SAN ANTONIO — It took some blind faith and crossed fingers to bring the 2002 NCAA women's Final Four to the Alamodome, a structure meant to draw a football team to town. Lots of empty seats wouldn't convince the skeptics that the women's game, played by people who don't dunk and don't much want to, was worth much time or attention.
For the skeptics, for the e-mailers who say it's wasted energy to watch or think or read about women's basketball, who say eighth-grade boys play a more interesting game, who babble that no one would choose to be in San Antone when they could be in Atlanta, here are your answers.
The dome was packed with 29,619 people Friday. Fans clogged the Riverwalk, caused traffic gridlock. They chanted "Boomer Sooner" and yodeled "Rocky Top" and packed stuffed Husky dogs in their shoulder bags and wore Blue Devil horns painted on their faces.
They came to see Oklahoma beat Duke, 86-71, and Connecticut beat Tennessee, 79-56.
But they saw so much more.
They saw student-athletes. You can be sure none of the women in the Final Four has received $200,000 from a street agent. The large majority will leave school with a diploma and not with the keys to an oversized SUV.
They saw Rosalind Ross, the Oklahoma guard who scored a game-high 26 points. She is playing on one knee. Her right knee is held together by a thin strand of ligament and lots of hope. Did you know that?
They saw Duke assistant coach Joanne Boyle, who nearly died of a brain aneurysm in December. She was on the bench Friday night, using the chalkboard and giving high-fives with arms that didn't work for many days.
They saw Oklahoma Coach Sherri Coale navigate the sideline in stiletto heels. You don't know tough until you pace for 40 minutes wearing stilettos.
They saw Connecticut and that alone is worth the price of admission.
The Huskies are 38-0 and there isn't a minute when someone isn't asking them about going undefeated and what a disappointment it will be if they don't go undefeated and wouldn't the season be pretty much a waste if they aren't 39-0 and national champions Sunday night. That's some pressure and the UConn players laugh about it, giggle about it, joke about it, accept all the silly questions with grace and consider the pressure something to embrace as part of being really good.
They saw Sue Bird, the Connecticut point guard, the best point guard in the country. Bird has the kind of easy athleticism, the quiet charisma, the unstudied modesty and extraordinary ability of soccer's Mia Hamm. Bird is going to shine in the WNBA and on U.S. national teams and little girls are going to want to be Sue Bird.
They saw Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt tear off her pale green suit coat in anger and put it back on in quiet surrender. There was speculation about whether Summitt would wear Tennessee orange because UConn Coach Geno Auriemma grumbles about the great Vol Orange Nation. That would be too obvious for Summitt. She wore green, then turned green as the Huskies firmly established themselves as the superior program.
Connecticut has won four of its last five games against Tennessee. UConn destroyed Tennessee two years ago in Philadelphia in the NCAA final. As Summitt said Friday night, "Can I go to UConn's graduation?" She wants to see seniors Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams get diplomas and go away.
They saw a sweet moment at the end of the UConn-Tennessee game.
Auriemma and Summitt, the two best coaches in the country, have become wary of each other, have found slights, real and perceived, have become uncomfortable with each other. Picture Bob Knight and Mike Davis. That uncomfortable.
But as the players were shaking hands, Auriemma went to Summitt and gave her a hug. A real hug, not a fake, arm's-length hug. Summitt whispered into Auriemma's ear. It was a speech, not a false "congratulations."
"A lot has been said and whatever has been said and how it's been said, yeah, some things have bothered me. But it's never been about Pat. What Pat said to me tonight, it's gonna stay between the two of us," Auriemma said. "But what she told me says a lot about the character of Pat Summitt."
You could get a hint of what Summitt whispered to Auriemma by what she told her freshmen. "Now you can see," Summitt said in a quiet locker room to a teary-eyed and stunned constituency, "how hard you have to work, how much you have to want it. UConn is a great team and Geno's done a great job with them. I admire how hard they play every single possession. It speaks for their character."
And it speaks to Summitt's character, her ability to unabashedly praise her fiercest rival. Just as it speaks to the improvement of the Final Four that the largest crowd ever to watch women's basketball came to the Alamodome.
This tournament belongs in the dome and in our consciousness ... and on our front pages.
Diane Pucin can be reached at email@example.com