Two ways to get there, they told me. You can take the long way, which is around the mountain, or you can take the short way, which is over the mountain.
“The short way sounds good to me,” I said.
It was Jan. 20, 1986, and my destination was Johnson City, Tenn., home of East Tennessee State University. I was in Sparta, N.C., doing a story on Oak Hill Academy (Sparta being where one stayed when visiting Oak Hill, located 15 miles away in Mouth of Wilson, Va.), and I had a night off. East Tennessee was playing Davidson in a clash of Southern Conference division leaders. Clearly, that had Bob Ryan written all over it.
That’s because I am a college basketball junkie. I have been going to games since 1952, and have now seen games in 161 venues, with No. 162 coming up tomorrow when the Atlantic Coast Conference tourney begins in the St. Pete Times Forum. The total includes college gyms and arenas of every description, plus NBA arenas that stage either NCAA Tournament games or, on occasion, regular-season games. It includes men’s and women’s games, plus the 1984 national junior college tournament in Hutchinson, Kan. The total does not include the five collegiate arenas (Wyoming, BYU, Toledo, Ohio State’s St. John Arena, Evansville) in which I have seen NBA exhibition games.
Back to that fateful night 21 years ago. I get to the mountain, which locals on both sides of the North Carolina-Tennessee border know as “Sam’s Gap,” and everything is just fine until the snow starts. Within minutes, a violent squall is raging. I am on this two-lane road at the top of this mountain, and I cannot see a thing. I start one of those foxhole prayer sessions, promising the Big Guy that if he gets me out of this I might even consider covering NASCAR.
I am also saying to myself, “Why didn’t I take the long way? I have done a lot of dumb things in my life, but this is clearly the dumbest.”
But just as quickly as the squall comes up, so, too, does it subside. The entire event lasts perhaps 15 minutes. I make my way down the mountain into Johnson City. I see a Holiday Inn. I run in, get a room, throw my stuff onto the bed and ask for directions to the school.
I park my car and simply follow the crowd to the Memorial Center, a Quonset hut-style arena. I ask for the best available ticket ($5), buy myself a hot dog and a Coke, and, five minutes before tipoff, settle into my seat, which is in the first row behind the East Tennessee bench.
Now for the best part: East Tennessee licks Davidson, 80-76.
In triple overtime. How cool is that? What snow squall?
I have no doubt that many members of the United States Basketball Writers Association have been to far more than 161 sites to see college basketball. But I am rather proud of that total, considering that at no time during my 38 years at the Globe have I ever been a full-time college basketball writer. This quest is a labor of love. Minor league baseball and college basketball are my avocations, and I have been a lot more successful at getting myself to the latter spots than I have the former.
The very first? I honestly don’t know. I’ve been going to them for so long I can’t say for sure. But logic says it was one of three places: Princeton’s Dillon Gym, the Pennsylvania Palestra, or the Philadelphia Convention Hall. My father was always involved in sports, and I’ve never known any life other than going to games, mostly baseball and basketball. So when I say this began in 1952, it’s an educated guess. It could have been ‘51.
This year I’ve been able to add five to the list: the George Washington University Smith Center, Amherst’s LeFrak Gymnasium, the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., San Diego State’s Cox Arena, and the Donald L. Tucker Center in Tallahassee, home of Florida State.
I am told that Sam’s Gap now features a new four-lane road. But I bet it still has snow squalls.
A few random observations:
Most venues, one school
Surprisingly, Boston University. I have seen the Terriers take the floor in Sargent Gymnasium (where BU beat Boston College in Chuck Daly’s head coaching debut), Case Center, Walter Brown Arena, and Agganis Arena.
Flat-out strangest place
Texas-Arlington. Texas Hall is a converted theater. The court was on a stage. A big stage. There were a few bleacher seats up there, but most of the spectators were watching from the theater seats. Bizarre, but memorable.
True belt-notch game No. 1
I saw Villanova beat Rio Grande and the legendary Bevo Francis by a 93-92 score at the long-gone Philadelphia Arena.
True belt-notch game No. 2
I saw La Salle and Tom Gola beat Furman and Frank Selvy at the Philly Convention Hall in 1954. As I recall, Selvy had his usual 40, while Gola had his usual 27, plus his usual quota of rebounds and assists. Gola remains a top-10 all-time college player, in case you’re wondering.
Did you see Bill Bradley’s first college game? I did
Lafayette put a box-and-one on him, but Bradley had 27 as Princeton won at the old Dillon Gymnasium in 1962.
UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. There is no lobby. You go through the doors and immediately descend to the seats. The crowd isn’t exactly what you would call lively, either.
Stanford’s Roscoe Maples Pavilion. The floor is built on springs. The whole floor area vibrates, including the press table.
Building most in need of a Richter scale
Oregon’s McArthur Court. Ask anyone. When they get stomping and shouting, the entire place shakes.
Virginia Tech’s Cassell Coliseum. Why no one ever talks about this place, I don’t know. The 10,000 seats all feel as if they are breathing down the back of every player. This is an electrifying atmosphere.
Most pleasant surprise
Arkansas’s Bud Walton Arena. Truly a beautiful structure, and it features the best use of a band - from before game time to 20 minutes after - that I’ve ever encountered in college basketball.
Most overrated joint
Syracuse’s Carrier Dome. Just too big and not really, you know, a gym. But maybe it’s just me.
It’s OK, but ...
Duke’s Cameron Indoor Arena is wonderful, but the Cameron Crazies themselves are now like a human theme park, doing what they think the world expects them to do.
Most bittersweet memory
Being front and center at Cameron as Len Bias exploded for 40 against Duke in 1986.
One place they never should have gotten rid of
Maryland’s Cole Field House. First of all, it should have been declared a national landmark, since it was the site of the Texas Western-Kentucky game. And it was a perfect 14,000-seat gym, for any game.
Really cool place you don’t know about
Rice’s Autry Court. Totally quaint, with a big blue curtain at one end. Trust me, it works.
The place no one will ever believe actually existed
Harvard’s Indoor Athletic Building. You climbed to the fourth floor. And if you were really lucky, a phenomenal game with Oral Roberts might break out.
Biggest hole in my athletic soul
I am ashamed to admit I have not yet been to the famed Allen Field House. Yes, I’ve seen it in the summertime, but that doesn’t count. I have now decided I must go there only when Kansas is playing someone it truly hates, like Missouri, or, now that Bob Huggins is there, K-State.
Place and time I’d most like to revisit
Palestra, circa 1966. Give me a classic Palestra doubleheader, the first game being one of the Philly squads against a highly rated outsider and the second game being a certified Big Five clash, and then send the chariots. I’d be ready to go.