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For True-Blue ACC Fans, Museums Are Just a Backdrop

For This Visit, Eyes Are Strictly on the Ball

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page B02

Driving past the Washington Monument on their way into town the other night, Kent Underwood and Steven Stewart mulled the prospect of visiting a few tourist spots like Air and Space or another of the Smithsonian museums.

The discussion, they said, was over by the time they breezed past the White House.

North Carolina and Clemson square off in the first game of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. Fans who couldn't buy tickets crowded into bars and restaurants near MCI Center. (Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)

Since Thursday, the North Carolinians have been camped out at only one Washington attraction: MCI Center, where legions of basketball fans are attending the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

"We're the biggest geeks over this," said Underwood, 42, a Durham postal clerk, standing outside the arena a full two hours before yesterday's first game began.

It's a devotion that is not without demands. For the first two days, the games began at noon and didn't end until after 9 p.m., which made touring the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery a challenge.

That is, if there was any interest.

"Not this weekend," said Stewart, the city manager of Carrboro, N.C., who was rooting for Wake Forest. "It's not about the city. It's about the game."

Most years, the tournament is held in North Carolina, in Greensboro or Durham or Charlotte. ACC officials moved the games to Washington this year for the first time since 1987 with the hopes of expanding interest in the tournament.

For some fans, the new location raised the possibility of mixing basketball and sightseeing, as long as they could persuade their traveling companions. Mary Jane Trope, 71, thought it might be nice to sneak in a visit to the U.S. Capitol between games. Her husband, Arnie, 71, thought otherwise.

"We're here for basketball," he pronounced, as they stood outside the arena, both dressed in the orange and burgundy jackets of his alma mater, Virginia Tech.

At that moment, about an hour before the first game was to begin, they were surrounded by hundreds of fans, some searching for tickets and others greeting old friends, so absorbed in the moment that they seemed oblivious to the capital's sights and sounds, including a sidewalk act offered by Spencer Lancaster, 47, who uses his hands as a flute to whistle melodies.

"Get ready! I'm back in town, ladies and gentlemen!" he shouted after performing a rendition of the Beatles' "Yesterday." No one stopped to drop money in his jug.

In many cases, the fans wore their allegiance on their sleeves, and everywhere else.

Rhoda Osterneck of Chapel Hill, who said she has attended each ACC tournament since 1974, put on blue mascara and eyeliner, the colors of her University of North Carolina Tar Heels. On her ears, she wore silver earrings in the shape of basketball hoops. A Tar Heel pin was on her blouse.

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