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Fans come from near, far to watch NCAA teams in Spokane

Purdue fans, from left: Jon Kramer (father of Purdue player Chris Kramer), along with Rob and Jean Cole, congratulate JaJuan Johnson after he scored 23 point to help defeat Siena in a first-round NCAA tournament game Friday, March 19, 2010, in the Spokane Arena. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Purdue fans, from left: Jon Kramer (father of Purdue player Chris Kramer), along with Rob and Jean Cole, congratulate JaJuan Johnson after he scored 23 point to help defeat Siena in a first-round NCAA tournament game Friday, March 19, 2010, in the Spokane Arena. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Jim Campbell had to pull a few strings to book hotel room in Spokane. Sadly for him, those connections couldn’t help his outgunned alma mater Siena against Big Ten powerhouse Purdue.

Campbell and his wife, Cynthia, made the $1,800 flight from Albany, N.Y. to Spokane this week, joining a boisterous, colorful crowd here to root for eight basketball teams.

Like many fans traveling to Spokane, he couldn’t find a room. So the former vice president of Key Bank called a former boss now living in Seattle for some help.

A bit later, the Campbells had a room at the Holiday Inn Express three blocks from the Arena.

Purdue vs. Siena was the must-see game Friday. Purdue’s late-season problems, spurred by the loss of star Robbie Hummels to injury, sank the Boilermakers’ standing as one of the nation’s elite teams. It’s why Siena became a trendy bracket pick. Even President Obama picked the Saints of Loudonville, N.Y.

“We’re feeling very positive” Campbell said before the game. Siena and Purdue are not much alike.

Siena, a Catholic school established by the Franciscan Order, has 3,000 students and turns out plenty of business people and accountants. It was an all-male college until the 1960s, said Campbell, of the class of 1962.

The school also had the support of upset-loving Gonzaga fans who struck a fanbase-to-fanbase deal that had Siena fans attending the NCAA First Round tournament in Buffalo cheering for the Bulldogs.

At the other side of the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, Jon Kramer milled about with several other Purdue fans. He was ignoring the talk of an early Boilermakers’ exit.

“We’re ready to play,” he said. “We’re feeling good about our chances.”

Purdue has nearly 40,000 students and is noted for its aerospace program and famous astronaut graduates.

Kramer isn’t just another fan. His son Chris is a starter on Purdue and perhaps channeled his father’s confidence on two big plays during the decisive run to open the second half. He stole the ball and dunked to cap a 13-0 run that put the Boilermakers in front 42-32.

And yet it may have been a hustle play – the kind that made fans clench their fists and yell – that set the tone. Kramer grabbed a loose bouncer on the baseline and, while in the air, hurled it off a Siena player and out of bounds. Words and tough stares were exchanged as Kramer stood his ground. It was Kramer’s way of telling Siena: “Purdue is playing Sunday.”

Purdue then held off a late Siena surge.

After the game, Siena trombone player John Amann adjusted an army helmet he decorated with school logos and acknowledged “the guys played really well. That’s what happens sometimes.”

Bass drum player Vansh Langer concurred.

“Tough loss for us,” he said. “But we had a blast in Spokane.”

The band and the team planned to leave Friday night on a chartered flight back to Albany.

A day before the games got under way, Melissa Hawley brought her 4-year-old daughter, Reagan, and her pal Zoe Love to the Thursday afternoon shoot-around dressed up in Texas A&M Aggies maroon.

“We’re just a huge sports family,” said the fan from Spokane. Texas A&M has a local alumni club.

Aggies fans are making their presence felt this weekend. Even before their team’s opening tip against Utah State, many were hissing and hexing in-state rival Texas on Thursday night at Heroes & Legends sports bar in downtown Spokane. They cheered as Wake Forest sealed a win with a pull-up jumper from 17 feet with 1.3 seconds to play.

Texas A&M had an easier time Friday in a win over the other Aggies, of Utah State.

Mike Leonhardt and his father, Ivan, drove from Logan, Utah to watch the game and felt their team had a legitimate shot an upset.

“If they play Aggies basketball they’ll do well,” Leonhardt said. “If not, we’ve had a great time.”

They arrived Thursday night, and had to book a room in Coeur d’Alene.

Rooms were hard to find over the weekend as 435 high school volleyball teams converged on Spokane for a tournament. The number of players, parents and fans outpaced even the NCAA tournament, according to the Spokane Regional Sports Commission.

The Campbells, retired and staying until Tuesday, are unsure if they’ll go to Sunday’s games.

“We might just see the sights around here,” said Cynthia. “Lovely place you have here.”



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