After Steve Raznick broke out in itches, a doctor diagnosed him with FGCU hives.
A five-year Florida Gulf Coast University women’s basketball season ticket holder, Raznick had attended every home game in that span.
Then he missed the biggest game the Eagles ever played and felt sick about it.
It wasn’t a home game, but Raznick watched FGCU clinch its first Atlantic Sun title and NCAA Tournament birth as swollen red welts invaded his skin.
“It almost killed me being forced to watch on TV,” Raznick said. “I felt terrible not being in Macon (the A-Sun tournament site) and the emotion of it all just got to me. I itched a lot. I’d never had hives until then.”
Raznick, a 68-year-old Chicago native who moved to Naples full time in 1995, didn’t want to miss another one and neither does Southwest Florida.
On Saturday afternoon, set for FGCU’s first round NCAA tournament game against St. Bonaventure at the Tucker Center in Tallahassee, Raznick cruised six plus hours down Interstate 75 in his Lexus as a bus carrying more than 40 community fans trailed behind him.
Another bus holding more than 40 local fans, none of them students and most of them season ticket holders, leaves for Tallahassee this morning at 5.
Countless others like Raznick will drive north on their own, anxious to support a team that’s won—and done it the same way—from the beginning, even when FGCU was playing in the Division II championship game and could only hope of proving itself nationally.
“They had the components of a winning tradition from the start,” Raznick said. “This is something not many get to experience. Cities are used to having teams like Duke, UConn and Kentucky who are there every year. We’ve seen it from its beginnings and now we’re finally here.”
Raznick and 11 others in his family, including his wife, two kids and grandchildren, own a box at Alico Arena plus two floor seats, and help make up the 183 FGCU women’s basketball season ticket holders.
Alico Arena averaged 2,100 fans during the 2011-12 women’s basketball season, 1,764 of which come from the community while only 336 come from students.
None are more passionate than Raznick, whose company, Self-Insured Plans, sponsors half-time shooting contests during FGCU home games and pays $100 to the student winner.
FGCU women’s hoops grew slowly on Raznick. A former college basketball player at Wright Junior College and Kendall College in Chicago, Raznick knew little about the women’s game.
Raznick watched a few WNBA games, which taught him to doubt women’s basketball player’s athleticism and chuckle at the speed of the game.
Then, at his first FGCU game in 2007-08, acting on curiosity, Raznick watched as the Eagles stroked 3s and set picks, while its coach, Karl Smesko barked defensive instructions.
FGCU made more 3-pointers than any team in the country this season and is one of four teams ranked among the nation’s top 15 in points scored and points allowed per game.
“It really surprised me how good they are,” Raznick said. “I didn’t expect the shooting ability and the skill. And it is just exciting how hard they play.”
Garry Long, a 65-year old year old from Springfield, Mo., who moved to LaBelle in 1978, has held women’s basketball season tickets since the program’s inception in 2002-03.
In 2006-07, FGCU’s last season of D-II ball, Long traveled to Kearney, Neb, for the National Championship.
After the game, an Eagle loss, he promised Smesko he would be there for its eventual Division I NCAA tournament debut.
Long, known for wearing his FGCU Booster Club shirt at home games and chiding referees, hasn’t looked back. As he drove down to Tallahassee on Saturday morning with his wife, Long recalled traveling to Macon for the A-Sun Tournament and looked forward to a seafood dinner on the water.
Before leaving, Long bored clients at Roland Martin Marina, telling each tales of FGCU women’s basketball glory as they fished on boats.
Not everyone listened, but Long kept talking.
“I first ask if my clients are sports fans, but even if they’re not, I talk about the team,” Long said. “I can’t help it. I see the team as my kids. As long as they keep winning, I will be there.”
Raznick genuinely likes FGCU’s women’s basketball players. He calls them his family and says, “Each girl is sweeter than the next.”
He gets so riled up at games, wining when players fail to box out, that his wife demands he sit alone.
He recalls one time, after a FGCU men’s basketball game, challenging Eagle sophomore guard Sarah Hansen to make more free throws than he did in college.
At Wright Junior College, Raznick’s coach made each player make 25 consecutive free throws before they could leave practice. Raznick jokingly doubted Hansen could match that. Hansen went on to make 37 straight free throws before FGCU men’s basketball player Christophe Varidel snuck up behind her and blocked the next shot.
“We would still be watching her shoot if Varidel didn’t stop her,” Raznick said. “I would travel to Washington or Hawaii to watch this team. Until the river doesn’t rise, I will be there. We’re a Sweet 16 team.”