SAN JOSE, Calif. — She won’t be on the hardwood when Saint Louis takes on Oregon in round three of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on Saturday. She won’t be coaching on the bench or assisting as a trainer or team manager. She doesn’t have a son playing for the Billikens or Ducks, but she means everything to the NCAA Tournament.
Her name is Jan, and she bought my lunch today.
Here in San Jose covering the Oregon Ducks’ first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2008, Emerald Photo Editor Alex McDougall and myself left the Good Nite Inn this morning and Googled “sports bar near HP Pavilion.” The search returned Flames Eatery & Bar in downtown San Jose.
Hoping to catch some basketball action on the television, Alex and I sat down at the long, granite-topped bar. Next to us was a woman in her 50s. She immediately struck up a conversation about basketball with us, and we learned she was in town to follow the Saint Louis Billikens in the program’s most successful season in its history.
If the enormous, silver fleur de lis necklace she was wearing wasn’t a dead giveaway, anyone could tell this woman loved Saint Louis athletics by the way she talked about the program.
She spoke about the greatness of the character of the players and how they were “good boys.”
When she wasn’t plugging the Saint Louis program, she was looking up at the TV and then at her projected bracket on her phone, repeatedly exclaiming how excited she was that her predictions were panning out.
When she learned we are with a student publication, she had all sorts of questions about what the hot topics we cover at Oregon are. What kind of freedom from university oversight do we have? She was intrigued when I told her that Oregon’s athletic department is independent of the actual university. She wanted to know about how super booster Phil Knight made it possible for Oregon to become so prominent.
Come to find out, this kind lady is a booster in her own way. She told us that the university wouldn’t pay for the Saint Louis student publications to send a reporter, so she paid the flight costs for a student journalist to come to San Jose and cover the Billikens.
She continued her trend of generosity in the middle of our meal, silently telling the waitress she wanted to pay for the lunch of the young men next to her.
When we expressed our gratitude, she told us to not worry about it.
“There are a lot of little things at a university that make it what is. And all of them are important. You guys are one of them,” she said.
In that moment it wasn’t about the price of the meal. It wasn’t about the value of school newspapers to their institutions. It wasn’t about the competition on the basketball court.
It was about the reason we all love the NCAA Tournament. Here was a woman who was passionate about Saint Louis, speaking to and paying for a couple of Oregon kids’ meals, a day before the two schools try to end each other’s seasons.
This woman loved basketball, she loved being there to watch her program achieve new heights, she loved that we were there to cover our team, she loved that when there weren’t enough fans to buy the Saint Louis ticket allotment for tomorrow, Oregon fans instead bought them up.
This woman, not the T-shirt wearing fat guys in Buffalo Wild Wings commercials, loved the NCAA Tournament more than anyone. She loved it so much so that her allegiance to her beloved Billikens was secondary to the fun she was having.
See, for all the F-bomb-dropping, referee-harassing, opponent-deprecating fans that exist in college athletics, Jan nullifies them. She epitomizes they way fans should be.
When she left the restaurant she said, “Go Ducks!” to which we responded, “Go Billikens.”
Lastly, she told us she owns a campus bar in St. Louis and that anytime we come through we have to stop by.
So if you find yourself near the Saint Louis campus, make sure to visit Humphrey’s Restaurant and Tavern and tell Jan we sent you. Who knows — you may get a free lunch.
For more on Jan and the special story behind her restaurant in St. Louis, read here.