The first time it happens, it’s alarming. Even off-putting.
Two large red-faced and red-clad men wandering through a hotel lobby stared at each other, a flicker of recognition in their eyes. They didn’t know each other’s faces, but they could see the New Mexico Lobos insignia on their shirts.
"Everyone’s a Lobo! Woof, woof, woof!" they shouted, sending passers-by a step or two back at the sudden eruption.
After exchanging high-fives and laughter, they simply moved on. The moment had passed, and each man faded in different directions into the oddest, most frenzied mixture of basketball fans on the planet.
Las Vegas’ conference tournament week has its own social order, its own rules. It’s acceptable for strangers to shout at each other, hug each other at bar counters and blackjack tables, and wear whatever crazy outfit they think will help will their teams to victory.
To me, it’s one of the most fun parts of my job: Being at ground zero to see some of the most passionate college basketball fan bases come together and even take friendly jabs at one another.
It started on the plane, an early hours flight on which Utah and Utah State fans were scrunched into seats next to one another arguing about whose team would go further.
"At least you’re not from BYU," a Ute was heard to say to an Aggie.
Once off the plane and on the streets, the multicolored hordes are hard to miss: checking in next to a family of Wyoming fans; sitting at a breakfast counter aside a proud Nevada Wolf Pack backer; crossing the street with a battalion of Aztec fans.
It’s often fun to witness how fans discover one another. At least a half-dozen times on the Strip, I saw two strangers with "Bear Down Wildcats" shirts stop to talk to each other about the upcoming game.
Even the opposing fan bases, from what I saw, had mostly harmless things to say to one another. While sharing seats in the arena together is war, sitting at adjacent slot machines may provoke only humorous, if a bit contentious, banter.
Las Vegas in March is a world unto itself: A red and yellow and blue and purple world of people who have taken a long weekend to get their basketball fill and maybe a little other fun on the side.
One thing that impressed me: waiting outside the MGM Grand Garden Arena to meet a colleague for dinner, and watching hundreds of folks stream out after the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament. Several people who supported teams that hadn’t played that day were there trying to squeeze every last drop of value for their tickets.
If you haven’t been to conference tournament week, carve out some time next year. You may not be a Lobo, but if you’re a basketball fan, there’s definitely something for you.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.