Fans Who Paid Their Dues
Friday, March 24, 2006
To get tickets for tonight's NCAA tournament game, Blanche Peterson dropped by George Mason University earlier this week and slid her request under the door.
It was just a visit from one old neighbor to another. Her husband started going to Mason basketball games in the 1970s because it was such a quick 10-minute drive from their home in Burke, an easy, comfortable place to take the kids. "It's our school, our Northern Virginia school," John Peterson said.
Mason, long overshadowed by other teams even in Washington and all but forgotten nationally, is suddenly the NCAA tournament darling, the underdog everyone loves, the ticket everyone wants. It's having far and away its best season ever, and no one's enjoying it more than the close-knit group of longtime fans who have been loyal to the Patriots for much of the team's nearly 40-year history. Some have been cheering from the days when there wasn't even a home court.
They say there's an openness at Mason unusual for competitive Division I ball: It's the kind of place where fans can still watch the team practice and hear insider lowdown about recruits, and where a star player stopped by the stands after one recent game to check on a regular who had stumbled.
For fans such as the Petersons, it started with proximity -- a precious commodity in an area so hobbled by traffic. Now, not only is the team suddenly on a national stage, but the big game is playing in their back yard.
After beating defending national champion North Carolina last weekend, the Patriots advance to the Sweet Sixteen and take on Wichita State tonight at the Verizon Center in downtown Washington. The team is far different than it was in its early years, but it's not like the juggernaut college programs where money drives so many decisions and even the walk-ons can be celebrities.
At Mason, fans can still grab the coach at Brion's Grille after home games, still watch players develop over four years, still feel the parents' pride when the non-starters get in the game.
That's why the Petersons kept coming, and donating, even though they're from the Midwest, didn't go to Mason and didn't send any of their five children there. Tickets are easy, good seats are not a problem, driving there's a snap.
In a strange way, even though it's a big school, some fans described a small-town closeness to the games. The first basketball teams at Mason played in high school gyms.
The fans were "friends of the players, parents of the players -- and cheerleaders," said Jay Marsh, now an associate athletics director, who came to the university in 1970. He paid the band at Chantilly High School to perform at games, decked out in Mason uniforms. The players used to pile into his apartment before home games, eating spaghetti with him and his wife.
The Patriots started competing on campus in the 1970s, and fans crowded onto the wooden bleachers. Almost all the players were local guys who commuted to school back then. Coaches drove the vans to games, and the team shared locker rooms at the P.E. building with everyone else.
"It was like a high school gym," Blanche Peterson said.