St. Louis — The love of college basketball added a carnival flair to this city Friday, as thousands of hoops fans arrived to celebrate the Final Four.
Piano players performed fight songs at the airport, while kids practiced their best shots at nets set up in the convention center.
The faint smell of beer could be caught in the air downtown, with the occasional last-minute hopeful call, "Tickets? Tickets? Who's got tickets?" as police whistled traffic to fitful starts and stops at busy intersections.
"It is alive. It is incredible. I couldn't be happier," said Missy Slay, executive director of the St. Louis Organizing Committee.
More than 46,000 fans will attend the two NCAA men's basketball semifinal games today and the championship Monday, creating a possible economic impact of more than $50 million. With two regional teams, Illinois and Louisville in the competition, Slay said organizers were optimistic even more visitors would come to town in the next few days.
At Hoop City in the America's Center convention center, a group of pint-sized athletes practiced imaginary dunk shots on nets purposely positioned just a few feet off the ground for their easy reach.
The mother of a 4-year-old in a sweatband asked him who he would be cheering for in the games.
"State," he said.
"Yeah," came the reply. Turned out little Paxson was the son of Michigan State's assistant coach, Doug Wojcik. His mother, Lael Wojcik, said she and her sister-in-law were headed over to the open practice with their four boys. "We need a fifth for a team," Lael Wojcik joked, directing the boys on their way.
Thousands of others descended on the Edward Jones Dome to watch the teams practice.
James Ward, 16, of Columbus, Ohio, said he was thrilled when his grandfather got his family tickets to the games. He was "pulling for UNC," he said, calling himself a longtime North Carolina fan.
As visitors lined up to clear security, vivid spots of bright orange clothing stood out among the fans, a virtual sea of Illinois supporters.
Nick Huge, 30, of Centralia, Ill., wasn't worried about the wait to enter the Dome. "It's worth it, I think."
Meanwhile, Jessica Roberts, 13, of St. Louis planned to be more than a spectator one day, as she practiced three-pointers back at Hoop City. She said she wanted to be in the Final Four when she got to college. From there?
"The WNBA," she said.