SALT LAKE CITY – I wanted to take the temperature of Zags Fever here in the capital of Utah, site of first and second round NCAA basketball games.
So I devised a simple plan.
I would don a red-on-blue “GONZAGA” pullover windbreaker. And I would march out of my downtown hotel and conduct a probing lunchtime man-on-the-street survey.
My question: How ‘bout them Zags?
The first person I polled burst into tears. But, in fairness to me, that kid was already sort of crying. And I believe photographer Brian Plonka will back me up when I say that the toddler in question had the mewling, crybaby look of an Indiana Hoosiers fan.
Hey, kid, save it for the refs.
I pressed on.
My next victim, a scruffy 20-something guy, described himself as a hotel saucier. “I hope you guys win,” he said, glancing at my windbreaker.
He also suggested that he would root even harder if we could slip him a ticket.
My next pollee was attired in military camouflage. He said he was a sergeant first class. He looked like he could kick somebody’s butt.
“Who’s going to win it all?” I asked.
“UConn,” he said.
“How ‘bout them Zags?” I shot back.
“How ‘bout ‘em?” he replied somewhat testily, showing no sign of yielding to the logic of my argument. “They’re not going to win it all.”
My next exchange was with an attractive woman carrying her lunch back to her office in one of those white landfill-forever boxes. She all but told me to get a life. “At least the Olympics were interesting,” she said.
On second thought, she wasn’t all that attractive.
Outside a Salt Lake City TV station, a guy who said his first name was Jackson predicted Duke would win it all. But he had a little love for the Zags.
“They’re pretty good,” he allowed, before veering off on some extended conversational tangents that had me daydreaming about my laundry situation and where we might go for dinner.
Next up was a woman whose gaze locked onto the bold lettering adorning my windbreaker. Here we go, I thought. She’s ready to talk some brackets with me.
“Do you have any spare change so I can get a little something to eat?” she asked.
So sometimes I’m wrong. Sue me.
A moment later, I approached a construction worker involved in some garden or fountain project at the base of the big Brigham Young monument on the edge of Temple Square. I didn’t interrupt him at a crucial moment or anything. But he responded to my inane college basketball question with a barely concealed hostility. “I don’t know,” he seethed.
OK, thanks for sharing.
To be fair, a few people in downtown Salt Lake noted my Zags apparel and gave me various supportive or at least bemused looks. One guy pumped a clenched fist in a way that was unmistakably pro-Zags.
But I was getting too many answers along the lines of “No idea” and “Am I supposed to know what you’re talking about?”
One woman talked about genealogy for about 40 seconds, and I never had the slightest clue what her point was.
My simple plan was seemingly less and less brilliant.
Then something remarkable happened.
Brian and I walked into Temple Square, the sprawling Mormon church/office complex. And practically everywhere we looked, newlywed couples were having their pictures taken. The young women in their puffy white dresses looked liked carnations dotting the plaza.
So I went strong to the hoop, so to speak. I started asking brand-new brides and grooms about the NCAA tournament.
That didn’t go so well at first. But the experience had a surreal quality I found appealing.
One groom from Germany looked so baffled as I questioned him near a fountain that I almost felt sorry for him.
He was struggling to reply to “Who’s going to win the tournament?” when a man standing maybe 20 feet away shouted, “Gonzaga’s going to win, of course.”
I went over and introduced myself to John Aldrich, a mortgage broker from Orem, Utah. It turned out he’s the father of Emily, Herr Don’t Know Anything About Basketball’s bride.
Aldrich said his daughter’s wedding was just one of 32 scheduled at the looming Salt Lake Temple on Friday.
Another groom, a guy named Ben, said he was picking UConn to go all the way. “But Gonzaga’s got a chance.”
His new wife looked at him in that time-honored way some women look at their husbands when the guy starts talking sports, and it quickly becomes apparent that he REALLY, REALLY CARES ABOUT THIS STUFF.
Glancing at the bride, I realized I might be seeing one of the earliest “Omigod, what did I get myself into” looks in the history of marriage.
I then wandered over to watch wedding party pictures being taken of a group of about 50 people on the steps of the multispired sacred edifice.
A few minutes later, I approached four formally attired young men who had just been posing on the steps. I asked them who they liked for the Final Four.
One of them, the shortest of the four, gave me a look that emphatically questioned the appropriateness of my enterprise.
For a moment, there was chilly silence.
“Duke,” said another of the guys.
“I’ve got Villanova going all the way,” said the third.
And then the fourth uttered the words I’d longed to hear.
“I have Gonzaga in my Final Four.”
Now that’s the spirit.
Sometimes all you need in life – and in college basketball – is a little faith.