© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003
The NCAA Tournament has brought a lot of people to town, but it wasn't until Saturday that I discovered royalty had come to Tampa.
Barbecue royalty, that is.
Amy Gray and Dianne Tillman were among the fans searching for something to do on the day between games. Their dad, Sonny Tillman, legendary founder of Sonny's Barbecue, was upstairs in the Marriott Waterside watching basketball. Gray and Tillman, dressed in Gator orange and blue, were off to sightsee and shop in Ybor City.
Gray is a real estate agent hoping to make the company's latest venture, Tillman Acres in High Springs, a destination for folks looking for 1-acre lots in the country. Dianne operates a Sonny's in Hawthorne, and while they were planning on eating at Columbia on Saturday night, neither said they grow weary of barbecue.
"We're addicted," Dianne said. "Every time we go out of town, the first thing we have to eat when we get back is barbecue."
Jaime Fimiani of New Port Richey was hosting her teammates on the Dazzlers, the Gators' dance troupe. They ate at Jackson's on Friday night and had lunch at Champions on Saturday, but they wanted folks to know they also worked out two hours in the morning.
"We don't want people to think all we do is eat," said Fimiani before taking the women to International Plaza.
Down in Ybor City, five of Chicago's Thursday Knights were soaking up the sun. The quintet was part of a 36-man tour that ventured here to see the tournament. They play tennis every Thursday night, and they also travel together. Last year Vegas, this year Tampa.
The good news is they loved Ybor and had a good time at Carmine's. The bad news is they couldn't get tickets to the sold-out Yankees game against Minnesota.
John Funk was searching for a trinket for his wife, but his friends, Pat Melvin, Rich Vazquez, Stan Sacks and John Kerrigan, were not. Somebody is going to end up looking bad.
Dennis Wheeler and Jeff Martin were killing time at GameWorks before they caught a flight back to Philadelphia. Sigh.
The two had hoped to cheer Saint Joseph's to a Sweet 16 bid, but with the Hawks losing on Friday, they were headed home -- bent but not broken.
"Phil (Martelli) did all he could for us and we love Jameer (Nelson)," Wheeler said. "What are you going to do?"
Martin said at least he could be happy about coming to Tampa.
"Not to put down San Diego, but we went there for the tournament a couple of years ago and you really couldn't walk anywhere without running into a highway," Martin said. "Tampa is a lot nicer. It's beautiful."
Like Wheeler and Martin, Alan Festo and Adam Witts also were leaving town Saturday. Members of the Gator pep band, they were hitching a ride to Gainesville for Christina Millroy's Saturday night party.
"We have to go back," said Witts, who assured me he would be back in time for today's game. "We'll get disowned if we miss her party."
So how did most fans in Tampa spend the day in between games? Watching basketball games, of course. Prasad and Elizabeth Sharma and Ken Robin are part of a group of former Emory law students who meet at a tournament site every year.
Though their fervor was tempered by the war, Prasad explained they were in Champions at the Marriott watching basketball because "this is a basketball trip and a basketball month."
While folks had little trouble finding something to do, the city seemed particularly unlively. The Forum is set up for basketball, but wouldn't it have been possible to have an outdoor concert in the Forum plaza or something more than the opera at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center?
Seems to me someone missed a good opportunity, but who knows? These basketball junkies might not have pulled away from the TVs.