Front and center

Sometimes the planets align. Sometimes arenas get built in cities where not much else does. Sometimes you get offered the ticket you thought didn’t exist. Sometimes that ticket is in the front row.

Sometime was last Tuesday night.

I have been a Cards fan my entire life and have been attending games for nearly as long. I penciled stats in a wire-bound scorekeeper’s book from Allied Sporting Goods on my living room floor as Jerry Eaves, Charles Jones and the McCray brothers donned the short-shorts and outpaced opponents in Freedom Hall. I have been to Dream Games and nightmare ones.

But basketball season tickets have never been an option for me. I have either lived too far away, made too little money, or both. Thus, my attendance at U of L games over the years has been in the hands of friends with a ticket to spare. I was certain the new arena would mean fewer offers and more evenings screaming from my couch rather than from the stands. As opening night approached, I found myself trolling the backwaters of the Internet looking for options. What I found was either too high in the rafters or too expensive. Then I got the text: “You free tomorrow night?” No further explanation needed.

Having heard dire predictions of the traffic disaster that would certainly befall our fair downtown on game night, I left home early. Chalk one up for the optimists: I parked easily, only a few short blocks from the shining beacon on the river. Nearly an hour remained before tip-off, so I thought I’d scout out my seats before grabbing a beverage to calm my nerves. As I walked down the steps toward the court, I must admit I felt like a squatter. This house was too nice. This couldn’t be where I was supposed to be. As I cozied into my seat in Row A, I looked around uncomfortably, waiting for security to come and shake me down. They never came. The dueling bald domes of Dick Vitale and Dan Shulman were positioned directly in front of me. Surely this couldn’t be happening. I snapped a quick cell phone photo in an attempt to pinch myself out of the dream. Turns out I wasn’t asleep.

My experience during the game was quite similar to that of the Butler Bulldogs: a blur. I remember bits and pieces. A deep three at the outset by Mike Marra. A thunderous dunk or two by Terrence Jennings. An “I’m going to be better at being Earl Clark than Earl Clark ever was” performance by Rakeem Buckles. A short kid named Elisha from Eastern Kentucky forsaking his UK blue-blooded birthright to come to the big city, wear red, and do it with a calm and resolve rarely seen in a freshmen, let alone in his first game.

But that was all on the court. And on this night, what was happening on the court was secondary to what was going on around it. This was a city’s coming-out party. We were the four-letter network’s crown jewel in a 24-hour basketball marathon. They sent the A-team in Dick and Dan to cover our night. And the basketball gods sent me to sit right behind them.

Now, I must admit, next to Jim Host and Mayor Jerry Abramson, I’m the arena’s biggest cheerleader. From the beginning, I’ve scoffed at naysayers who questioned the project’s location, financing, urban impact, naming, or architectural resemblance to a mid-size office printer. On Tuesday night, my scoffing was vindicated.

There was just enough traffic to make our once-dead downtown look alive. There was just enough wait at the concession stands to make me rethink that second order of nachos. There was a student section filled with actual students. It was loud and raucous, complete with chicken suits and bucket-hats. This was college basketball.

Freedom Hall was great. Legendary, even. But progress is king, and what we have downtown is inarguably that.

Author’s note: Upon viewing the game on my DVR the following day, it turns out the best thing about sitting directly behind Dick Vitale is not having to listen to Dick Vitale.