When I got into my car to go to an assignment Monday afternoon and glanced over at the photographer passes from the Big Ten Tournament title game sitting on my passenger seat, I felt like I was living a double life. Big time, big deal photographer on weekends, small town newspaper guy during the week. It almost didn’t seem real, it was that awesome, and that far from my normal comings and goings.
After trying to stifle the butterflies with some pasta in the media lounge Sunday afternoon, I set about trying to make a spot trade so I could get the Buckeyes coming toward me for the first half. No dice though, so I settled down in the second row and waited. The cheerleaders charged onto the floor, and then the lights dimmed for introductions. A spotlight swirled around the Fieldhouse, and then settled on the players being introduced. Stray light spilled onto Thad Matta as he gave a few last words of pep to one of his players. Perhaps they were making dinner plans.
And then it was on. And never really in doubt. After all, in the news reports I listened to on the way to my hotel Saturday night, the radio hosts could never quite hide their surprise when they said that Penn State would be playing Ohio State for the Big Ten Tournament title.
Ohio State is a machine. A freight train. It might take a while to get up to speed, but once it is going it takes a hell of a lot of effort to slow it down. Penn State battled for a while, and then began to recede into the rear view as the big machine got rolling.
I got to watch the early goings from the wrong end though, so I kept an eye on Matta and hoped for a block. Lauderdale rose up for a swat that was so huge my lens could not contain it, so all I got was a big shiny head and a truncated arm. The crowd went crazy, and I was chagrined.
Penn State started to edge closer as the half neared, until Diebler hit a three to pad the lead. The crowd went crazy there, too, and Diebler ran down the court with three fingers in the air, something I saw most of the Buckeyes do at one point during the tournament. Or at least get ready to raise three fingers before dropping their arm in disappointment.
Ol’ Thad Matta looked more relaxed this time around, perhaps recognizing that maybe Penn State was nothing to get too worked up over. A few times he leaned against the scorers table, positively radiating relaxation. Hopefully his back was not bothering him. Several times he spoke to the referee in a close huddle. I could almost picture a thought bubble; didja hear the one about the…
Lightly off his feet.
In the second half, I put on my wide lens to document my position, and how the whole scene looked from my vantage point. When you are following the game through any kind of zoom lens (I was using a 70-200) you don’t necessarily get a feel for the flow of the game, since you are usually following the player with the ball. As I shot Sullinger pull down a rebound, he came up lame again, and walked to the edge of the court. I heard Matta ask if he was ok and come over to make sure his star was ok, as he towered over the front row of photographers documenting his every move.
Deep in the second half, Lauderdale floated in a short jumper, and the place went crazy. That a mountain of a man could have such a soft touch is nothing short of a miracle.
As the game wound down, it became apparent there was going to be very little emotion, and the only mystery left was what would happen when the game was finally over. For the photographers, that is.
After a football game, there is an all-out charge toward the middle of the field, mostly to get the opposing coaches greeting each other, but I suspect that a lot of people do it because they can. But since this was the second DI college basketball game of my life, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The photog wranglers had handed out a piece of paper before the game with our instructions and various rules to follow, but I heard some photographers questioning the exact verbage of the rules, so I suspected that someone, or a group of someones, would go charging toward center court, thus providing some backs to take a picture of.
Instead, the game ended, the happy Buckeyes disappeared into a sea of happy coaches (they do have a lot of assistants) and as if by magic, a rope appeared in front of us. The chosen ones got to pass the ropes, the rest of us got to stand behind the ropes. A stage appeared at center court, and then the Buckeyes went off and did some TV stuff.
Finally, they all got on stage and the Big Ten commissioner presented the trophy.
And stood there. I am sure he is a wonderful man, a pillar of the community and a true gentleman, but really, no one wanted to take his picture standing with the buckeyes. He was short enough, compared to the players, that you could see their happy faces, but tall enough that he kind of messed up the photos.
Then the confetti canons went off, which seemed kind of gratuitous, because it wasn’t Super Bowl confetti, where a veritable blizzard of the stuff rains down for minutes at a time, but a sort of brief flurry, just long enough for most of us to have our hopes dashed when we spied a picture of a happy Sullinger holding the trophy in confetti, with a wee commissioner head in the middle of the picture.
The Buckeyes stood around for a few minutes, and then took turns mounting a ladder to cut their portion of the net. I stood at the base of the ladder for a few minutes, photographing oddly solemn Buckeyes cutting the net. An usher type person held a rope to keep us at bay, doing his best to stay out of the way without letting go of the rope. There was not much emotion to the proceedings, and what little there was was directed back toward the team. As the coaches started to climb up to cut their share, I went to look for a new spot.
I followed the rope back to the front of the stage, where a few lonely ushers stood holding back a crowd of none. I was now more or less behind the team. Coach Matta climbed the ladder, the usher nearest me kept saying “money shot, money shot.”
That’s our Thad!
Coach Thad cut the last string, and then turned and waved the net above his head.
Sure it is corny, and sure it is cliche, but gosh darn it, only champions get to wave the net above their head.
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