Center Stage

“Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try It.” – Eduardo Galeano from Soccer In Sun and Shadow

 *****

The woman working at the ticket office tells me I can come in, opening the one door from the inside that isn’t barred shut. “There won’t be any lights on,” she says.

I walk into Texas Hall, a place I’d never heard of until perhaps two or three days earlier when my editor assigned me the job of writing about UT-Arlington’s new arena, known as the College Park Center. It is replacing Texas Hall had been UT-Arlington’s home since 1965. It is a theater, not a gym, but the basketball team has played there, on center stage, on a portable basketball court. The team performed where Louie Armstrong played jazz, where Jerry Seinfeld joked, where Ludacris rapped.

Like the woman says, the lights are off when I walk in. The place is dead. Empty. Like any old-school theater, the seats are the same size, on the same level, and the floor slopes down. The walkway is carpeted. I can barely see my feet in front of me, and I grip the arm rests of the seats on the aisle, making sure I don’t trip.

Then the lights come on. There must be a sensor. I can see it in front of me, a lonely rectangle of wood raised above the ground, a hoop on each side, a row of old bleachers behind it.

I went to school at KU, home to Allen Fieldhouse, which is widely considered the best place to watch a basketball game in the country. I lived for a summer at UPenn, home to the Palestra, another one of college basketball’s finest venues. I wish I had realized I lived within twenty minutes of Texas Hall.

I climb a few steps up to the court. It is elevated about seven or eight feet above the ground. I stare at the theater seats, about 2,000 of them staring back, and stay there for several minutes, pacing along the wooden floor, looking out again and again, imagining a game.

College basketball was played in a theater, as true performance art, but not anymore.

*****

College Park Center is a beautiful, sparkling gym. It features a hi-def video board, booming sound system and flashing lights, everything recruits and fans want. It will attract better nonconference competition and more spectators. Having absolutely no connection to UT-Arlington at all aside from visiting its library a few times, I still felt joy as the university president elicited cheers from the crowd, and the basketball team warmed up for the first time in a true home environment because they need this. UT-Arlington, widely known as a commuter school, needs this because it desires to create a sense of campus community.

Yet as I took in the celebration on Wednesday night, I still longed to watch just one of the games I never saw at the theater on the other side of campus, where a basketball will never bounce again.

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