored rugby shirts looking anxious, not talking. Minnesota fans rose to their feet. A wave of fans in red — from Maryland to Wisconsin to Indiana — stood and clapped. During a break in the action, impromptu chants of "Let's go, Blue," and "Let's go, Boilers" battled from across the court. When regulation ended without a victor, no one seemed to mind.
"It was a very great atmosphere," said Minnesota center Reggie Lynch, who watched the end of the game from near the courtside entrance as he readied for the Golden Gophers' quarterfinal against Michigan State. "I'm just excited for having that type of environment for our games as well coming down the stretch."
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told the Associated Press that he considered the tournament's relocation "a strong statement that we've expanded," and said if the league had waited longer to embrace Maryland and Rutgers to its conference, "you might be waiting a long time." (The tournament moves north to New York next year, after which it will rotate between Chicago and Indianapolis from 2019 to 2022.)
Before his Spartans fell to the Golden Gophers, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was happy to be nearly 600 miles from East Lansing. So was his wife. On Wednesday, he took his team to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, an experience he called "like the most awesome thing you could do."
He wished he had more time to spend there, but, then again, this was Washington, where madness isn't restricted to March.
"Getting to practice is a little more difficult because of the traffic out here," Izzo said. "I mean, God bless you people, I don't know how you do it. That planning was different. Is it going to be 20 minutes? We talk in miles. You guys talk in minutes — or hours, I should say — to get somewhere."