Two ESPN cameramen and a couple of gaffers — that’s TV lingo for a guy who shines a light in your face — staked out T-Mobile Arena early Saturday evening, waiting for the bus carrying Arizona’s basketball team.
As the bus arrived for the Oregon-Arizona championship game, ESPN’s crew backpedaled, shining a light on Sean Miller and then Allonzo Trier and finally Lauri Markkanen.
Parker Jackson-Cartwright was the last man off the bus. He entered the arena in darkness.
About 200 yards away, Parker’s father, Ramon Cartwright, killed time before tipoff by playing a mega-sized video game in a noisy and crowded pavilion created to sell $12 beer and $49 T-shirts at the Pac-12 Tournament.
Ramon put on a headset and operated the remote control as two Godzilla-like boxers punched each other into orbit.
Welcome to the Madness, where the Arizona Wildcats are a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a trendy pick to win it all.
The prime position is the result of PJC’s play. With 42 seconds remaining in Saturday’s Pac-12 final, Ramon ’s youngest son, the smallest man on the court, literally made the biggest play of Arizona’s victory over the Ducks.
As Pac-12 player of the year Dillon Brooks missed a 3-point shot, 19,224 fans breathlessly watched the ball bounce off the rim. The 5-foot, 10-inch, 160-pound sophomore with the most identifiable set of initials in Tucson, PJC, lifted off.
Arizona led by an uncomfortable 79-75 and not only was the league championship at stake, so was a coveted No. 2 seed in the tournament, a bucket of money and Lord knows what else.
The rebound of Brooks’ miss would swing the game.
PJC went into his own orbit, as if on a pogo stick. The ball was his. The game was Arizona’s.
“His rise to prominence, his rebound tonight, is one of the favorite plays I’ve ever seen,” Arizona coach Sean Miller would say. “He jumped, like, 12 feet.”
Later, in the Arizona dressing room, PJC good-naturedly survived a mandated 30-minute interview period. You couldn’t miss him. He had snipped away a piece of the net and fastened it to the Pac-12 Championship cap he wore fashionably backward.
It was what winners were wearing late Saturday night.
“Climbing that ladder to cut down the net is a long way up,” he said. “It’s like you’re on the top of the world.”
It might be impossible for a college ballplayer to have more fun that PJC had Saturday night. He sprayed water on his stoic coach, danced a victory dance with his joyful teammates .
And then he delivered the line of the week: “You know what?” he said. “We’re just kids.”
Isn’t every basketball fan in Tucson a kid this week? This month?
Don’t we all live vicariously through PJC, grabbing the rebound of his young life, sending Tucson into basketball heaven?
If you can get through your work shift Monday without saying “Bring on the Zags,” you’ve been in hibernation.
The kids like PJC who play college basketball help to generate more than $9 billion this month for the gaming industry, the oddsmakers and those who successfully predict Middle Tennessee State will chop down Minnesota and then, perhaps, Butler.
It’s like a Disneyland for adults.
The NCAA reported last year’s Madness drew 11.3 million TV viewers each weekend, and that it realized about $900 million in revenue from its playoff. The kids playing the game get new T-shirts and all they can eat at the team hotel.
Can you imagine how much money the Pac-12 made just from Saturday’s championship game at T-Mobile Arena? The cheapest ticket was $63, after taxes and service charges. And those were just the upper-deck seats. It’s likely that the 19,224 who watched PJC climb the ladder to success paid in excess of $6 million just to walk through the courtyard where Ramon Cartwright was playing Monkey Kong, or whatever it was.
PJC played his own video game Saturday night.
He was inserted and removed from the game 10 times. But when Miller sent PJC back into the game with 4:31 remaining — Arizona led by a skinny 70-66 — it was for the duration.
He did not come out in the most important 4:31 of the season.
“(Our opponents) aren’t going after him any more,” said Miller, which is coach’s code for “the bigger, faster players haven’t been able to intimidate him.” In a kid’s game, PJC was money.
“He’s answered that bell,” said Miller. “He’s playing at the top of his game.”
And so is his team.