"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Friday, June 17, 2011

Warrior Travels: Chapter 2, The Music City

(After a quality conversation) “When he went away I felt a sweetness like music, if music could pleasure the skin with a little chill.”

Just seven months prior to my first Marquette trip into Dixie, the city of Nashville had experienced “1000 year floods”, caused by a cluster of storms which dumped more than 19 inches of rain in two days. A good portion of the city was flooded when the Cumberland went over its banks, causing damage to the Grand Ole Opry House, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Bridgestone Arena (NHL Predators) and LP Field (NFL Titans) among others. Twenty-one people lost their lives in Tennessee due to the floods. This was a devastating blow to the state’s capital, a city who had been on the make—with at least $1.5 billion in damages incurred.

The week between Christmas and New Year’s was doing its part to ease this pain. The home state university was playing the University of North Carolina in the sold-out Music City Bowl, in a stadium that had been the world’s largest swimming pool back in May. Marquette was in town to play one of the city’s cultural and economic engines, Vanderbilt University, in a mid-semester break hoops special at historic Memorial Gym. The Opry had reopened about three months prior and was featuring its holiday shows. Out-of-towners were piling in with open wallets and this friendly Belle of a city was appreciative. Even a jaded Yankee could immediately notice the effects of Southern hospitality—that life begins to slow down, the little surprises are prized a bit more, and the worries of the world matter a bit less.

I had impatiently driven the interstates the eight hours to Nashville on December 28th, the day before the game with the Commodores. As I headed south, the number of trucks increased, and also a new phenomenon for me, the number of RV’s and camping trailers that were clogging the road for the holidays. I pulled into my Nashville hotel just around dinner time, showered and took the hotel shuttle to meet some friends at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge for some grub and music. We took in some John Stone at the bar while we ate and drank Miller, which was a “Milwaukee Buck” a bottle. Tootsie’s is a famous tourist honky tonk on lower Broadway, the country music street. To say the least, Tootsie’s is very eclectic, and at one point, Bridgett the Bar.Songtender apologized for my late arriving burger as the cook had to also “man” the back bar. First things, first at Tootsie’s.

Gameday arrived and I stumbled out of bed and walked across the street to Gigi’s to grab cupcakes for breakfast (read about Gigi’s life story). After the chocolate and banana cream orgasm, I was feeling whole again and decided to check out Athens in Nashville. Yes, the Parthenon was recreated here as part of the Centennial Exposition in 1897. It is also where I came to experience the gold, multi-story Warrior, Athena. Hmmm, I won’t go there.

From there, it was on to Jack’s for some awesome Bar-B-Que, where there were many MU fans. Jack’s is the hall of fame of BBQ, featuring various dishes and sauces from around the US. The line was down the block, but Jack’s moved us through speedily. I ordered the combo, and promptly entered swine nirvana.

After lunch, it was into the car for a 15 minute drive to Opryland to check out the Grand Ole Opry. The flood damage to Opryland was complete. The resort and the GOO were now reopened, but the mall complex was all barricaded in an insurance dispute. This complex has a suburban feel to it, but never-the-less, the dichotomy of the historic downtown Broadway compared to the tourist attraction Opryland conveys the adaptability of Nashville to bring the joy of its country music to every type of visitor.

As I continued to discover on my basketball travels, Marquette apparel is a billboard to open conversations with strangers. Unexpectedly and perhaps shockingly, the people I ran into in Nashville were better-educated about Marquette basketball than those in any other city I visited: The hotelier who was originally from Chicago, the Tennessee fans with their then Milwaukee Bruce connection, and the Vandy loyals, who love their hoops program. More so, the UNC fans who knew everything about Marquette: the Warriors to Golden Eagles story, Al, Buzz, 1977, and our detailed hoops history. One Tar Heel fan asked me: “Is Marquette in town?” I told him yes to play Vanderbilt, and he said, “I am going to get tickets”. Sure enough, I saw numerous Tar Heel fans later at the game (and Tennessee too). I love the South.

Memorial Gym is an old bandbox—a theater on an elevated stage. A bunch of middle-aged, wider girthed Marquette male alums of the “In-between Generation” like me made this holiday trip, snagging tickets in the student section. The seats were basically two by fours, so we were fine that the few Vanderbilt students decided to stand and cheer all game. Good thing, as the game was an action-packed, back and forth affair which ended badly with a last second shot and Jim Burr misses on four travels, two intentional fouls and a leg-saw trip (which would turn out to be his best game of the season). Vandy had not lost a home out-of-conference game in over two years, and their coach and players were up to the task of defending their hardwood versus our still big game-virgin Golden Eagles. This was just a great college basketball game, and no fan felt gypped. The rematch in Milwaukee this upcoming season should be equally exciting as both teams should be highly ranked.

Post-game, it was on to a Vanderbilt grad student hang-out, the Broadway Brewhouse & Mojo Grill --with 72 beers on tap. I had some Yazoo, the local craft, and some late dinner from their attached Mojo Grill. Half the joint was a dive bar, another part was a tent, and the brightly-lit Mojo was a little bit of everything. Not unlike the Marquette basketball team’s identity.

After check-out the next morning, I loaded the truck, turned on the local country music station, and pleasantly cruised the southern hospitality highway back up north—not minding the loss, the truckers, or the holiday camper traffic—that is until I hit the roadside religious sign in Columbus, Indiana, the unofficial interstate demarcation between north and south—and the road and game rage returned as life again became sadly more complicated as the miles passed. I leaned forward to crank up the country music to wash that northern urban angst back into holiday submission. Hell, I even stopped at a Cracker Barrel.

"The Music City" is the latest in a series chronicling the 2010-2011 Marquette hoops season from a fan's unique perspective. If you missed the first entries click on the tags below for earlier installments.

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