LONG BEACH — The color and pageantry of college basketball came here last weekend, and a city that hadn't been equated with the sport for more than a decade tasted that special March flavor of good teams, great players, famous coaches and frenetic fans.
On Friday morning before the first game of the NCAA regional tournament between Nevada-Las Vegas and Northeast Louisiana University, UNLV fans, dressed in red, streamed by the thousands toward the Long Beach Arena, a squat, gray cylindrical building that sits by the sea and resembles a huge oil storage tank.
One group sang and danced to its team's theme song: "I got Runnin' Rebel fever and I feel so fine." The beat was catchier than that of the jackhammer that could be heard across the street, digging into the rubble of demolished buildings along Seaside Way.
Fans had not streamed by the thousands to the arena for college basketball since Cal State Long Beach was a successful team in the early 1970s. Total attendance for the tournament was more than 30,000. To draw that many people, Cal State Long Beach would have to play almost two full seasons.
"It's real nice to have crowds like this again," said Glenn McDonald, a 49er star in the team's glory era, as he stood in blustery Midwestern-type weather before the Sunday double-header that would match the winners of Friday's games. The losers--Northeast Louisiana, Pepperdine, Montana State and Arizona--had long since picked up the pieces of their shattered dreams and gone home.
McDonald, now a 49er assistant coach, said the tournament would be a good recruiting tool for Cal State Long Beach, the host of the regional tournament. "TV is going to be saying, 'Long Beach, Long Beach' constantly," McDonald said.
Nearby, a man held up a ticket and hawked, "Center court, best seat in the house, 30 bucks."
"We are St. John's," the fans of that New York City university chanted before their team's game with Auburn, although no one had asked their identity.
St. John's, the top-seeded team in the West, quickly headed for a fall, mainly because of an Auburn player named Chuck Person. Person was 6 feet, 8 inches tall and looked a ton, with musculature that made the St. John's players look almost anemic.
Person played like a man on a personal crusade, which he was. Miffed that he had been left off All-American teams, Person was out to show the world that he was up there with stars like Walter Berry of St. John's. He slam dunked, scored on long, right-handed jumpshots, made tip-ins with his left hand, ran like he was at a track meet and rebounded with ferocity.
Berry, meanwhile, did little against a hounding Auburn defense. Wherever he turned, he ran into a blue-uniformed player.
By the time Auburn had built a 30-20 lead, Lou Carnesecca, the famous St. John's coach whom the New York tabloids refer to as "Looey" in headlines, knew he was in trouble. A short man in a blue shirt and baggy trousers, he was as jumpy as a marionette, and when particularly excited or exasperated, he would dart sideways up and down in front of his bench.
Carnesecca got coaching assistance from a priest in the first row of the stands, who yelled, "Play to win, get back on defense, quick." But that didn't help, and at half time the Redmen trailed, 44-32.
Priest Is Faithful Fan
The priest, Jim Dorr, chaplain of St. John's College of Business, did not appear to be midway through a crisis. He was confident of a comeback, he said, "if we penetrate more and hit the boards."
Dorr said he attends every St. John's game "if I don't have a wedding, a christening or a funeral."
St. John's made a serious challenge in the second half and cut the gap to eight points. A dark-haired cheerleader shrieked for support and the fans responded with a loud "We are St. John's."
But the Redmen couldn't shoot and Auburn rushed back into command. With less than four minutes to play, the sad finality of ending the season far from home sank in for St. John's. "Next year, Walter," a fan yelled to Berry.
As the last seconds of the 81-65 game ticked off, the small group of Auburn fans sang what has become sort of an anthem for poor sportsmanship: "Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, good-bye, " and that was too much for the St. John's cheerleader, who broke into tears.
She accepted the hug of a fellow cheerleader, picked up a red and white "We are St. John's" banner and left the court, on the first leg of the journey back to Jamaica, Queens.
After each game, the coaches and significant players filed into an interview room that was bright with TV lights and adjoined a larger room, which, because it held the computers of some 300 writers, resembled an electronics convention.
Of Auburn, Carnesecca told the reporters, "They were simply marvelous." Of his plight, he said: "It's not the end of the world. Maybe after a day or two, the bitter taste of defeat won't be so bitter."