Final Four-Play

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Kansas foward Drew Gooden defends as Maryland guard Steve Blake

They don't call it the Final Two. If you're looking for magic, for an American spectacle akin to the Super Bowl or the Oscars, please direct your attention to the doubleheader semi-final orgy of college basketball known as the Final Four.

Why? Because before these games start, everyone's still a winner, and anything can happen.

And in a city arguably jaded from hosting an Olympic Games and two Super Bowls, this event was a welcome change, boasting a fan/school-centric, feel-good atmosphere absent from the others. The pro events? Too exclusionary. The Olympics? Too long and large to get your arms around. None of those problems plague the Final Four: Despite seating nearly 55,000, the Georgia Dome felt like any college gym in America, packed with fans crazed for their alma mater — times four. Four massive cheering sections competing, overlapping, clamoring; four pep bands at once framing the pace of the game, its intimacy, your team's nearly unbearable peaks and valleys.

Friday, some 15,000 came just to watch their teams practice for an hour in preparation for the next day's games. Indiana fans Jeromy Arnett, 28, and his brother Shawn, 22, drove from South Carolina to watch practice, after which they were happy to drive back home. "Especially after we saw they wanted $800 for the top section," said Jeromy..

Watching practice is all well and good, of course, but actual tickets were the hottest thing going: Kansas fans Tim Ballew, 30, and wife Heidi, 27, spent $3,000 for two seats on the floor four rows behind one basket. They were there to root for the Jayhawks and celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary. Not everyone was lucky enough to line up tickets ahead of time: Saturday morning, folks stood in the pouring rain buying and selling and trying to look inconspicuous. Some fans ate worms and literally got in bed with snakes and rats to win tickets from a radio station. Face value prices went from $120 to $5,000. For that $800, the Arnett brothers could have had seats nearly 100 rows, or 500 feet, from the action. Up there the court measures two by three inches to the naked eye and binoculars rent for $10. Thankfully, the Jumbotrons were working.

The fans were everywhere. And in the self-styled New York of the South, there was something for everyone. A Seinfeld standup show, a Grandmaster Flash resurrection, a Bobby Knight book signing, a John Wooden breakfast, alumni events, a sports bar. College all-stars dunked and arced, and in an historic footnote, handed the Harlem Globetrotters their first loss in 222 games. The NCAA's Hoop City offered ongoing interactive play and celebrity challenges. Of course, this is Atlanta, so we must give a nod to the city's infamous nude dance clubs — about 40 citywide — all of which offered up a brand of excitement you just don't find back home in Kansas or Indiana — or Maryland, for that matter.

The best rubbernecking was at the hotel housing the nation's college coaches, and at the ESPN Zone restaurant, where the network mined its 12th annual Dickie V. sound-alike contest along with an ESPN The Magazine awards show and other events. Sports Illustrated fought back by hosting events at three of the coolest restaurants in town.

Though there was much talk during the week on whether the Final Four teams should be re-seeded and reshuffled (Maryland would have played Indiana, Kansas vs. Oklahoma to avoid two top seeds playing in a semifinal) most coaches weren't having it. Of the 21 who were asked, only six thought reseeding a good idea, and only one thought it would ever come to pass. "Who's the best team here?" barked Arizona State Coach Bob Evans. Umm. "There's your answer! You don't know!" "No and no," retorted former Georgetown coach John Thompson before being escorted to a limo.

Saturday evening, back inside the storm-lashed Georgia Dome, Indiana proved too deep for Oklahoma and Maryland too big for Kansas. After the dust settled, fans who were once sworn enemies morphed into instant business partners, as the winners and losers exchanged tickets and money for Monday night's final.

For Indiana and Maryland fans, Easter Sunday was for prayer. As Pastor Michael Youssef of the 4,000-member Church of the Apostles noted in his morning sermon, "We have so many visitors today I'm thankful the Final Four brought us so many people." To which those lucky enough to be in attendance can only say, "Amen."