LOS ANGELES — The Wichita State University Shockers are big time now that they’re Sweet Sixteeners in the Staples Center.
The team, pretty accessible back in their Salt Lake City days – when they were just one team out of 64 in the NCAA tournament – now are in Los Angeles, preparing to meet La Salle on Thursday and are being whisked around like so many Hollywood superstars.
Wichita television crews were thrown off the team hotel property on Tuesday while waiting for the Shocker bus to arrive. And while pep rallies and send-offs in Salt Lake City that mixed the players with the people were standard, in Los Angeles, the players are at one hotel (The Omni) while the fans and the pep rally are at another (The Millennium).
And why shouldn’t they be big time now? This team is a big deal, especially to its fans, who not only are showing up to Los Angeles in six times the numbers they showed up in Salt Lake City but also are already planning trips to Atlanta to support them in the Final Four.
“I’m hearing from so many people who are saying, ‘I missed the last time we were in the Sweet Sixteen, and there’s no way I’m missing it this time,’” said Debbie Kennedy, the president of the Wichita State University Alumni Association, who is organizing fan travel to Los Angeles. WSU was allotted 1,200 tickets to the game, she said, and she’s expecting a crowd of Shocker fans about that size.
On Wednesday afternoon, only a few fans made it to the team’s warm-up practice at the Staples Center. The majority of the team’s supporters are still en route from Wichita – 146 of them departing Thursday morning on a charter flight scheduled to land mid-morning.
The roster travelers – a who’s who of Wichita’s Shockers fans – paid $1,424 each for a seat on the plane, which comes with lodging at the fan hotel and ground transportation in Los Angeles, Kennedy said. Last week, she had to cancel a charter flight to Salt Lake City after failing to get the required 107 people interested.
This one sold out in four hours on Monday morning.
On Wednesday, Kennedy and her staff were busy in Wichita making Sweet 16 buttons, packing up T-shirts and planning other details for a 2:30 p.m. Thursday pep rally at the fan hotel, after which the fans will travel to the Staples Center to “scope out the competition” at the earlier games, she said.
Among the few fans who made it to Wednesday’s practice were Connie and Kevin Severe, who’d been scheduled to fly on the canceled charter flight to Salt Lake City last week and didn’t make the games.
They weren’t going to miss Los Angeles. The Severes, who have “adopted” player Carl Hall and had him over to their house for dinner, hugged him after practice.
“He’s like a son to me,” Connie said.
Also there was Dick Dameron, who on a whim drove all night to Salt Lake City with buddy John Markwell last week.
The duo didn’t go home after the game and instead drove to Los Angeles, via Las Vegas, finding places along the way to do their laundry.
They were the only two fans in Los Angeles in time to greet the team when they arrived on Tuesday night.
Dameron predicted victory on Thursday.
“Who’d have thought we’d get this far?” he said. “There’s no question we can play with anybody. Now, it just comes down to execution.”
Contributing: Jaime Green of The Eagle