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When schools out and ball is in

In the final of our Stateside Week reports, Mark Woods observes the crowning glory of college basketball and wishes that we could get a courtside seat for it over here.

What's the biggest basketball event Stateside ? Answer NBA Finals and you ain't even close. The tournament that keeps Americans glued to their seats came and went last weekend and there was no sign of Shaq and Kobe anywhere.

Final Four and college basketball in general might be small news across this side of the pond but our cousins lap every scrap of detail up. The four participants in this year's Men's event in Indianapolis - North Carolina, Florida, Wisconsin and eventual winners Michigan State were pursued from campus to court by every TV channel and every journalist, all eager to spot the future superstar or the zero to hero story.

CBS, who broadcast the finals, pay an obscene amount of money for the rights and put on a six-hour extravaganza around Monday night's conclusion, dragging in Georgia Tech's outgoing coach Bobby Cremins to deliver the inside track on what has become a goldfish bowl for the basketballers involved. And the schools themselves rub their hands in glee at the vast revenues to come their way. 

Not slow to cash in, every conceivable item of merchandise was on sale across the continent - you want a replica jersey ? No problem. Although the alligator bum bag just smacked of desperation. 

Yet there is so much to admire in the whole experience. Four sets of players, none of whom received a single cent for their endeavours, working hard to do their best. Four coaches, both teachers and motivators, all realising the pinnacle of their careers so far.

The only Briton who has drunk from the Final Four cup is Karl Brown, who was one of Cremins' charges when the Yellow Jackets ventured to the Last Dance in 1990. The Leicester Riders guard still remembers the awe of his visit to Denver  that year.

"It was just the most tremendous experience of my career," relates Brown. "You just have nothing like it for the attention and the spotlight which they place on you. You know millions of people are watching on TV and the massive crowd is unbelievable. 

"When I was there, we had Kenny Anderson who was already a star but it was the closest feeling to being in the NBA for everyone else on my team because suddenly everyone knew your name."

This year the biggest stories were the underdogs - only Michigan State, who won their first championship since a certain Earving Johnson burst onto the world's consciousness in 1979, lived up to their seeding in returning to the finals for the second successive year.

Florida crept out from under the shadow of their American football-dominated university to reach the final under young coach Billy Donovan. By contrast, 60 something Bill Guthridge stepped out from under the legend which is Dean Smith at North Carolina and turned around a Tar Heels side which has stumbled all year long. His predecessor may have been the winningest (as the Americans say) playcaller of all time, but his long-time assistant finally proved he had what it takes in the top job too.

And for Wisconsin, just the sheer incredulity that the hicks from the sticks had dared to encroach on the party, using a bizarre brand of dead slow and stop basketball which enraged the purists but got the job done.

In the end, there could only be one winner and Magic was there to cheer his Spartans on as they joyously took a set of scissors to the nets as part of the concluding ritual. But in every respect, everyone was a winner. Even though only one team is left standing on Monday night, the enjoyment and the memories will last far beyond that.

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