One last basketball embrace for the Ogwumike sisters after the Baylor Bears knocked the Stanford Cardinal out in the Final Four. (Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE)
DENVER, Colo. - When you walk into the Brown Palace Hotel in Downtown Denver you're met with a violinist serenading guests enjoying high tea. But when you continue up to the ballroom immediately before the 2012 Women's Final Four is set to begin, you're met with posters, rally towels, pom pons and "S" hats with the signature Tree.
And a tape station.
What? Oh, yes. The Stanford Cardinal send off party had Nerd City Kid glasses that were snapped up quickly and almost like a badge of honor. But if you missed out, you could tape up your own pair of glasses to represent the team. Kate Starbird, the 1997 Naismith player of the year and woman who held the Stanford scoring record for a decade, sported two pieces of tape wrapped around her spectacles. Nerd City had legitimately descended on Denver.
The video was fun. The Ogwumike sisters are revered for the work they do on the basketball court. But it's not just Nneka and Chiney. As a unit, this team - despite all the immense talent that has come before them - ranks by many fans as their favorite Stanford team ever.
Heck, Nneka Ogwumike agrees with all of these people that have been watching her work the last four years in a Stanford uniform. This team is a team that is worth it. It's worth the joy, and in cases like Sunday night's 59-47 loss to Baylor, the pain.
"Obviously no one feels good after a loss, especially if it's in the Final Four," Ogwumike smiled and said after playing her last collegiate game. "But I just kind of look back and reflect on what it took for us to get here, and I would have rather gone down with my team than up with any other team."
The feelings are mutual.
This comes from fans that travel far and wide, year after year, to see their team compete in Final Fours. This comes from fans that do that same travel on years that Stanford isn't even in the Final Four because that's just what they do. This comes from fans who are invested in this year's team more than any other because of their heart and not necessarily their head.
Their heads might rationalize that the talent level on some of those previous teams was higher or more refined. Or that the results of getting to a championship game rather than just making the Final Four trip might take some weight over losing out in the semis on the scale of 'best' team. But on the scale of 'favorite' team, this group seems to take the cake.
The Cardinal has been to five straight Fours. In those seasons, players like Candice Wiggins, Jayne Appel and Kayla Pedersen have led the charge to the championship games in 2008 and 2010. Stanford's 11 times in the Final Four is the third-most in the country, behind Connecticut and Tennessee. But the powerhouse program that Tara VanDerveer has cultivated includes two titles in 1990 and 1992. Since then, the kid sister tag has been placed upon Stanford when it comes to the Big Dance.
The spell has been cast over real-life Hogwarts as people run around with their glasses taped. This personal and deep feeling of love for a specific team, irregardless of final outcomes, future potential, or the joy of winning is something I don't equate with the West Coast. But I do equate it with this team.
It might be the personable and accessible ease by which the fans can connect to the players in this digital age. It might be the dynamic sister act that got the team this far this year that has reeled them into investing even moreso than usual.
The pre-Final Four conversation of why this high level of investment in college sports teams in California is lacking turned all but moot as the post-Final Four conversation began to be told. There was pride and respect in the program that seems to be firmly entrenched on bridesmaid row, rather than getting their own chance to shine in the spotlight. There was appreciation and admiration for the women on the roster, top to bottom, despite the loss that left people saying 'what if'. There was even talk of whether or not to plan for next year's Final Four location of New Orleans. That high level of investment and attachment was ever present.
In the waning minutes of April Fool's, sat a restaurant of people at the Mellow Mushroom wearing red, and praising the greatness of this group above the rest. They would rather do as Nneka said - go down with this team, than go up with any other.
Nneka also said she'll be watching the national championship game, interested in the outcome. I'm not sure how particularly interested the Stanford fans will be, but I know they'll be at the Pepsi Center wearing their red in proud support of their team - disappointed that their journey with the team they love so much has ended, but appreciative for the ride through the season that got them here.
For more on the 2012 NCAA women's basketball tournament, check out our "NCAA Tournament 2012" section.