Final Four Houston: Kids, Celebrities, Sponge Bob and Haircuts

Jim Nantz (right) and Mayor Turner when Nantz was given the key to the city.
Jim Nantz (right) and Mayor Turner when Nantz was given the key to the city. Photo by Jeff Balke
It was Day Two of the Final Four 2023 in Houston and things really got in full swing thanks to the addition of actual fans. Oh, sure, just hanging around a bunch of grumpy media people and college athletes is fun and all, but when you add the chaos and unbridled excitement of fans, particularly children, suddenly it feels like a Final Four.

On Day Two, we managed to get a glimpse of some (sports) celebs and other fun and weird sights while taking in the open practices, Tailgate Tip-Off and Fan Fest. Let's go.

Jim Nantz gets the key to the city from Mayor Turner.

A native Houstonian and University of Houston alum, Nantz is calling his fortieth and last Final Four this year in his hometown. At the end of the San Diego State practice, media gathered on the floor with Nantz and Mayor Sylvester Turner as the Mayor presented Nantz with the key to the city and a proclamation making it Jim Nantz Day. The long-time broadcaster did appear surprised and even a bit choked up during his acceptance. It was a nice moment for one of broadcasting's longest tenured voices.

click to enlarge
It is even bigger than this looks.
Photo by Jeff Balke
NRG is still way too big for something like this.

Standing at center court, it is difficult not to be disoriented by the sheer size of the building. The floor is elevated about four feet off of the field (which is just concrete floor at the moment) making it like a crazy, spotlighted stage surrounded by seats that are, at closest, 50 feet away. It's a strange environment for basketball, but that is the nature of these huge events.

The college bands made an effusive appearance.

Honestly, they are more fun than marching bands, more rock and roll. Props to University of Miami for pulling out "Hurricane Season" by New Orleans' own Trombone Shorty. We wondered how many people got the reference. But every band we saw brought it, rocking songs in between hip hop tunes blaring from the public address system. They need more of these kinds of bands at sporting events.

They bused in a bunch of kids and boy do they love Sponge Bob.

The open practices brought hordes of young Houstonians, many dressed in matching school colors. One particularly interesting moment was how they responded in unison to queries from Sponge Bob of the PA system and sung along to "We Don't Talk About Bruno" from Encanto. Frankly, they seemed more interested in that than the practicing athletes on the floor.

click to enlarge
Wendy's live and in living color.
Photo by Jeff Balke
The Tailgate Tip-Off has a full-sized Wendy's sign like outside of a restaurant.

It almost looked like a full-sized Wendy's...period. There were also loads of basketball games, a Ferris wheel, a stage for CBS's live broadcast crew and a big performance stage where, when we were there, kids were being challenged to name songs from just a few bars. They were better at it than the emcees. Just saying.

One fun thing is watching CBS broadcast seemingly 24/7.

Speaking of the CBS stage, they were live for at least a few minutes while we were there. Inside, we had seen Nantz interviewing coaches then throwing it back to CBS, but we didn't realize until we got out there they meant the stage in the parking lot. That should be a fun gathering spot before games, particularly on Monday.

click to enlarge
Barkley's head in the building.
Photo by Jeff Balke
No Hollywood types, but there were some sports names in the house.

Former NBA stars Carlos Boozer and Grant Hill were on the floor along with plenty of folks from the broadcast world like Bill Rafferty and Tracy Wolfson. We spied Ernie Johnson of TNT's Inside the NBA fame, but we did NOT see Charles Barkley, who should be around this weekend, or Kenny Smith. But, we did see Sir Charles' oversized head on a Capital One booth inside Fan Fest if that counts.

Fan Fest at George R. Brown Convention Center had every sport represented, except baseball weirdly.

Everywhere you looked were hoops, big ones and small, some for kids (they would leap for a dunk and land in a pit of foam) and some for adults. There was a tournament going on at one end and pop-a-shots in virtually every direction. There were also other sports booths for golf, soccer, football, lacrosse and hockey, but not baseball? Maybe we just missed it, but when you have a line of sports booth that includes lacrosse, you better have baseball with the defending champs right across the street.

click to enlarge
Just a little off the top.
Photo by Jeff Balke
Also, if you needed to get quickly lined up, Great Clips could hook you up.

Maybe it's us, but we don't feel like a trim at Fan Fest seems like a good idea? They even had a digital board showing the waiting list and while it wasn't full, it wasn't empty either.

By 3 p.m., there was already a long line ready to get into Discovery Green for Megan Thee Stallion.

Megan wasn't scheduled to go on for six hours, but they weren't taking any chances. Eventually, they would get warmed up by J.I.D. and Omar Apollo, but we all know who the main event is at the AT&T Block Party. Saturday night is Lil Nas X for the Move by Coca Cola party followed by Sunday night's Capital One Jamfest with Tim McGraw and Keith Urban. All very popular artists, but that line for Ms. Thee Stallion was legit for a reason.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke