What I’ve learned from empty college basketball arenas
There’s a certain sanctity to the silence of an empty basketball arena, like a church dedicated to slam dunks and buzzer beaters.
It feels almost wrong to break the stillness of the air. Every footstep or keystroke echoes to the rafters and reverberates, scolding you for disturbing the tranquility.
Normally arenas aren’t like this. Fans fill every seat and scream at the top of their lungs. It’s a medley of colors, sounds and thunder.
For most people, this is the lasting image of the gym: packed and noisy. They leave in jubilation after victories and frustration after defeats.
But for sportswriters, we see the rest of the story.
After completing our interviews in press conferences and outside locker rooms, we return to the arena floor to frantically prepare our story for tomorrow’s edition and that night’s web version.
This is when we see the true nature of an arena.
Plastic chairs and wooden benches stare back at us where fans once sat and yelled.
The only other living souls in the building are cleaning up discarded popcorn tubs and soda cups with handheld brooms.
Sometimes they acknowledge us, and we them, with a simple nod or hello, but everyone understands we serve different purposes.
We inform the public about what occurred during the game that just ended, they prepare the arena for the next game.
We are focused on the past, they the future.
Despite the overpowering silence enveloping those of us sitting and writing on press row, starting to sweat with deadline pressures much like the basketball players we watched a few hours beforehand, it’s not an uncomfortable muteness.
That silence, for me, has come to feel like home.
An empty arena is my domain. I have reclaimed the floor and seats from their previous occupants, and made the hoops cathedral my office.
The lack of distractions make me infinitely more productive. Stories that can take 45 minutes at home spill out in 20 on the road.
Finishing that game story becomes my whole existence, and once I finish that last keystroke I take my headphones off, exhale and admire the uniqueness of my surroundings with a clarity and peace rarely found.
Each arena has its own quirks and distinguishing features, even the 94-foot by 50-foot square of wood in the middle that links every arena takes on a life of its own.
UNC’s Butler Hancock Sports Pavillion feels like a warehouse. I had to regularly blow on my hands to keep them warm typing in the low-ceilinged brick antechamber.
CU-Boulder’s Coors Events Center looks more like a shrine to former Buffs guard Chauncey Billups. The school painted over stark concrete walls with murals from the program’s past. One depicts the team celebrating last season’s Pac-12 tournament championship, at least two others show the same picture of Billups mid-jump shot when he still had hair.
And this Saturday at Air Force, two banners from past All-Americans who both wore No. 34 hung at mid court while benches lined much of the arena in lieu of plastic seats.
But if basketball arenas are churches, then Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse is the Sistine Chapel. I’ve never had the pleasure of covering a game inside the Phog, though it’s definitely one of my life goals. However, I attended a journalism camp in high school and they allowed us to tour the inside of the arena when no one else was inside.
The history of the building practically weighs on you. Wilt Chamberlain. Paul Pierce. Dr. James Naismith. Any pilgrimage of basketball’s holy sites would be incomplete without a visit to that place. I didn’t fully appreciate the moment at the time, but looking back on it I understand that I walked on sacred ground.
What makes these moments so impactful and special for me is how much time I get to spend with my own thoughts. Life moves pretty fast these days, and I relish the chance to take a few moments and look around after the clock shows all zeroes.