Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Memories of Old Dominion and the Paradise Jam

The water is blue, and so clear you can see the pedicure color on your toes. The trouble with the Virgin Islands is it will spoil your beach trip to Virginia Beach forever. Azure water beats the muddy brown kind every time.

Old Dominion is headed to St. Thomas for a trio of games against Alabama, Louisiana Tech and Seton Hall. I went to the islands for the Paradise Jam four years ago. Took the family but didn't rent a car. Two good tips.

My sons, Harry and Ben, had only been to Ocean City for a one-day vacation prior to that trip. They thought that was great despite the rainy, cold weather. I wanted to give them a slice a life somewhere different, a taste of a different culture. I couldn't have picked a better spot.

We arrived on Thanksgiving night and were greeted with a rum drink at the airport. We were hungry. Several years later I also traveled on Thanksgiving with ODU, that time to Hartford for the Lady Monarchs vs. UConn. I remember waiting until evening to eat dinner, only to find out the hotel served its holiday buffet at noon. We ate in a bar with a toddler who doesn't remember a thing. This time there was a Thanksgiving dinner at dinnertime, but the price --like all the prices there for food -- was exorbitant. One plate was $40, and one plate was a small paper plate, one trip through the buffet line. The good news was the mediocre food didn't make you yearn to go back for more.

We stayed on the beach where the sand was white. A few extra towels would have been great. Do you remember the scene in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (great Thanksgiving movie) where Steve Martin dries himself with a washrag? I did that a few times there as the meager allotment of daily towels hardly worked when you combine the beach and daily showers.

We walked a lot there. We were an anomaly -- a family of four trekking on the sidewalks drew stares. We could see the basketball gym -- the 4,000-seat University of Virgin Islands Arena -- from our hotel room. But the airport was splat in the middle, so we couldn't walk the direct route or we'd have been crossing an air strip. A huge horseshoe of perhaps a mile or so made it an easy jaunt, distance-wise at least. But nobody walks there. We were stopped by anxious cabbies longing to drive us to our destination. Security is a huge concern there, but we hoofed it despite the approaching dusk.

The basketball gym was festive with a live band jamming. Bob Marley, anyone? The place was filled with good-natured UConn fans as Geno's gang was there, and there was this kid everybody wanted to get a glimpse of, playing in her third-ever collegiate game when she came off the bench against ODU. Her name was Maya Moore.So much finesse for a freshman, I remember thinking.The smoothest player I had ever seen -- something that is still true today.

They tossed packages of Fig Newtons in the stand during timeouts. Snack Wells, too. During halftime at one of the games, Harry, who was 10 at the time, was picked for a free-throw contest. He converted three in a minute -- better than some Lady Monarchs at the time. The winner made four. Harry thought he was playing for something like a Chick-Fil-A coupon. Imagine his surprise when the winner toted off a Playstation 3.

The players were great -- all of them. They relaxed in the stands between games, chatted easily with fans and signed autographs. Ben, 7 at the time, couldn't get enough of the Stanford team, especially Jillian Harmon. He sat on her lap.My boys can show you all the signatures from their game programs including the "#23 Maya Moore." They got Lady Monarchs and Huskies and The Cardinal and the Boilermakers.

A trip around the island provided fascinating. Big and beautiful sat alongside slums. Schools weren't well maintained.  Downtown is a shopper's paradise -- and weakness. Barkers -- charming men who try to lure women inside jewelry stores -- are hard to fend off. I resisted until I took the plunge, convincing myself I really was only going in to look. Diamonds are cheaper there they say, but are they? I mean they had to be, right? The salesman insisted I try on a few pair of earrings. "Which do you like best?" he asked as I hedged. I liked the drop ones visible beneath my hair. But I bought the sparkling hoops. I saved a few hundred dollars. I can't remember how much the ones I left were, but I know they were more than I had ever spent on earrings. But they're a bargain, right?

We did take a cab -- an open-air safari  --on several occasions, rides that would make a New York taxi driver cringe. Sharp turns. Narrow roads. Excessive speed. We went to a zoo of sorts where the iguanas roamed free.We were asked not to feed them. Ben got to pet a shark. Stepping outside we were a short walk from Coki Beach where the water was truly aqua.

We took a ride to the tallest point in the island -- Paradise Point that overlooks St. Thomas. The best part of that was this crazy bird show that was one of the highlights of the trip. This white bird rode a unicycle and performed better tricks on a skateboard than Harry can manage today on his version, the long board. We have a picture of Harry and Ben holding the birds, and a bird atop each of their heads.

Our flight out was at 5:30 in the morning. I didn't want to pay for another cab despite the driver urging me."Only $20." Yeah, but we could see the airport; that's how close it was to our hotel. So once again the strange family that preferred to walk each dragged one wheeled suitcase apiece a half mile in the dark to the airport.

Jen Nuzzo had a great time in St. Thomas, putting up 14 against Stanford. I remember Wendy said it was her gym by the time the tournament was over. We had a great time, too, -- and even the kids admitted, the islands beat Ocean City any day.

Good luck, Lady Monarchs. It's all about basketball when you're a team. But make sure you talk a walk along the beach, too. I promise you, Virginia Beach will never look as good.

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