Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On The Road: Indy

It's not often that one gets to have an intimate viewing experience inside of an NBA arena. Professional games are typically good draws, and even when they're not, there is always an usher in the way of moving closer. There are some colleges that play their basketball games in NBA arenas or those of similar size, but these venues are often far too wide (and pricey) to qualify as intimate. And NCAA Tournament games are the worst, particularly when played in football domes. Those hardly even feel like basketball games, even when the product on the court is exciting.

In The Summit League, there are plenty of intimate venues. As an Oakland fan, I feel lucky enough to be able to attend games at the O'rena where I have yet to find a seat with a disappointing sightline. That said, I have anticipated the opportunity to catch a game at IUPUI's The Jungle. It's about as mid-major a place as they come with nothing but bleachers and a capacity just over 1,200. As far as intimate basketball venues go, I always imagined The Jungle ranking at the top. So when the 2010-11 schedule came out, I was bummed to see that this year's Oakland-IUPUI game would be held at Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the NBA's Indiana Pacers. After all, there was no way Conseco would offer the intimacy of a place like The Jungle.

That assumption proved wrong. On Saturday, I witnessed a live basketball game in a cavernous NBA arena that I would describe as an intimate experience. For starters, the school charged a flat rate at the door, $15.00, that would put a spectator in courtside seats that probably go for 50 times that rate when the Pacers are playing. For one night only, there were no ushers enforcing phony seating policies because, well, you could practically sit wherever you desired on this evening. I took advantage of this and watched the game from a few different places, just to take it all in.

I started out just a few rows back from the courtside seats. In the first half, you could hear the players calling out plays and offering help to their teammates on the court. The always animated duo of IUPUI coach Ron Hunter and Oakland coach Greg Kampe were at it with the officials and their players throughout. And at some points early on, even the bricked shots echoed throughout the arena. The only thing I couldn't hear particularly well was the voice of the public address announcer. His subdued style was a welcomed departure from the over-the-top guys that seem to populate arenas nowadays, but the facility needed to turn his mic up just a bit!

The quiet lull gave way to a more energetic second half, due mostly to the fact that IUPUI was out to a lead. Even though the Oakland players hit a number of three-pointers that riled up the section of Golden Grizzlies fans, it was not enough to overcome the aggressive attack of the Jaguars. IUPUI's student section, the Red Zone, was led by a group of 20 or so students who stood, chanted, and yelled throughout the duration of the game. But it's safe to say the team's run in the second half inspired them, and the rest of their counterparts, to new levels of noise. While they've got a bit of work to do become a mass like the Grizz Gang, I thought the Red Zone did a fine job with their unique mix of personalities and catcalls. They were also aided by a large cheer team that included several males who used oversized megaphones to begin chants. This combination of a student section and a formal cheer squad helped drown out the noise on the court in that second half, but it also helped to preserve that intimate feel by reminding folks this was indeed college basketball.

As the seconds ticked down and the loss become a reality, I dreaded the drive home. The worst aspect of attending road games is that there is not a mass of folks to sulk with in the event of a loss. When I was a student, those walks with friends back to the residence halls after a loss were therapeutic. We could hypothesize about what went wrong on the court, and as soon as we were back to our floor, there was something else to do so we did not have to dwell on the game. But at away games, particularly if one is driving a long distance, there is just the road. This was the first time I experienced that feeling after a conference loss, which makes it all the more devastating. Driving home from Purdue and Ohio State after a loss was somewhat expected, but against a budding rival like IUPUI, it just hurt. Even though a rational thinker might point out that Oakland would still be in fine shape for the conference tournament and all things after, a sports fan is often irrational. And it's hard to reconcile that fact after such a loss given the level of emotional investment involved.

At this juncture, I have yet to see Oakland win a road game in person this season. I'm far from superstitious and realize that's probably because I exhausted most of my budget for this stuff on going to non-conference games where the odds of winning are slim. But after this last one, I'm starting to think I will avoid such games for at least the rest of this season. For future years, though, I would encourage OU fans in Michigan or other Midwest locations to consider taking the trip to Indianapolis for the IUPUI game. Even when the game is held at Conseco Fieldhouse, it offers fans the unique opportunity to watch good college basketball up close and personal in an NBA arena. Those chances don't come around very often.

A view of the court during pre-game warmups. This was also about how many people were in attendance for the women's game that preceded the men's game.
At the tip of the men's game.

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