CRAWFORD | New Rupp Arena must still hold old memories - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | New Rupp Arena must still hold old memories

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I can tell you the date. It was March 4, 1978. That was the first time I ever walked into Rupp Arena. It was Senior Day for Jack Givens, Rick Robey, Mike Phillips and James Lee. The opponent was Nevada-Las Vegas, and the University of Kentucky won 92-70. A little more than three weeks later, the Wildcats would beat Duke for the NCAA Championship.

I don't know how my dad got tickets to that game. He had plenty of connections, including working for Cawood Ledford at WHAS television and radio. All I know is those seats were close to the court. People kept nodding at us with that, "You must know somebody," look. The governor was sitting behind us. Happy Chandler was sitting behind us.

We weren't a family that had tickets to UK basketball games. I went only that one time. That's why the memory is so fresh. Years later, when I was named a newspaper columnist for The Courier-Journal and, as part of that, got to cover UK basketball games, I wandered out of the press room after filing my story from the first one, out toward the court in a largely empty, dimmed Rupp Arena and stood there looking around.

The moments I'll remember long after this job is gone are moments like that one, or like the last game in Freedom Hall, or my first steps onto the field for batting practice in what was then still Riverfront Stadium.

It's moments like those that the folks renovating Rupp Arena now have to live up to. I don't know how many times he said it during Wednesday's gathering with the media, but Lexington attorney Brent Rice couldn't seem to use the word "iconic" enough, and he was on the money when he did it.

If it was iconic for me in my limited experience in Rupp, how much more is it for those thousands of UK fans who have been coming there every winter for generations?

What makes the place iconic? It's just a box with 23,500 seats. There are no luxury suites. There's no club level.

I'll tell you. At Rupp Arena, the focal point is the court. It's the game. Nowhere in America do they hang on the game like they do in Rupp Arena, argue if you will.

That's not, of course, how basketball is done today. Or college athletics, for that matter. The University of Kentucky has to view basketball, as successful as it is, as an untapped resource. No suites? They could sell as many as they can build. Preferred seating? They could charge whatever they want. Naming rights to Rupp Arena? Somebody will buy them, though it'll always be Rupp Arena, even with a corporate name attached.

I'd always -- don't laugh when I say this -- thought UK could've turned Memorial Coliseum into a state-of-the-art Cameron Indoor Stadium, but the building of the Craft Center ended that idea.

To build a new arena, which may yet someday happen for UK, seemed not only too expensive, but premature. So the partners announced on Wednesday, NBBJ and Hunt Construction, have a challenge in renovating it. But it would seem the project is in good hands. Hunt Construction built the arena in the first place. NBBJ has experience building and renovating some of the nation's most respected facilities.

They will be tasked with retro-fitting this old box into a new palace. They'll have to balance bells and whistles with what limitations the design provides.

Somebody will have to find a way to pay for it, though I'd suggest that will be less of a problem than people think, even with a price tag that could approach $300 million.

The bigger challenge will be keeping the focus where it always has been, even while adding the amenities that you see everywhere else. Rupp Arena was built in a day when the building didn't need personality. What happened on the court gave the place its personality. The spot where Richie Farmer made state tournament history or where Tayshaun Prince made the last of those threes or where Anthony Davis blocked John Henson's shot.

For Rupp Arena, it has been enough to be intimidating. Now it also must be entertaining in a new way. And must make more money.

Rice, Gov. Steve Beshear and others said Wednesday that change was coming, that they didn't have the money but would get it, and that construction will kick off next year. It's an update whose time has come. Actually, it's an update whose time came several years ago.

Rupp Arena will always hold memories. Organizers are just working to make it a prettier box.

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