Tuesday, March 23, 1999

Football town embraces basketball

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        COLUMBUS — Even a football town knows a special basketball team when it sees one. And in Columbus, where football is king, hoops is the hot topic.

        “They're dumbfounded,” said Ohio State sophomore Michael Redd, a Columbus native who has led the Buckeye basketball squad to the Final Four. “They really can't believe a team that has been horrific for six years is one of the best teams in the country. It's awesome for them. They really don't believe it.”

        But they're beginning to believe, and in a hurry. An estimated 2,000 Buckeye fans showed up at the Schottenstein Center — at 1 a.m. — to welcome the team home after winning the South Regional final Saturday. In return, the OSU players ran up a hill to greet them and celebrate.

        “That shows you what kind of kids we have,” said OSU coach Jim O'Brien. “They wanted to be up there and share that with some of those people. I thought it was great.”

        And despite Ohio State students being out of town for spring break, Columbus is buzzing about the Buckeyes making the Final Four for the first time since 1968. They're not dancing in the streets, but OSU hoops is the talk, and shoppers through sportswear stores Monday were seeking out Buckeye basketball gear instead of football merchandise.

        “This is as excited as I've been about basketball for a long time — since '92,” said longtime fan Bob Sewell, over a beer at the Varsity Club bar and restaurant, across the street from St. John Arena. It was Monday about 5:30 p.m., and about 10 OSU fans were huddled around a TV watching a tape of Saturday's win over St. John's.

        “It was crazy on Saturday,” Sewell said. “I was at a sports bar up the road, and we packed that place. There were so many people, we had people sitting on the floor, and it was a pretty decent-sized bar. You've got to be amazed.”

        “It was incredible,” said Richie Myers, a Varsity patron who went to Knoxville for the games last weekend. “Everybody I know is excited. I think it's just because of the university in general. They like to see somebody win, and everybody's happy now.”

        But make no mistake; football still rules here — at least accord ing to a straw poll Sewell conducted with his friends.

        “We said, "If you could trade a Michigan loss next year (in football) for beating Duke (in basketball), would you do it?' A lot of fans honestly said they still would rather beat Michigan,” Sewell said.

        But then he threw his friends for a loop with this: “It's crazy, but the Ohio State basketball team may come up with a national championship before the football team.

        “We love a winner, hate a loser. As long as they're winning, they own the town.”

        Is it crazy to think basketball could rival football in Columbus?

        “Probably,” O'Brien said with a laugh. “You've got to be here to really understand what level this is at. When you think about a whole week set aside to play Michigan in football — Michigan Week — I've never seen anything like it. People in the Northeast (where O'Brien is from) don't know what it's like. I thought I did, but I had no clue.”

        Redd grew up as a Michigan fan in Columbus, but he remembers how fans still supported the Buckeyes as they suffered through six bad seasons after making the Elite Eight in 1992.

        “Ohio State fans overall have been really loyal. Last year we suffered (8-22) and they were still there cheering for us, waiting after the games for us,” he said.

        This is still a football town, Redd says — but it's a basketball town right now.

        “I think now, if we have continued success, summer to fall is football,” Redd said, “and winter to spring is basketball. And that's the way it should be.”


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