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April 10, 2013

To Atlanta and back

When our car pulled into Ann Arbor late last night, following an 11-hour car ride north on I-75 from Atlanta, one was left to ponder whether the trip was worth it. The answer is a resounding yes.

I am not a beat reporter for the Michigan basketball team. Three of my colleagues are, and while I cover hockey and football, I made peace with the notion that as a U-M grad ('02), and a proud alumnus, and with no interaction with John Beilein and his team whatsoever during the past two years, that I could do something rare in this profession - be a fan.

So it was that even before tip-off Saturday night I had booked a one-way flight to Atlanta and snatched up a hotel room. After Michigan beat the Orange, procuring tickets was next, and my college roommate took care of that. We sat in the lower bowl behind the basket, 15 rows up, in a mix of both maize and blue and cardinal red.

In total, three of us descended on Atlanta Monday. Maribeth from Miami. Craig from Chicago. Me from Ann Arbor. We met at the airport and immediately felt the city abuzz.

I have had the great fortune of covering big football games and hockey Frozen Fours, but only two other events in my lifetime compared to the electricity on the streets and especially once inside the Georgia Dome - the 1998 Rose Bowl and 2012 regular-season opener against Alabama at Texas Stadium.

At Hard Rock Café for lunch before the game, to the merchandise tents dotting the scene, Centennially Park where fans gathered, Bracket Town and the walk-up to the stadium, both Michigan and Louisville fans hooted and hollered, chants of 'Let's Go Blue' and 'C-A-R-D-S, Cards' permeated the southern town, creating a din that rose with each passing second.

Once inside, the nerves began peaking and the crowd began clamoring, and the energy was unmatched. Sitting in our seats, I reveled being a fan again, high-fiving my friends, cheering big baskets and burying my head in my hands during Cardinal runs.

In the end, we were left mourning what could have been, what appeared for a good portion of that first half to be a burgeoning celebration. We stayed for awhile after the streamers fell from the ceiling. Watched the Cardinals take to the podium, soaking it all in, dreaming that was Trey Burke accepting the MOP trophy, and then when we stomach it any longer, we climbed the stairs, hugged a few Michigan fans on the way out and crept back to our hotel.

It is a weird thing emerging from a championship game. Half the crowd is delirious, and the other half is in a zombie-like state, just hoping to trudge back to the car or to the hotel without having to absorb too much of the winner's excitement.

Reading through the tweets and Facebook posts, I agree that it was a terrific run by the Wolverines, unexpected, and so much fun, but there is also a tremendous letdown of coming within inches of the pinnacle only to be denied.

Still, sports were never supposed to be life and death, but entertainment. A place to come together with friends and strangers for a common cause, and I was reminded of that this week. I was reminded just how enjoyable they can be, but also the place they should hold in our lives. I did not walk out of that arena with venom, sniping at players, belittling their mistakes or lamenting Beilein's decisions.

Losing stings, but it wasn't worth losing my cool over or losing what was gained this season. At the end of the day, Michigan is not the national champion, but the memory of an incredible day in Atlanta with two good friends, the buildup, and the effort and magical moments the Maize and Blue produced will never be forgotten.


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