'I can't believe we're in it' -- Local Bama fans make trip to the Final 4

Apr. 6—Decatur resident Jimmy Ray Smith is making a trip to the men's NCAA Final Four that he, like most Alabama basketball fans, never thought would happen.

In January, Smith received a notice that he'd won two tickets through a lottery to the Final Four that starts Saturday night in Glendale, Arizona.

"I didn't think it was real," Smith said. "I've never won the Masters tickets — I've never won anything like that."

After confirming they were real, Smith admitted his first thought was he would "sell them and make me some money, never thinking Alabama would be there, especially with how they played the last few weeks of the season."

He held onto the tickets, though, and slowly the Final Four became an unbelievable reality for the Crimson Tide. Smith, his wife Wendy, their adult children and families are all going to the Final Four.

Alabama plays Connecticut at 7:49 p.m., after Purdue takes on North Carolina State at 5:09 p.m. at State Farm Stadium. The National Championship is Monday night.

The Smiths are among a number of local fans traveling to the Final Four, a trip they only hoped would ever happen.

"I never thought they would make the Final Four, not in my lifetime," said Smith, owner of Jimmy Smith Jewelers.

Rex Cheatham Jr., a Decatur native who now lives in Tuscaloosa, said the fact that Alabama is in the Final Four came as a surprise.

"I still can't believe I'm going," Cheatham said. "I can't believe we're in it. I see the Final Four signs with the Alabama logo by it, and it's really a dream come true. Honestly, it's something that sometimes I thought I would never see."

An Athens native, Brad Burroughs worked in the University of Alabama's Sports Information Department and now lives in Point Mallard Estates in Decatur. He played high school basketball with former Athens and Alabama star Keith Askins.

Burroughs, who is now regional director of sales for Ohmite Manufacturing, was in California for a meeting Wednesday. But he said he "just isn't going to miss" seeing Alabama play in its first Final Four. With the help of sports information friends, he attended Friday's practice and media day.

"This means a ton to me because I played basketball and I grew up watching (Robert) Horry and (Latrell) Sprewell," Burroughs said of the two former Alabama stars.

Smith, Cheatham and Burroughs, like other Bama fans, have seen many victories and disappointments. They remember the Coach Wimp Sanderson years of repeated Southeastern Conference Tournament championships in the late 1980s and 1990s, and then the inability to win in the Sweet 16 round.

Burroughs said he thought the 1990 team that lost 62-60 to Loyola-Marymount in the second round "was the year they should have made the Final Four, if they were ever going."

They remember Coach Mark Gottfried's team that marched to the school's first Elite 8 appearance in 2004 before losing one game short of the Final Four.

They remember current Bama coach Nate Oats leading the Tide to two conference championships in the last four years but finishing short of their goals in the NCAA tournament.

"I always thought they would win, but it never happened for them," Jimmy Ray Smith, 67, said.

Burroughs said making the Final Four is not as easy as some people might think. He said having the right players and matchups plus getting hot at the right time are keys to a deep run in the tournament.

"It's hard to get there," Burroughs said. "It's not, 'I've got a good team. We're going to be in the Final Four this year.' It just doesn't work that way."

The way Cheatham got his Final Four tickets proves Burroughs' point. He said his neighbor got them from relatives who are Kentucky fans. They purchased the four lower-level tickets in January because of the expectation the Wildcats would make it.

"He texted me and said they have tickets for face value," Cheatham said. "They cost $1,550 ($517 a game) for all three games. Having lower level seats is great, especially because it's in a football stadium."

Picked to finish fifth in the SEC before the season, this Bama team fought through an up-and-down season. They played the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation, battling for the SEC conference lead early before a late slide and losing their first game in the SEC tournament as a No. 3 seed.

Cheatham, 44, has been a Bama season-ticket holder for the last 10 years. He and his father, Rex Sr., annually attend the Southeastern Conference Tournament. One of the first games he attended was when the 1987 Alabama team won the SEC tourney in Birmingham.

He said he's particularly amazed this Crimson Tide team is the one to break through the Final Four barrier.

"I watched this team progress all year and then they started to regress at the end of the year, dropping three of the last four games," Cheatham said. "It's just so nice to see them bounce back and play their best ball at the right time."

Burroughs was complimentary of Oats because he "brought the energy back to Alabama, kinda like the old days when Wimp was there."

Wendy Smith said this trip to the Final Four is big because last year's team, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a star player in Brandon Miller, lost in the Sweet 16.

"This team has just won everybody's hearts because it's such a scrappy team that plays hard and Mark Sears being from (Muscle Shoals) Alabama," Wendy Smith said. "It's fun to watch them succeed."

Alabama then got on a roll in the NCAA tournament as it beat Charleston, Grand Canyon and North Carolina before gaining revenge over Clemson on Saturday.

"Wendy and I were jumping up and down and celebrating like it was football again," said Jimmy Ray Smith, referring to the Tide's football national championships.

Jimmy Ray Smith said their two tickets are high in State Farm Stadium, cavernous because it's usually a football stadium for the Arizona Cardinals. They had to buy additional tickets for their family members.

He said he started a "Bama fund" several years ago to pay for trips to Alabama football's national championship games, but he said this trip is special even in comparison.

"This has lit a fire under me," he said. "I can't believe I'm more excited than I was for the football championships, but I am. Being a once-in-a-lifetime thing, I didn't think I would live long enough to see this."

Wendy Smith attends games with her husband, which she said she enjoys mainly because of him. This is the second Final Four for the Smiths to attend. She was pregnant with her son, Christian, at the 1991 finals that featured Duke and UNLV. Christian is now 33 and taking his family with them to the Final Four.

"I'm excited watching (Jimmy Ray)," she said of his enthusiasm for the game. "At our age, it takes a lot to get excited, and this has done that."

Burroughs said his tickets are about 20 rows up. His son, Noah, is sitting with him, and they're meeting friends in Phoenix.

Burroughs said he knows there are a lot of Alabama fans who can't attend "but they will be just as happy and screaming at their TV like the people who are at the game. It means a lot to the people of Alabama."

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