Our Daily Dread: Mac Court, downsized

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Eighty-three years of playing home basketball games in one facility can get a little old.

Especially if you’re on the opposing teams.

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The University of Oregon’s McArthur Court — aka, Mac Court, best known as “The Pit” — goes away as the Ducks’ advantageous home pond after this season. The games that UCLA plays on its maple floor tonight and USC coming in Saturday are probably the last that either Southern California team will ever have to endure at the facility again.

Gratefully, no doubt. There’ll be no more cringing at the thoughts of coming to Eugene. Especially knowing there’ll be no more cemetary lurking across the street from the entrance.

Consider that the facility that today looks from the outside like a grand movie theatre or opera house was built in 1926 — three years before The Great Depression. Oregon played its first game on it Jan. 14, 1927 — a 38-10 victory over Willamette University.

Mac Court, which started with 6,000 seats and currently can accomodate about 9,000 — some with obscruted views — is the third-oldest Division I on-campus arena in the country, behind Matthews Arena at Northeastern University in Boston (opened in 1910) and the Rose Hill Gym at Fordham University (1925). It’s still not older than Hayward Field, the legendary track and field site on campus that opened in 1919.

But it’s so ancient, so rickety, it creaks. And leaks. A patron walking in the main corridor can get splashed by some soda dripping through the lower deck.

You just can’t replicate that at most other places in the country.

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Sadly, by the time the next Pac-10 season comes, the Ducks plan to move across campus to the new $200 million Matthew Knight Arena. That’s Knight, as in Nike chief Phil Knight, naming the place after his late son.

It’s a 12,541-seat multi-purpose facility on the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Villard Street, more visible from traffic coming in off Interstate 5.

And the new place comes with plenty of backlash.

One, it’ll be the most expensive campus basketball arena in the country. The lack of parking will be an issue. Students are worried about how close it to some on-campus dorms. Many academics who live on the part of the campus are also concerned about noise and security.

Plus, the building itself just looks out of place in the residental area.

Oh, and abandoning Mac Court is just wrong. But that’s what’s called progress in today’s world.

UCLA and USC would call it that. Especially if it makes the Oregon students not feel so entitled to be abusive to visiting teams. The so-called “Pit Crew” — about 1,000 students who take it upon themselves to make it as inhospititable as possible — have been part of the charm for Mac Court.

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Because of the Mac Court set up, the fans spread out over three decks are on top of the action, much like the old Boston Garden. It’s loud. It’s crazy. It’s hellish.

It’s advantage, Ducks.

“We would line up outside at least four to five hours before they would open the doors, which is then still one hour before tip off,” explained Patrick Brauer, a Southern California native who spent his four collegiate years at Oregon, graduating in 1999.

Brauer remembers when then-coach Jerry Green once bought all the waiting students pizzas before a big game against Arizona.

“It was a student’s dream to see the pizza delivery guy pull up and unload 30 pizzas, free of charge,” he said.

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What may contribute to the fans’ rowdiness is that they were also the official greeters for the visiting team — mostly because the bus bringing them in had to unload right at the front doors, because the back parking lot is too narrow for the bus to get into.

“Having to parade through the waiting students, the visitors are subject to harsh, profane-laced taunts,” said Brauer.

“Then an hour before tip off, they would allow the students to enter — a mad dash to get the floor section, which is limited. People would get smashed against the doors; I’m surprised no one really got hurt. The floor seats were the prime locations because that is where the die-hard fans sat and it was so close to the playing floor. Probably about five feet from the out-of-bounds line was the first row in the student floor section. The other student sections were behind one basket, and the entire third deck.”

Hundreds of students jumping up and down while the opponents shot free throws would make the backboards sway. A public address announcement to cease would only make it worse.

USC coach Charlie Parker said after a 95-83 loss at Oregon in Jan., 1995: “The crowd is always a factor. I think it intimidated our guys … We’re not really used to a crowd like that in our place. This was probably the most vocal crowd we’ve experienced all year and some of our younger guys didn’t handle it.”

Henry Bibby saw it from both as a former UCLA player and as a USC coach. He wasn’t impressed either way.

After a 73-69 Trojans’ loss at Oregon in 2002, Bibby called the Oregon fans “a disgrace to basketball. The things they say are a total disgrace to the University of Oregon. It should not be condoned by the Pac-10 or University of Oregon.”

Oregon coach Ernie Kent defended the atmosphere of Mac Court, but sent a letter of apology to Bibby afterward days after the game.

“I don’t mind people getting on people the right way,” said Kent in the Eugene Register-Guard. “But they need to keep the personal stuff out.”

That didn’t happen in 2008, when Kevin Love, the UCLA freshman, came to play in Eugene for the first time since he decided not to attend the school and stay in his home state.

After scoring 26 points with a freshman school-record 18 rebounds, Love had to endure what coach Ben Howland called “vile,” “disgusting” and “inappropriate.” Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny apologized to UCLA and Kevin Love’s family.

Bill Walton may wonder if Love got off easy.

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In 1974, Walton made the cover of Sports Illustrated with the famous “Lost Weekend” headline. After losing by four points a couple days earlier at Oregon State, the No. 1-ranked Bruins were upset again, 56-51 at Oregon. The story in SI reported: “The scoreboard, suspended from cables above the floor, actually rocked with the stamping.”

