My memory’s going. Going fast. Must be.
I hadn’t been to Spokane, Wash., in 13 years. Came to Spokane in 2001 to cover the OU women in the NCAA West Regional. Spent four days and didn’t remember much. Knew the scenery surrounding the city was cool – lots of trees, mountains in the background, nestled in a valley – but nothing about the city stood out.
But Tuesday, we flew into Spokane, and the city immediately grabbed me. Vibrant downtown, cool architecture, that same great scenery. You don’t have to wonder if you’re in the Pacific Northwest (which has always struck me as redundant; what, is there an Atlantic Northwest?).
So maybe this trip is going to be more adventurous than I thought. I looked upon Spokane as a great NCAA Tournament destination, because there was nothing to distract you from basketball. I love to watch games, catch all the tournament I can, so if I’m not at the arena with my assignment, I’m perfectly find to be back at the hotel, watching the other games.
But maybe now I’ll need to see more of the city. So it was a good first day. Here’s what I saw and heard.
You remember from my New York/West Virginia adventure six weeks back, I’ve had a little experience flying with the Sooners. If you didn’t catch that travelblog, quick refreshers can be found here and here.
Anyway, last week, OU sent out an offer to Oklahoma media, saying we could fly to the NCAA locale on the Sooner charter jet, for a solid price, to be determined by length of flight.
That’s never ideal. Like I’ve written, it’s not great to travel with the team you’re covering, even though Lon Kruger and his staff makes everything easy. But we had little choice.
We priced flight tickets to Spokane, and round trip came in at $1,200 and up. If you could find them. NCAA Tournament travel always is dicey, because of spring break. So many areas of the country have spring break this time of year, flights have been booked for months.
So that charter flight suddenly seemed like a solid idea. Monday, we got the word that the flight would be $975 per person, which is outrageous except compared to every other flight to Spokane. Plus, the charter comes home the night after OU’s final game in Spokane, be it Thursday or Saturday, so we save a night on hotel rooms. It becomes a really good deal.
And it’s an even better deal because of the hospitality of the Sooners. Kruger and staff don’t make you feel like an outsider. We rode the charter out to San Jose last March with OSU, and we were treated well by the Cowboy contingent. Some of it’s a basketball thing. Football tends to look at the media and say, what are you doing here? Basketball looks at the media and says, how ya doin’? Oh, not every coach is like that, but some are. And Kruger’s down-home demeanor makes it easy for the relationship to work.
So OU writer Ryan Aber, photographer Sarah Phipps, videographer Damon Fontenot and I met at Lloyd Noble Center around noon Tuesday, boarded a bus and drove to Will Rogers World Airport.
The NCAA coordinates travel for its basketball teams. OU had a Southwest charter, a plane just like you’d ride on Southwest commercial. The buses drove us to the side of Will Rogers’ terminal, where all luggage was unloaded and taken through security. We walked into the terminal armed with our boarding passes and a seat assignment, as determined by OU. We went through security and boarded the jet like all commercial passengers.
The great thing about charter flights is the direct nature. No stops. We made it from OKC to Spokane in three hours and nine minutes. You might have a layover somewhere that long if you flew commercial from OKC to Spokane.
The flight was enjoyable. The players sat in the back, along with the pep band and the spirit squad. Coaches sat in the front, with basketball support personnel and boosters and media sprinkled through the middle.
As the plane took off, the players all chanted with their fingers in the air, sort of like the start of an OU football game, counting down to kickoff. When the plane took off, everyone cheered.
Southwest had a male flight attendant who had to be 6-foot-6. We wondered if it would be the first time in history a team flew to the NCAA Tournament with a flight attendant as big as anyone on the roster.
On charter flights, they serve you a sack lunch. Sandwich, chips, candy bar, apple, pasta salad. Surprisingly good, although my sandwich and Sarah’s sandwich had a little strip of cheese, and Johnny Damon’s sandwich had the biggest chunks of cheddar cheese you’ve ever seen.
Mike Shepherd, Kruger’s director of basketball operations, runs a great ship. I saw him at work during the West Virginia debacle, and he was back at it Tuesday. The flight had a family affair, maybe because so many family members of the staff were on board. Shepherd’s daughter, who must be about six, went up and down the aisle, offering peanuts to every passenger, just like a Southwest pro.
The media hotel is the Davenport in downtown Spokane. The Davenport opened in 1914 and was considered one of America’s greatest hotels. Sort of like the Peabody in Memphis. Opulent. Grand.
But it eventually fell from grace and into disrepair. By 1985, its doors were closed. Too-small rooms. Inadequate infrastructure.
Operators had tried for years to keep it going with minimum investment. When it closed, Spokane citizens were shook. They organized a Friends of the Davenport group. They staged Mother’s Day and Christmas celebrations, with people paying $10 just to see the old building again.
They kept the spirit of the place alive, I assume much like the people who believed in Oklahoma City’s Skirvin and its return to splendor.
Finally, a big investor was found, the great old building was massively renovated and in 2002 the Davenport reopened. In 2007, the Davenport Tower Hotel was opened diagonally from the original, and that’s where we’re staying.
Our exterior is not the beautiful structure of the original, but it’s got that cool feel of an old-style hotel, only with a great vibe. The place is hopping with an open restaurant and bar as part of the lobby.
The rooms are modern but unique. I even figured out how to get the television turned, so I can watch it while I type at the desk. It doesn’t have a bathtub; it’s got the wraparound shower. Which I guess is great. Can’t remember when I’ve ever needed a bathtub in a hotel room.
The television even has truTV, which is carrying part of the NCAA Tournament. TruTV isn’t high-def, and the scores are hard to see, but that’s OK. So long as I can see the games.
HIGH STEAKS DINNER
When I checked in, I had quite a bit of work to do. So I finished that up, then a group of us walked around the corner to Churchill’s a renowned steakhouse in Spokane. Sometimes you get caught spending more money than you want, and that’s what happened here. Ended up being about $50 a head, so we’ll have to cut way back the next few nights. Pizza sounds good.
But the dinner was excellent. Steak. Garlic mashed potatoes. Six string beans. Literally. Six on every plate. I had a Caprese salad. Fabulous dinner rolls.
But fancy places like that crack me up. For instance, every place setting had a water glass and a wine glass waiting. When the waiter took our drink orders, he collected every water glass and returned moments later with the glasses full. Seems like a massive use of extra work.
The wine glasses had to be 18 inches high. Absurd. One got knocked over and shattered. Wine glasses that tall are a plan designed to fail.
Returning to the hotel, I saw Doug Gottlieb at the hotel bar, so I stopped to chat. Gottlieb is calling the games for truTV and was meeting with his crew. We chatted about the Sooners, then we talked about the Cowboys, and then about the Sooners some more.
Gottlieb has tons of connections. He told me something I didn’t know. Gottlieb’s dad, Bob, a former Eddie Sutton assistant at Creighton, was Lon Kruger’s freshman coach at Kansas State in 1971. So they go back a long way.
I assume Gottlieb will share some Kruger stories during the telecast Thursday.