Smiling in Celebration Of a Banner Season

jordan carter - george mason patriots
Jordan Carter sets to shoot over Wichita State's Kyle Wilson, left, during a game that was almost an anticlimax to George Mason's pregame ceremony. (Rich Lipski - The Post)

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By John Feinstein
Sunday, November 19, 2006

There was one thing that was inescapable yesterday afternoon at Patriot Center. In the midst of all the gold-and-green pomp surrounding the seemingly impossible notion that George Mason was about to raise a banner containing the words "Final Four," one thing stood out from everything else.

The smiles. No one in the building could stop smiling. Not just a "nice to be here" smile but an all-out, still-can't-believe-this-happened smile that comes from your heart more than from your mouth. It was one of those days that are all too rare in sports, one in which an accomplishment is so remarkable that the celebration can't possibly be overdone.

And, to their everlasting credit, the people at Mason overdid nothing. In fact, they got it exactly right. The banner-raising ceremony was short, sweet and simple. No self-congratulatory speeches by anyone -- a smart move given that if Coach Jim Larranaga had gotten the mike and started thanking people, the game might not have been played -- just the slow raising of the banner while the place went nuts.

When they played Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," which became the school's anthem last spring, it felt as if the roof might come off the place. The game itself, a taut 72-66 loss to a very good Wichita State team, was almost an anticlimax.

"It was great to stand out there and see the banner go up and think back to what we did in March," Folarin Campbell said. "But after that, we still had a game to play."

Or, as Larranaga told his team, "the banner is for the fans; the game is for us."

All well and good. But the banner was won by the players. They deserved to enjoy it, too, even though there is plenty of work to do in the coming weeks.

It has been about eight months since the Patriots' miraculous run, but the electric feeling around this campus hasn't faded at all.

"There's still that great feeling of accomplishment for everyone," said George Mason President Alan G. Merten, one of those walking around before the game with a 10,000-watt smile. "It's almost impossible to calculate what this has done for George Mason."

Actually, there are some very tangible ways in which to calculate what last March meant to "Mason Nation." At halftime, the 40 inaugural members of the "Green Coat Club" were introduced. They pledged $15,000 each over the next three years in return for their green coat and their own hospitality room.

"We went from zero to 40 in no time," Athletic Director Tom O'Connor said. He was standing in the middle of the $5,000-a-year hospitality room as he spoke. The place was packed. "I honestly don't know how many new people we've got at this level this year. But it's a lot."

The number of season ticket holders has just about doubled -- it is now close to 3,000 -- and yesterday's sellout crowd of 9,804 was, as you might expect, a record for the building.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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