Last night, my somewhat esteemed partner, Mark Donahue, and I traveled down to Athens to take in Purdue at Ohio men’s basketball showdown. It was my first time watching a game at OU’s Convocation Center, and my first trip back to Athens since I was touring colleges more than seven years ago.
Before pulling up to the Convo, we drove around the handful of blocks in Athens right off of campus that host restaurants, bars, shopping and anything else a college kid’s heart could desire, taking in the clear college-town vibe the town provides. Roughly an hour before tip, we rolled up to our parking spot and started the trek to wherever the media entrance was.
It took some walking and a few helpful folks to find it, but in the process, we traversed around half of the circular cathedral and got to take in the mass of concrete that you could tell was erected decades ago. Once we entered the tunnel, that assessment was proven correct.
The hallways, outlets and doors reminded me of what I’d seen in movies from the 1970s, but in the best way. Although its age showed, the arena was clearly well kept. There was a tremendous amount of character in the walls, and walking through the concourse areas around the arena before the game, the color, concrete and design felt like a trip back in time. It felt like college basketball.
We stumbled upon the Hardwood House, a little restaurant area selling food, drinks and alcohol that celebrated the history of Ohio basketball and athletics. Signs hung from the walls outlaying the arena through the decades, and benches and tables were made from the old basketball court and bowling alleys that used to be Ohio’s home. It included shuffleboard, TVs with sports playing and a friendly atmosphere with Bobcats enjoying themselves before the opening tip. We also came across a few small hoops with rollbacks installed, similar to what you’d see at a Dave & Busters, with balls just out in the concourse, available for anyone to use for free. Two college-aged kids were playing and having fun before the game, and it furthered the laid back, fun setting the Convocation Center offers.
But perhaps the most telling detail of the relaxed atmosphere Ohio basketball has was the absence of a press pass. Never, ever, ever have I covered a sporting event, even at a low high school level or some other equivalent, and not been given some kind of pass or credential signalling me as a member of the press. Mark was given an armband so he could do photo on the baseline, but I had nothing, and he didn’t otherwise have a pass. I was dressed professionally, but I didn’t have anything that said I could go onto the floor, walk around the arena freely or go back into the hallways under the concourse, but no one even stopped me or even gave me an ocular pat-down. It illustrated how calm the arena was, a nice reprieve from the security checkpoints that seemingly treat you like a criminal for daring to enter a sporting event that happen at games across the country now.
The seating is set in two bowls, with the lowest bowl extending right behind the benches on both sides, giving the Convocation Center the intimate atmosphere that’s so unique to college hoops. Naturally, that’s where the rowdiest Bobcats lived. Winter break started a few days earlier, so the student turnout was minimal, if at all existent. But the alumni and townies who showed made their presence known when Ohio gave them something to cheer about. One man in particular, seated (though he didn’t sit much) very close to the court, was quite vocal in his support for Ohio and disdain for the officials, his booming voice carrying through the whole arena even at raucous moments. The green hoodied-Bobcat added the kind of personality you come to expect at college sports, and as a neutral observer, it was fantastic.
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The upper bowl is staggered, with the seats raising higher along the sidelines compared to the baselines. Mark and I climbed the steep steps at halftime and watched a portion of the second half from the top, enjoying our space and view of the full court, allowing a complete perspective of plays, breakdowns and movements from both teams.
All in all, Ohio provided one of the better college basketball atmospheres and arenas that I’ve experienced, particularly considering the students, band and cheerleaders were at home. It felt like a trip back in time, back when college sports were the regional and cultural events they used to be before popularity and nationalization blew up. And the best part: the basketball quality was pretty good. If you want to see some solid hoops in a laid back environment with a decades-old feel, the Convocation Center at Ohio University if for you.