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Tampa subregional

What's basketball without madness?

The game might be the reason for the event, but the fans and their display of spirit are as entertaining as the game.

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2003

TAMPA -- Sure, plenty of action went down on the basketball court Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum. But to know March Madness, you must discover the sights and sounds and smells among the masses.

The fans got what they came for -- nail-biting finishes, cheerleaders, bands, Bearkats, Bucs, Gators and the like.

We reporters got what we came for, too. Here are scenes from a day spent watching those who watch the games:

12:01 p.m.: Rain is falling by the bucket outside the Times Forum. But cars pour in, bumper to bumper. The view from a nearby parking deck gives the impression that there are no fans, just a sea of umbrellas trudging toward the arena.

12:14: First pep band strikes up, 10 minutes before tipoff.

12:41: First fan spotted wearing a Viking helmet with horns.

12:42: First fan spotted walking barefoot.

12:48: First fan spotted wearing a Hooters shirt.

1:11: Halftime of Game 1. A crowd gathers around a television in a first-level concourse, watching as bombs fall on Iraq. A Dippin' Dots ice cream vendor named Miriam turns to a Florida fan. "It just kind of freaks me out," she says.

2:29: Saint Joe's falls behind by two points. A red-clad fan, no older than 19, lets go a string of profanities.

2:30: Saint Joe's sinks two clutch foul shots to send the game into overtime. The same fan spews more profanities, this time in ecstasy.

2:48: Saint Joe's loses. Same fan. Same profanity.

2:50: A group of reporters returns to media room backstage. Popcorn and peanuts disappearing fast.

3:16: The sun finally comes out.

3:20: Game 2 begins. Sunshine forgotten.

3:32: First fan spotted wearing a Star Trek shirt.

3:54: Eight friends in town from Los Angeles for a bachelor party show up in straw hats, leis and Mardi Gras beads. They have no team to cheer for and don't care.

"We're really just here to see if we can get kicked out," says Sal Padilla.

4:24: A man outside the men's room at section 304 shouts into a cell phone: "Can you hear the band?"

Behind him, the crowd sings, "Heeeey, Heeeey baby, I wanna know ..."

5:32: Game 2 ends.

5:51: With the Times Forum nearly empty, dozens of workers swarm the stands, garbage bags hanging from their hips. They scoop up mountains of peanut shells and pom poms and half-eaten french fries. In an hour, new fans will start to trash the place all over again.

6:11: Popcorn and peanuts and cookies and chicken sandwiches are disappearing from the media room at an alarming rate.

6:29: First Sam Houston State fan sighting. Proof they really exist.

6:42: It feels like the Swamp. It smells like a brewery.

Three hours until the Gators play, but already fans pack the bars near the Times Forum. They tailgate and toss footballs and drink enough alcohol to make up for the fact it isn't served inside.

6:53: A gray-haired tailgater spills his beer, moving him nearly to tears. Another fan scolds him jokingly, "You can't hold your beer, man."

7:03: First sighting of a fan wearing an Afro wig (it's blue and orange).

7:33: First sighting of green-haired Michigan State fan.

7:36: Second sighting of green-haired Michigan State fan. Also second Afro sighting.

8:17: Outside section 108, a blond in a brown dress is selling cigars. Quickly.

"The Cohibas," she says, "they're already gone."

8:25: Barely an hour until the Gators play. But most scalpers have given up.

"Give me 10 bucks," one scalper says to a passerby, "then see if you can sell it."

8:34: A shiny downtown trolley rolls up to the packed Times Forum with one passenger aboard. The boarding platform sits empty. The engineer and his lonely passenger clank away into the night.

9:17: Deep in the bowels of the Times Forum, a crew is installing new water sprayers on a pair of Zambonis. They can hear the hoopla but keep working. "That's one thing we don't have time for," says Alex Makarenko.

9:41: Almost time for Game 4 tipoff. A solid block of Sam Houston State fans is surprisingly loud. Everything about Gator fans is -- not surprisingly -- louder.

9:53: Bearkats lead Gators, 5-4. Can miracles happen?

11:29: Gators lead Bearkats, 66-41. No miracles, but it's still going to be a late night.

Good thing they just put out a fresh helping of popcorn and peanuts in the media room.

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