Loyola’s surprising appearance in the Final Four was an opportunity Jessica Korth and her friend Casey Yacullo couldn’t pass up. The Loyola sophomores snagged tickets in the student section behind the basket at the Alamodome to watch their first Final Four.
Only 36 consecutive Final Fours to go to catch Jessica’s dad, Christopher, and his friend Doug Knust. And that’s if the men stop attending Final Fours, which isn’t happening soon. Not with the fun they have. They’ve already booked hotel rooms for the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis.
This is appointment traveling, same-time-next-year stuff for a college basketball troupe that has seen more Final Fours than many coaches.
They’ve witnessed many of the game’s snapshot moments, starting with Michael Jordan’s game-winner for North Carolina in 1982 and the dramatic moments authored by North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles, Indiana’s Keith Smart, Kansas’ Danny Manning and Mario Chalmers and Villanova’s Kris Jenkins.
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But for Korth, an attorney in Kansas City, Knust of Chamberlain, S.D., Bren Abbott of Kansas City, Emmet Kenny of Fargo, N.D., and Calvin Rider and Matt Heese of Wichita — whose streaks range from 15 to 30 years — it’s about the basketball and more.
“It certainly started off being about basketball,” Heese said. “It’s not anymore. It’s about friends.”
And experiences and stories. Oh, the stories. You don’t attend 37 straight Final Fours, plan well enough to stay at a hotel near the action and not have stories.
Like the time in 1986 when the group was staying at the same hotel as the Louisville team. An elevator ride produced a connection that ended up with Cardinals guard Milt Wagner sharing a beer or two in his room with the guys.
Or when one of them struck up a conversation at a function with Ralph Sampson, and the night ended with the former Virginia All-American spending three hours at the group’s table.
There was the year Korth led a charge through a “private party” sign and wound up on the balcony of a New Orleans hotel overlooking Bourbon Street with food and drink. For eight hours.
The night of North Carolina State’s victory in Albuquerque, N.M., Korth and Knust wandered into the Wolfpack hotel and were among the first to congratulate coach Jim Valvano and the players for their unexpected national championship.
“Keep in mind, when we’re on our five-day vacation, all the coaches and players who aren’t playing are also on their vacation,” Korth said. “They’re here to have a good time, and they love to hear our stories.”
Jessica Korth was home a few years ago when her phone rang. It was Frank Martin, still at Kansas State, who happened to be seated next to the group in a restaurant and agreed to dad’s request to chat with his daughter. Martin asked Jessica about school, her grades, about being the youngest with four older brothers.
So, how did this Final Four fun and frivolity begin?
Korth and Knust were juniors at Creighton in 1981 and were looking for a place to watch the NCAA Tournament. ESPN was in its second year of covering the tournament, but cable wasn’t easily available in Omaha.
But it was in Council Bluffs, Iowa. So Knust convinced a bar across the state line to open early for the games. They arrived at 10 a.m., and by midnight, they had watched pieces of a dozen or so games.
This wasn’t just any day. It was March 14, 1981, one of the greatest days in NCAA Tournament history. Top-seeded DePaul lost to St. Joseph at the buzzer. Arkansas guard U.S. Reed hit a midcourt shot to beat drop champion Louisville. Brigham Young guard Danny Ainge dribbled the length of the floor, and his layup beat Notre Dame at the buzzer.
Throughout the amazing day of basketball, the NCAA ran ads to enter a lottery for tickets to the following year’s Final Four. Korth and Knust were in, and Knust got four tickets to the 1982 event in New Orleans.
“That’s great, but I’m a college kid,” Knust said. “So I get this brilliant idea.”
He gave his father a Final Four ticket for his birthday.
“He took the bait and sprung for the hotel room,” Knust said. Korth joined them, and the college friends had experienced their first Final Four.
They entered the lottery again, got tickets to the 1983 event in Albuquerque and sat in the end zone, a few rows from where Charles’ dunk beat Houston.
The years started piling up.
“It wasn’t like we said, ‘Let’s do it every year,’” Knust said. “It’s like, we have to do this next year and how do we get hotel and tickets for the next year. Each year became its own quest.”
With friends gained, lessons learned and traditions established along the way.
To the Creighton connection, Washburn Law School friends of Korth's were added.
Obtaining a hotel room near the arena or stadium became a priority, especially when Final Fours moved permanently into football stadiums, making ticket acquisition easier. Korth has booked rooms seven years in advance.
Korth made a reservation in Indianapolis at a hotel that changed ownership three times before the Final Four arrived.
“They held our reservation,” Korth said.
Basketball isn’t the only activity. The group has been to opening day baseball games, toured the Indianapolis 500, rented an air boat and did a swamp tour near New Orleans.
Every Sunday at the Final Four, the six engage in what has become their favorite tradition: dining in a city’s top steakhouse.
On Tuesday, after the championship game, the group returns to their hometowns having already taken care of the following year’s arrangements. And with every year, they grow more appreciative of what they have established.
“It takes a lot of good fortune, a tolerant family, a good job, just a lot of things have to fall into place for me to be here each year and to do it for 37 years,” Knust said. “I have to be lucky to share all of this with my buddies. They have to be lucky, too.”