It was late Wednesday afternoon and the opening day of the Conference USA men's basketball tournament at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex was starting to lag.
Fans - the relative few who were there - yawned more than yelped. A couple were sleeping in their seats. The teams from South Florida and Memphis had created some spark earlier with an overtime game in the first matchup, but now the party was dragging.
Then came the saviors, arriving by bus Wednesday night at the 19th Street entrance - about two dozen students from Milwaukee, members of the Marquette University Band with faces painted and dressed in gold and blue striped shirts. They wore cabbie caps backward and carried "Rowdy Rag" towels in their pockets.
"What is a Billiken?" the band members screamed as they danced on the sidewalk, their way of warming up for a game against Saint Louis. Once inside the building, they continued almost without pause, filling the air with music and chants and providing the tournament with spirited atmosphere that replaced the lethargic.
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Tournament organizers say the visiting schools in the tournament haven't brought as many fans as usual when their teams play a big game on the road. But those diehards who have come to the Magic City are doing their utmost to spark their teams and enjoy the city.
The majority give the Magic City a passing grade as host.
"It's my first trip to Birmingham and I'm impressed," said Marquette band director Nick Contorno, whose school was represented by the band and about 30 other fans. "It's a classy city with people who have embraced visitors. As an example, a man apologized because the weather turned chilly. Hey, we're from Milwaukee. We thought he was joking."
Another group of supporters from Wisconsin agreed.
"This is an awesome place," said Eric Goetsch, one of five Golden Eagles students who painted their faces and wore capes on their backs and trimmed basketballs on their heads. "We've been in town two days and we've found some great bars at Five Points South. Also, we like this $3.75 beer (at the BJCC). It's $4.50 a cup at home."
"Don't forget the best cheeseburgers in the world," added Dean Hacker. "We played golf at a municipal course in Roebuck. They've got the best cheeseburgers known to mankind."
Mike Molinets, a senior from DePaul, which had no more than 50 fans watching its Wednesday afternoon victory over Houston, said: "I'm shocked by the hospitality. Like, I asked a guy at the airport for directions to the civic center and he offered us a ride. Man, that's unreal."
While teams such as Marquette and DePaul brought small groups, the entourages got larger Thursday with Cincinnati and Louisville scheduled to play for the first time.
Home or away, Cincinnati fans make an impact. About 3,000 were in the Convention Complex at noon when the Bearcats defeated South Florida. Among them was John Tebo.
"We liked the fountain in front of City Hall and we've been impressed by the flowers that are already in bloom. This afternoon, we're going to see an antebellum home, Sloss Furnace and Vulcan."
One of the nicer compliments paid Birmingham as host was offered by Memphis fan Leonard Humphreys. Although his team lost in the opening round, he planned to stay in town.
"It's great basketball and these facilities are outstanding," said Humphreys, who was among about 500 Memphis fans who attended the first game. "I'm just sorry our team isn't up to par this season. We would've had 3,000 or so here if there was a little more hype surrounding our program."
Memphis is in a rotation to host the C-USA Tournament and Humphreys thinks it is a good idea to stage the event at different locations as long as each is considered a neutral site.
"This is a good place for it because it isn't UAB's real home court," Humphreys said about the Convention Complex. "I'd feel differently if we were in UAB Arena."
Also, on good advice, Tebo and his party planned to sample barbecued ribs at Dreamland.
Most Louisville fans were late arriving because their team was to play the final game of the second round. But about 1,000 had purchased tickets, including David Firkins.
"We'll watch basketball today and go to the dog track (Birmingham Race Course) tomorrow," Firkins said. "Being from Louisville, the home of the (Kentucky) Derby, I'm sure I'll get confused and tell the ticket clerk, Give me the No. 2 horse for five bucks.'"
Meanwhile Thursday night, the bus taking the Marquette band home following the team's first-day loss was drawing nearer to Milwaukee, with the riotous members on board having no real reason to believe they were missing a lot of hoopla more than half a day to the south. © 1999 The Birmingham News. Used with permission.