STATESBORO, Ga. (WTOC) - If these were normal times, the trio of Wes Bonner, Bill Bryan, and Johnny Kalloniatis would be talking about another Final Four in the books.
But these aren’t normal times.
The coronavirus pandemic that has claimed the world’s undivided attention, also took down one of sports’ greatest spectacles: the NCAA Tournament and Final Four.
“We’ve been doing this for so many years in a row. What are we going to do?” asks Kalloniatis. “Overall, I can’t describe how weird this is.”
“It’s heartbreaking because one of the best times for all of us just got canceled,” Bonner says.
The trip to Atlanta would’ve been the group’s 14th straight Final Four. That will now have to wait until Indianapolis in April 2021.
A TRADITION IS BORN
Bryan is the originator of the trip. The North Carolina native is, unsurprisingly, a die hard Tar Heel fan.
“I’m as deep as it goes,” he laughs.
His first ever trip Final Four was a good one for a Carolina fan: 1982, when some freshman named Michael Jordan hit a last second jumper to give UNC the win over Georgetown in New Orleans. From there, Bryan kept making trips to the tourney’s biggest weekend, which caught the attention of Bonner.
The two were in a bracket pool together, and Bonner noticed Bryan rarely made it to watch the semis or title game. When Bonner found out Bryan’s reasoning for his absence, he asked to tag along.
Bonner and Bryan’s trip together was to Indianapolis in 2006. The next year, Kalloniatis joined the group.
Three die hard basketball fans heading to basketball’s grandest stage. It’s no wonder it became an annual thing.
“You get to be around your buddies and do something you all love to do: Watch basketball,” Kalloniatis explains. “And you get to be around other people that love basketball.”
The three each have their roles in the planning process. Bryan books the house and tickets. Bonner usually handles transportation and stuff to do in the city.
“I’m just kind of along for the ride,” laughs Kalloniatis.
As the weekend approaches, the trio makes their pilgrimage. While there, the three do everything associated with the tournament: fan fests, open practices, showcases, all of it. If it has to do with Dr. James Naismith’s game, these three are there.
“We go for the basketball. We love the basketball. We get immersed into the basketball of it,” Bonner says.
But there are other things that happen too. Bonner is usually in charge of finding those.
Once they went to a toilet seat museum. Other times, it’s in search of the best doughnut in the city.
Basketball may be the game that lures them on the journey, but it’s their friendship that keeps them coming back.
“This is the most fun thing I do with my friends. I’m always with two of my best buddies,” Bonner says. “We’re having a great time. It’s usually a crazy road trip, a great experience.”
BEING THERE WITH THE ACTION
All three admit it just wouldn’t be the same watching the games at home on TV anymore.
“Just the sounds. Watching the students, watching the passion of the players,” Bonner explains. “Being able to see the game live, it’s just something you can’t describe.”
After several years making the trip, the three have figured out how to manage pretty good seats in some of the country’s biggest stadiums. That wasn’t always the case though.
“The first few years, we were so far up in the stadium we were glad they had the big trons,” Bryan says. “You couldn’t even hear the ball bounce.”
Not that it mattered much. The three were just happy to be in the building. They watch every second of all three games. Then, it’s time for One Shining Moment.
After that, it’s off to plan next year’s trip.
A TRADITION PUT ON HOLD
Bonner started getting a bad feeling about this year’s tournament when the professional leagues started making news. He set his phone to get notifications, hoping there wouldn’t be many to receive.
His wish didn’t materialize.
“Oh gosh, it’s just getting worse and worse every day," Bonner remembers thinking. “When I finally got the one that said the NCAA Tournament is canceled, it was devastating.”
All three said the news of the tourney’s cancellation hit them in waves. The thought of not spending the first weekend in April in Atlanta to not having any basketball at all was frustrating.
“At first, I thought we’d at least be able to watch it on TV," Bryan says. "Then reality set in.”
Even with no Final Four in 2020, the group is not letting the coronavirus do in their tradition for good. All three say they’ll be in Indianapolis in 2021, and they’re going to do it big.
“Next year’s going to be off the chain. The reason I say that is we have extra money, so I’m hoping we’re going to go big time," Bonner jokes. "It’s two years worth of Final Four in one weekend. We’re going to kick it up a notch.”