San Antonio locals Nick and Katherine Gonzaba aren’t rooting for a specific team in this year’s NCAA Men’s Final Four, but like the thousands of other basketball fans walking the downtown streets on Friday they had clear blue skies, a free music festival, and the joy of a weekend’s worth of games ahead.
“Especially because it’s the 300th year, I feel like downtown is already prepared for the celebrations,” Nick Gonzaba said.
The Gonzabas joined other fans from across the nation at the busy Alamo Plaza. The two stood watching CBS Sports analyst Pete Gillen and anchor Brent Stover prepare for their show in front of the Alamo.
Covering his fifth Final Four this weekend, Stover said he enjoys working in San Antonio more than any other host city because of its food, friendliness, and weather.
“It’s my favorite spot,” Stover said. “I can’t come up with enough nice things to say.”
But for some diehard fans, the city and its amenities are an afterthought compared to the hoops competition ahead.
“Winning a national championship, that’s what we’re here for,” said Paula Baughman, whose son Jake is a sophomore guard for the Loyola University Chicago Ramblers. His team will face the University of Michigan Wolverines in Saturday’s first semifinal game.
The NCAA tournament’s two remaining No. 1-seeded teams – the University of Kansas Jayhawks and Villanova University Wildcats – face off in the second semifinal.
“You have a mix of everything – every great storyline here for this Final Four,” Stover said.
As broadcast crews set up their temporary studios and audio technicians put final touches on the stage for the free music festival inside Hemisfair, fans and families took time to explore the city.
Many of those interviewed are staying at downtown hotels. Meg Morrow, a Villanova alumna, chose the Hyatt Regency downtown because it will serve as the Wildcats’ base.
“It’s just fun to be with everybody else,” Morrow said. “Villanova has a huge following, and they’re avid basketball fans. There’s a lot of team pregame parties before each game.”
Final Four and Villanova banners hung from the hotel’s entrances and balconies. Morrow said the university had coordinated the experience for the fans who traveled to San Antonio.
“It’s really well organized from Villanova’s standpoint,” Morrow said.
Brad Williams, a Kansas University alumnus from Dallas, was brave enough to access the River Walk through the Hyatt Regency’s lobby full of Villanova fans while wearing his Jayhawks gear. Although he has attended other Final Fours, this is the first time he’s been able to bring his children with him.
“For the families, San Antonio is by far the best,” Williams said. “If you haven’t been here for one [before], you’ll see all the teams have their own restaurants and bar areas [on the River Walk.] In my opinion it’s the best place to have a Final Four.”
For those in need of directions or recommendations for things to do, Final Four volunteers, San Antonio police officers, and Centro ambassadors line the streets to offer guidance.
“We have different events going on in the Final Four,” said Deon Ford, one of several Final Four volunteers assisting visitors. They’re identifiable by the large question mark signs attached to their backpacks. “It’s really easy to tell people the different landmarks in the area.”
However, residents or visitors traveling downtown by vehicle will have to navigate road closures and security blockades. The San Antonio Police Department placed two garbage trucks on the portion of South Alamo Street between East Commerce and East Market streets as a security buffer.
Centro ambassadors like Sonya Green assisted local residents whose daily schedules were impacted by traffic changes, including rerouted buses and road blockages downtown.
Ryan and Lisa Malby stood on the River Walk by the Aztec Theatre waiting to ride on the new Go Rio Cruise barges. The Montana couple is attending their fourth Final Four, even though their Gonzaga Bulldogs lost in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.
Lisa Malby praised the city’s walkability and the close proximity of all Final Four events. After their river ride, the couple said they would return to the Fan Fest inside the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
Fans gathered inside the center to meet former and current college and professional basketball stars. San Antonio Spurs Danny Green and Tony Parker will meet with fans Saturday.
Nicole and Leeland Langston toured the Fan Fest after watching their Michigan Wolverines practice inside the Alamodome Friday morning.
“We got here and we immediately went to the Alamodome,” said Leeland Langston, a University of Michigan alumnus from Chicago. “It was great.”
Like other fans staying downtown, the couple said they wanted to enjoy all the city’s food. But above all, they were there to see their team take home a national championship.
“I think we’re going to win it all,” Leeland Langston said. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think so.”