DENVER -- This city is a great place. Full of vibrant young people, a century-plus of brick buildings and new steel skyscrapers in a downtown with a history of taverns and roughhousing and bare-knuckled hard life. Old neighborhoods filled with real people with wind-burned faces.
Because the wind never stops here. Ever.
So into that wind I tried to find the hidden Winthrop fans among the hundreds of thousands Wednesday.
I took a city bus ride, a bunch of rides for $1.75 with a transfer pass good for all day, to see the city and ask strangers of they would be the superfan of the underdog Winthrop Eagles. I walked the same rails as Kerouac and Cassady. I drank coffee. I bummed a Winston off a hobo, then returned the favor to guy with one tooth in his head.
That guy was named Jimmy.
Jimmy what, I asked?
"Jimmy Jimmy," he said. "Been just Jimmy forever."
Jimmy hadn't heard of Winthrop.
Jimmy offered a pull off his bottle, but I had to say no. I had to get to the arena to see what kind of rotten fans Washington State has and how wonderful Winthrop's fans are.
I found WSU fans are great, too -- even if I hope their team loses.
I have been having e-mail fights for a couple of days with a guy who saved me in Spokane, Wash., last year. Chris Cordador, who runs the computers for WSU, helped a loser like me last March send my stories and blogs when I tried to type into a computer that had no power cord. He took pity. He pulled out his own laptop and set me up for days. I thanked him last year, and this year I thanked him by saying Washington State stinks. He said I stink.
I said, "You remember?"
Inside the arena, fans gathered to watch practice. These practices the day before the game are for the true fanatics. I found two young WSU grads who live in Denver, Brandon Bohn and Korri Anderson.
They follow basketball, know Winthrop's pedigree of winning an NCAA game last year and going to eight tourneys in 10 years.
"Winthrop, not the team to underestimate," Bohn said.
I had hoped he would bash Winthrop so I could bash him. But both guys were so nice I can't.
But then again, nice guys finish last. At least Winthrop fans hope so today.
But these guys aren't Winthrop fans. I looked further, and plotted bad vibes for WSU.
The WSU coach is named Tony Bennett. Not the Tony Bennett, the "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" guy. I decide he is tone-deaf and his team should lose.
I find the second happiest guy in Denver is a Winthrop alumnus. Tony Payne, class of 1997. A scientist at a Denver medical center in his day job, a Winthrop hoops fanatic the rest of the time.
He hasn't seen a game in person since last year, but he follows the team on TV and the Internet. When he found out Winthrop was playing in Denver, he even offered to let fans from Rock Hill who could make the trip stay in his house.
It didn't hurt that his wife and kids are in Florida, where Payne is moving in a couple of weeks.
"Not a bad time to be a bachelor for a couple of weeks," Payne said. "Winthrop in the NCAA Tournament again. In Denver."
Payne predicts Winthrop will win today. I immediately like him.
"56-54, Winthrop," he said. "Low scoring. But we will score enough."
And late Wednesday, Payne got a ticket. His response: "Sweet!"
But the happiest man is named Blake Isom. Winthrop class of 1985, a vice president who has to wear a suit to work every day in Denver and answer e-mails and other nonsense. And hasn't had a chance to see his beloved Eagles play in person in 23 years.
But now he can today. Isom has spent four days in his straightjacket of a suit and tie telling people about Winthrop and Rock Hill.
"Many fans know Winthrop from beating Notre Dame in this tournament last year," Isom said. "Anybody who didn't know, I told them all about Winthrop. I am pumped."
It's wonderful to hear a vice president say he's pumped.
So today Isom will put on his Winthrop shirt and cap, put the same on his 12-year-old son, Jordan, and be one of maybe 100 or so Winthrop fans out of 20,000 in the arena. He will carry on like a maniac. His buddies in Rock Hill will see him on TV with no tie and a red face. Maybe red from screaming, maybe painted red like Winthrop's colors.
Fans, the Isoms and the Taylors of Denver who are Winthrop forever and can share it today with their families and the world, they really are what this magical game is all about.
• Location: Rock Hill
• Enrollment: 6,382 (84 percent in-state)
• Founded: 1886
• Endowment: $49.9 million
• Average SAT score: 1074
• Academic reputation: Liberal arts university with a rich history in the education field.
• Famous alumni: Former S.C. first lady Lois Rhame West. Actress Andie MacDowell attended Winthrop but dropped out as a sophomore.
• Mascot: Big Stuff the Eagle
• Did you know: If Winthrop beats Washington State in tonight's matchup, a potential second-round opponent is Notre Dame, the team the Eagles upset in last season's tournament.
Washington State University
• Location: Pullman, Wash. (with satellite campuses in Spokane, Vancouver and Tri-Cities)
• Enrollment: 24,396 (83 percent in-state)
• Founded: 1890
• Endowment: $650.9 million
• Average SAT score: 1111
• Academic reputation: Research institute known for its communications and science programs.
• Famous alumni: Legendary CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow and former ABC sportscaster Keith Jackson, known for his "Whoa Nelly!" expression.
• Mascot: Butch the Cougar
• Did you know: Pullman is home to the National Lentil Festival every August. The eastern Washington and northern Idaho area, called the Palouse region, grows one-third of the world's lentils, and the festival celebrates this "wonderful little legume," according to www.lentilfest.com.
A LONG DRIVE
Winthrop's campus is 2,656 miles from Washington State University. That's a 39-hour trek through 13 states if you make the road trip.
NCAA TOURNAMENT FIRST ROUND
• Who: Winthrop vs. Washington State
• Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, 7:20 p.m. EDT
• TV: WMYT in Rock Hill (Comporium cable Channel 12, over the air Channel 55), pre-game begins at 7 p.m. EDT.
• Radio: WRHI 94.3 FM or 1340 AM, pre-game begins at 6:30 p.m. EDT.