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Hilton East: A Sweet 16 Travel Journal

I went to Chicago to watch the Cyclones play this weekend and kept a journal of my experiences to share with you!

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David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

8:00 AM

Holy shit! The day is finally here! After spending all week pretending to go through the motions at work (and second guessing our endorphin-and-booze fueled decision to drop $300 on tickets) we are finally heading east to watch the Cyclones play in the Sweet 16! My wife and I will be riding up with my old college roommate and his wife, who actually have responsibilities like kids and stuff.

8:45 AM

We miss our 8:00 AM departure time due to those aforementioned responsibilities. (The little one forgot her travel backpack on the way to stay with Grandma and Grandpa for the day. Still, no big deal. EAST BOUND AND DOWN, BABY!)

12:30 PM

Stop in Dekalb for some gas and some lunch. Portillo's is amazing and exactly as delicious and unhealthy as I remember it from nine years ago, when I was living in the area. It occurs to me that they ever get one of these in Des Moines, I might as well plan on having a heart attack by the age of 55. The thought passes, and I pour some of the cheese sauce for the cheddar fries over my italian beef and sausage combo sandwich and devour another bite.

2:00 PM

Smack dab in bumper to bumper traffic on I-88 heading into downtown. Approximately 70% of the vehicles I can see have some form of Iowa State logo or flag affixed to them. I start to suspect that there may be something to this #HiltonEast idea.

3:00 PM

We check into a nicely furnished basement apartment that my buddy found through AirBnB. A six pack of Miller High Life is in the fridge waiting for us, and we gladly oblige. Between the thoughtful snacks laid out and the well furnished 2-bedroom apartment for the price of a hotel room, there may be something to this AirBnB thing.


Some speculation is cast upon the nature of the relationship of the owners, Ryan and Dave, who live upstairs. Upon finding a cabinet containing dozens of CDs by Madonna, Celine Dion, and Depeche Mode, our argument ceases.

3:30 PM

Word has traveled around that there will be no alcohol sales inside the United Center. Panicking, we pull out smart phones and see that the nearest bar is three blocks east - the "Billy Goat Tavern." (Sadly, not the original location depicted in the classic SNL skit.)

3:45 PM

We have reached the tavern. It is packed wall to wall with people in Iowa State gear. A line stretches out the door and down the block. We will have to find alternate accomodations.

3:55 PM

We have found a nearby Mexican restaurant. It too is packed well past what the seating and fire code allow. The bartender announces that they have run out of Miller Lite. I jump in to line, ready to buy up a dozen $5 Coronas. The place is alive with the palpable buzz that can only come from too much alcohol and anticipation. Somewhere upstairs, an intoxicated man starts a "Cyclone Power" chant which soon spreads to the entire restaurant.

4:00 PM

After a few more minutes waiting in line, it becomes clear that the issue is simply one of having enough people and registers to ring up drinks. A nice couple sitting at the bar sees our ISU gear and offers to let us pay them cash for drinks, which they can put on their tab to speed things up. We gladly oblige.

After watching this couple help other ISU fans in this fashion for a few more minutes, it becomes clear that their tab is going to end up in the four digit range by the time they leave for the game.

4:15 PM

As I down my third beer, I notice the kitchen staff sitting in the back, talking to each other and looking completely bored. Out of the 100 people jammed into this small place, it appears that exactly zero have ordered food of any kind. The bartender announces that they are now out of Coronas. Once again, the state of Iowa has descended upon a postseason location like a Biblical plague of beer drinking locusts.

4:40 PM

GAME TIME! Walking past the statues of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, a tall man in a Bulls hat asks us if we need any tickets. 20 feet down the sidewalk, his partner in scalping asks if anyone has any extra tickets for sale. My friend, always the wise-ass, points behind us and says "I think that guy has some extras."


After being searched by security, we make our way upstairs to our seats in the upper bowl. As we enter the arena, I am hit with a slight episode of vertigo from the sheer height of the place. I focus straight ahead on the Blackhawks and Bulls banners hanging from the ceiling, trying to figure out why the NHL had such stupid division names in the 60s.

5:10 PM


5:30 PM

FUCK. How the hell did we get down 17-3 already?

6:00 PM

Halftime. The crowd is about 70% Iowa State fans, and every time it seems like they're about to get back into the game, the United Center gets louder and louder. Upon cutting the lead to single digits, it honestly sounds like a pretty good fascimile of Hilton Coliseum. The place is just desperate for a reason to absolutely explode, but every time it feels like the Cyclones are on the verge of a comeback, they miss a wide open shot. Media timeouts ensue, and the excitement is once again sucked out of the building.

7:00 PM

Too many missed free throws. Too many missed shots. Too much matador defense. Inconsistent foul calls. Pick any one of these reasons - they all rang true as the clock ran out on Iowa State's season. Perhaps it would have been more painful had the game ever been close, but a sense of calm and acceptance washed over the Cyclone faithful in attendance. In the back row, someone tried to get a "Georges Niang" chant going, but nobody was really into it at that point.

7:30 PM

Out on the concourse, I eat my sorrows in the form of a $15 bowl of supreme nachos served in a half-basketball with a bulls logo on it. A man in a "Hilton Magic" shirt walks dejectedly, staring at the ground like a modern day Charlie Brown. In his hand, he holds up two tickets to Sunday's final, trying desperately to offload them to no avail.

9:00 PM

While we had been cheering for Gonzaga, the second game was quite fun to see. With no real vested interest, just getting to watch a hard fought, close game between two teams was a nice way to help forget about the ass-kicking endured by the Cyclones earlier that night.

9:30 PM

We nearly steal someone else's Lyft (sort of an Uber alternative). Turns out there are multiple men of middle eastern descent driving black Honda Accords working as Lyft drivers. The woman who originally ordered the vehicle looked ready to claw my friend's wife's eyes out. We apologize and hop back out of the vehicle.

9:40 PM

Now in the Lyft service which we actually ordered, the conversation with the driver turns to the Bulls, and Fred Hoiberg. Unkind things are said about Mr. Hoiberg, and now it is my friend's wife's turn to look like she's ready to claw someone's eyeballs from their sockets.

11:00 PM

Having met up with an old high school friend, we ended up at a bar that I was not nearly cool enough to be a regular at. But the beer was cheap and cold, and the jukebox played some excellent music, and we shit-talked each other through a dozen games of skee-ball while enjoying the feeling of having no real responsibilities, if only for that one evening. God, what a great feeling.

4:00 AM

Getting street tacos.

Suddenly, A possibly schizophrenic man in a glittery jacket rides by on a BMX bike that has a giant metal circle welded to the frame, arcing up over the rider.

No more second guessing. Even with the loss, I'm so glad we came and did this.