From the Stands: Bring Back Rec Hall

As the Penn State men's basketball team succumbs to whatever malaise has snuffed out yet another season, I've been thinking back to my first few years at Penn State and the 1993 winter that marked PSU's first Big Ten campaign. A lot's changed since then, but a lot hasn't, too.

Back then there was snickering that if we wanted to see a basketball team win a game, our best bets were Marathon Oil, a scrimmage and the Lady Lions. But there was real affection for the team; with the likes of Indiana and Michigan on the horizon, we reckoned there'd be some whippings, and we loved them for it (in 1994 my female friends took to Danny Earl like he was a lost puppy). They were fun to root for -- we had the gentile giant John Amaechi, the sometimes talented DeRon Hayes, Greg Bartram, Earl and "Q-Tip," who really did look like a swab and didn't, as far as I recall, have a real name.

Not changed, though, are those insipid pre-game interviews, when our opponents drivel on about how they "respect" PSU and would "take us seriously," even though neither is particularly true any more now than in 1993. (Bob Knight's "camping" cheekiness was odd -- he lived in Indiana -- but at least it was an original thought.) Their forced humility can't conceal genuine apathy, and I've always hated it, but in 1993 they knew their coziness wouldn't last through warm-ups. Despite Penn State's long odds those first few seasons, for home games we had an All-American Sixth Man (and no, I don't mean Michael Joseph): our old friend, Rec Hall.

I remember the noise in there. Those same players who'd said all the clichéd right things would attempt their usual cool disinterest, but then look again, uncomfortably, at the student section (which all the while was creeping toward the court). "Are they allowed to, um, stand on the court?" their expressions asked. Our cheerleaders would actually, you know, lead cheers (a sure sign delirium is setting in) and soon enough the pep band would peel off a raucous "Vehicle" or something like that, and the noise somehow never really subsided. For three seasons, some of the best players around were visibly rattled, or at least just plain ticked off. (Anyone remember Alan Henderson after the ‘93 Indiana game?) That was our court -- dead spots, mildew and all.

By 1995, the Nits were contenders and the future was bright. But in the brand-new Bryce Jordan Center, that old-fashioned noise and intimidation seemed just to drift away harmlessly into the rafters, and never reach the court. I think people were willing to accept the conventional wisdom, which was that a big-time program needs a big-time arena. (Maybe this is what it feels like to be Big Ten butt-kickers, I seem to remember thinking, stupidly.)

Anyway, I don't mean to overstate the impact of a basketball court, or understate the guys who played the games. They had pluck, not to mention, later on, Pete Lisicky and Calvin Booth, et al. But I sometimes wonder about the BJC, and I can't help but think that if men's basketball is ever to emerge from this muck, something has to change there. Penn State needs a real home court again.

Let's first agree that the administration won't stir the pot. (Not about to happen: "Hey, you know, now that we think about it, this is a great venue for a U2 concert but it sure is a sucky place to play basketball! Oops! Our mistake!") They're also weirdly loyal to that "Yea! Let's go get some Peachy Paterno together after the game!" PSU vanilla-sphere. (One example: last fall at the Purdue football game, Beaver Stadium hit bedlam with a late PSU interception, followed by a commercial break. The Blue Band was tanked, but the stadium has, you know, big expensive speakers and screens and stuff for these occasions, so you'd think they'd crank up "Thunderstruck" or "Crazy Train." But their selection was, incredibly, "My Guy," and with one giant "Pssssssssssssstttttttt," the bedlam shriveled and died.)

I admire Penn State's ideals here, but as far as the BJC is concerned, maybe it means the fans have to speak up. I don't think anyone could hope for a redux of 1993's novel sort of frenzy -- it's been a long slog. But Penn State basketball needn't feel like "Disney on Ice," either; the bottom line is the Bryce Jordan Center shouldn't need a full house in order to help out with something resembling a "home court advantage."

As I'm sure someone will remind me, no one needs or wants my advice -- I'm not a sports arena guru, or even a season ticket holder -- it's not my place give advice to Penn State, really. (My lone, humble suggestion is for someone to hop a bus to Rutgers, Miami, Providence or Boston College and the likes, and bring a pen.) But I am a Penn State fan, and it seems to me some changes would help bring back at least a hint of that old Rec Hall atmosphere and some fans, and ultimately give team the home court it deserves.

And I'm hoping FOS readers will pitch in their ideas.

Bill Lalor offers opinions from the fans' perspective for FightOnState.com and is the founder of the politics website, citizenjournal.com.


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