It was the first time since 1966 that a John Wooden team had lost back-to-back contests.

That was the last game at Mac Court for Walton, who played for the Portland Trail Blazers the next season and may have attended a few Grateful Dead concerts at the facility.

Funny, but the year prior to that one, when Walton was a junior, a spectator ran onto Mac Court and kicked him during a 72-61 UCLA win.

Walton will be the UCLA honorary captain honored before tonight’s game.

In 1995, the year UCLA finished 31-2 and won the national championship, their only road loss was at Mac Court, in the opener of the Pac-10 schedule. In what would be an 82-72 defeat, Bruins head coach Jim Harrick was ejected with two technicals and Tyus Edney’s mother got into a verbal exchange with the Oregon fans.

(Note: The record books note that UCLA has a 32-1 record that season. A home loss to Cal was later forfeited by the Bears. So the only blemish in UCLA’s record that season — at Oregon).

In 2007, Oregon upset another No. 1 UCLA team at Mac Court. The Bruins were 16-0 coming in, en route to another Final Four appearance with Howland.

Steve Lavin had long been gone by then. But a few of his most painful coaching defeats came at Mac Court.

A 97-81 loss to Oregon in 1998 happend when the Bruins were ranked No. 6. It was their fourth loss at Mac Court in the last five seasons.

Lavin’s last loss there: March, 2003, by a 79-48 score, which dropped the Bruins to 7-18.

“If I’m not mistaken, that was my last regular-season road game and the students were chanting, ‘Good Bye, Lavin,’ so with a minute to go, I gave ‘em a salute and they had fun with it,” Lavin said Wednesday, between rushing around to cover games for ESPN. “It was inevitable that I was getting fired, and they were relentless.”

Lavin’s recollections of Mac Court were that it “reeked of tradition, like a Wrigley Field or Fenway Park of basketball venues. It was a charming, venerable home court for them. The students were on top of you, the staircase to the bowels of the place were narrow, and once you got into the locker room, it was almost like a funhouse. The ceilings were so low, and the energy was palpable as the game got closer. It was like going into the gladiator pit. I also remember the showers were built for the Munchkins from the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ We couldn’t use them. Maybe Tyus Edney could fit into them, but no one else.”

The fresh smell of popcorn once you entered the building was another immediate memory for Lavin. But that was after the bus would let the visiting team off and, with the Oregon students waiting outside, “it almost felt like an ambush, with Robin Hood and his boys ready.”

“I also remember back before it got a facelift, there was all that ivy on the building, which made it look like a haunted house and added a mystique to the place,” said Lavin. “I wish they’d have kept that.”

Other Pac-10 teams that have ventured into Mac Court have mixed emotions about it going away.

“We’re going down 50 stairs into the basement. It’s like 200 degrees down there, that disgusting green,” Arizona State junior guard Jamelle McMillian told the Arizona Republic recently before the Sun Devils played their last game at the place.

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ASU coach Herb Sendek disagreed: “I love the old buildings. Those places have so much tradition and history and you know, they smell like gyms. I’m always partial to those kind of venues.”

Former Arizona coach Lute Olson told the Tucson Citizen while Oregon may not have had the same kind of players as Duke, playing at Mac Court was more difficult than a contest at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“The locker rooms are below the floor so you can hear the students come in and yell, and stomp their feet,” Olson said. “Back when they had shag carpeting in there it was (awful). When they removed it I don’t think they ever found out what kind of bugs where in it. It wasn’t one of our favorite places to be.”

In 2001, The Sporting News named Mac Court as the “best gym in America.” In 1995, Sports Illustrated listed it as one of the 12 toughest places to play in all of college basketball.

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Like any building, it’s had to be patched up and repaired over the years. Over the last decade, it’s taken more than $5 million to fix things.

Oregon officials have decided not to tear the building down completely. They are likely to have the School of Architecture move into it.

In a 2009 report to the school’s president entitled “The Future Of McArthur Court,” it was written: “(The facility) is revered on and off campus by many, yet there are pressing academic space needs that reasonably compete for this area of campus. Mac Court’s 82-year historic presence on campus and its importance as a campus cultural icon are challenged by the needs of the 21st century campus, often in ways that we cannot yet predict. MacCourt, in its current state, is outdated. Like many historic structures, it was built for a different era, with ideas, technologies and needs of the time.”

Craig Robinson, who has only been Oregon State’s coach the last two seasons, told the Eugene Register-Guard about Mac Court: “I won’t miss it. That’s a hard place to play. It remains to be seen if they can re-create that at the new place.”

Students, and alums like Brauer, wonder as well.

“I was sad to learn about the closing of Mac,” he said. “There was something about walking through campus on game day with excitement in the air and pride of being able to see a great game like basketball in a historic building.

“The new place I don’t think it will be the same. Gone are the levels stacked on top of each other, the narrow hallways jammed with vendors. You probably won’t be able to smell the popcorn wafting in the air.

“I understand they want a new building to help recruiting and enlarge seating capacity, and in turning Oregon into Nike U, it will outfitted with high-technology lounges and concourses. That is what appeals to today’s sports fan. But I’ll still remember the simpler building of Mac Court.”

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