James Martin had never seen the Johnson Center so packed. In a scene reminiscent of a music concert, thousands of George Mason University students crowded onto the floor of the "JC," as it is commonly called, watching their school's legendary entry into the National College Athletic Association's Final Four basketball tournament on a set of big-screen TVs. Students hung over two levels of balconies, festooned in green and yellow, beating green thunder sticks and screaming wildly whenever the Patriots blocked a shot or scored a basket.
In fact, said Martin, a native of Sheffield, England, the enthusiasm level at the JC game-watching party Saturday, April 1 was not unlike that of fans at an British soccer game.
"Right now, this is as big as [British soccer]," said Martin, whose own face was painted solid green on one side and bright yellow on the other. "Everyone actually cares about the game right now."
Ever since the GMU basketball team cracked the NCAA tournament, something it had never done before, something else began to happen that had never happened before: basketball fervor began to grow. Saturday night at the JC saw Mason colors worn a myriad of ways, from beads, shirts and ribbons to wigs, face paint, and feather boas. Shirts made specially for the occasion displayed slogans such as "We Believe," "I support Mason athletics," and "Got Kryptonite?"
According to Westfield High School senior Andrew Ficks, whose brother David is a freshman at GMU, "Kryponite" refers to the Patriots' ability to "take down the superheroes" of college basketball.
"It's not luck," he said. "They're skilled."
"There is a lot more pride, definitely," said freshman Patrisha Wesseling. The Fairfax High School graduate chose GMU for its music program, and "kind of grew up on the Mason campus," she said. However Wesseling had never experienced the past month's level of school spirit, both on and off campus.
"So many people didn't know what GMU was," she said. "Now, it's all over the country."
Freshman Kabeev Arora agreed. "This put Mason on the map," he said. "Nobody knew us. I told my cousins in California I went to Mason and they said, 'What is that, a public school?'"
The rush of school spirit infected freshman Bhavna Bhatia as well. Bhatia, who decorated shirts for Arora and other friends, said that win or lose, the students were celebrating GMU's historical success.
Mason fever spread outward from the campus as the Patriots went from the Sweet Sixteen to the Elite Eight and finally to the Final Four. The City of Fairfax hung a congratulatory banner across Chain Bridge Road and Fairfax Boulevard, and scheduled a "Mason Madness" parade for April 7. Visit Fairfax, Fairfax County's marketing program, and radio channel NewsTalk 630 WMAL gathered signatures from around the county on a giant greeting card honoring the players.
"I never thought I would have the opportunity to see GMU this far along in an NCAA tournament," said City of Fairfax Councilmember Jeff Greenfield, himself a GMU alum.
JENNIFER ROSHALT, who graduated from GMU in 1996, returned to her old campus for the game-watching party. The character of the campus has changed in the last 10 years, she said, from more of a commuter school to a traditional campus atmosphere. When Roshalt watched Sunday's victory against the University of Connecticut on TV, she remembers wishing she was there.
"It's incredible," said Roshalt. "There is so much unity with the kids." With the basketball team's success, the campus has something to bring students together, she said.
Even after the Patriots fell behind the University of Florida and lost 58-73, students still rode around campus in cars, honking horns and shouting out the window and yelling.
Hopefully, said Martin, the Patriot's advancement to the Final Four would spark a renewed interest in GMU sports.
"I hope the true supporters stay with it for what the teams do next year," he said.
GMU junior Jason Cima, sporting a shirt that said "Mason Nation" on it and a green cape, represented Martin's hope. Before March, he said, he and his friends had not been particularly attuned to the GMU teams.
"That's going to change next year," said Cima. "I'm going to all of them."