Game 058:at Long Island-Brooklyn 76, Quinnipiac 72 Saturday, February 12, 2005 Schwartz Athletic Center - Brooklyn, NY
Veterans Stadium was imploded on Second Round Sunday of last year's Tournament. I was in Kansas City at the time. So right before I touched down at Philadelphia International Airport on Monday morning, I looked down from my window seat and saw The Vet reduced to a circular pile of matchsticks. My heart was in my throat; I was shocked.
Don't get me wrong - everybody hated the damn place, from its ashtray-like shape to its lurid green turf. Aside from one baseball championship, nothing really ever happened there. The most heartwarming tales of The Vet usually involve that time you got to make out on the field on Fireworks Night, or that guy who snuck a keg up to the 700 level by pretending to be in a wheelchair.
But in the year before its demolition, there was much respect and honor and tribute bestowed upon the crummy old thing. There was an All-Vet team and a tribute DVD and souvenir books for many different reading levels. There was a countdown to the final game, and the Phanatic would wheel a Philly sports icon out to the right field wall on his ATV and they'd tear off another number together. On the final weekend in September, they gave out little replica Vets. (I went to a friend's house over the holidays, and saw one on the coffee table, being used as an ashtray. Disrespectful, but strangely fitting.)
There is no countdown to the final game at Long Island University's Arnold and Marie Schwartz Athletic Center, no retrospective movie or sad goodbye. After 43 years, the LIU basketball program will move to a glittering new glass-and-steel facility on the southeast corner of its Brooklyn campus. Insodoing, they'll leave behind the most beautiful and bizarre arenas in all of Division I.
The Schwartz Center, you see, used to be the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. It opened in 1928, and for 34 years, the Paramount hosted the stars of the stage and silver screen, both on celluloid and in the flesh. Brooklynites thrilled to the tones of the mighty Wurlitzer organ. The Paramount's ten-story sign lit up Flatbush Avenue, proclaiming the latest cinematic imports from Hollywood. Bing Crosby and Eddie Cantor and Little Richard sang from its stage; Mae West and Ginger Rogers graced it with their luminous presences. The walls and ceiling glittered with the opulent golden ornamentation common to amusement palaces of the day. The Paramount was where the borough's residents went to be entertained.
But with the growing popularity of television and the growing solidification of staged entertainment in Manhattan's Broadway district, the old girl withered and died. In 1962, Long Island University bought the shuttered Paramount, and they decided that they'd bring her back to life by way of repurpose.
And I mean really repurpose. The orchestra section was ripped out, replaced with a regulation basketball court. Seats were set up where the stage had been. But the curtains and the golden flourishes and the gilded nudes holding up fountains remained; the construction crew just hung cage lights from end to end to properly illuminate the floor. The next year, the star attraction at the former Paramount was Blackbirds coach Roy Rubin, who led LIU to a 14-9 record at the weirdest arena in all of college basketball.
My new friend Mike is an LIU alum, who can tell you the stories of those great Rubin-led teams - including the 1968 NIT squad that was rated the top small-college team in the country (an early version of today's mid-major poll), due in part to a torrid 20-game winning streak and an NIT win over Bradley.
Mike shows me around after the game. Look up there, beyond the beige facing installed in the early Seventies (when the Schwartzes made their naming-rights investment), there's the original balcony. See? There are some of the original theater seats, just peeking up over the edge of the facing. And over there, that trap door behind the visitor's bench? That's where the Wurlitzer is, it has all the original hydraulics and can rise up out of the floor. That organ music during timeouts... that wasn't a recording.
"Wait... it comes right up out of the basketball court?" I ask incredulously.
"Yes it does," Mike says, smiling. "It's quite something."
Turns out that the Theatre Organ Society Of New York holds regular concerts there, because the old Paramount Wurlitzer is in such well-maintained condition. I wonder if the organists loosen up beforehand by shooting a little hoop. But my train of thought is broken - that's when I notice that the bleachers in the "stage" section have been collapsed, and thick green netting is being strung out.
"What's going on?"
"It's a batting cage for the LIU baseball and softball teams," Mike explains. He spots a young ballplayer wearing a black batting helmet, in line to take his cracks at the makeshift cage. "This'll be easier in the new facility, huh?" he asks him.
"Most definitely," the young lad exhales, his face bearing a weary and exasperated expression. "I don't think I can wait much longer."
I'm introduced to LIU's athletic director, John Suarez. I ask him if he'll miss the Paramount - er, Schwartz - when they move out.
"I'll miss it," he replies, quickly glancing up at a banner proclaiming the new facility and its Fall 2005 opening date. He pauses for a moment. "But not that much."
The building itself appears to be safe - there are local and national landmark issues, and I have a feeling that you don't want to cross a bunch of angry Wurlitzer organists. So there will be no demolition, no ceremony, and the countdown (as of this writing, there are two games remaining to be played there) ticks on silently.
I guess that there isn't much sentimentality about the Schwartz because it was never really a sports palace to begin with. It's a basketball court awkwardly shoehorned into a beautiful old theater. The ghosts in this building are more likely to belt out a rendition of "Hello, Dolly" than nail a jump shot.
"Can't claim to have seen every one of them," I say, looking up at the high arch of intricate golden carvings above me. "But this truly has to be one of the most beautiful arenas in college basketball."
"I agree," Mike says, raising his arm to eye level, shielding his view from the basketball court and stands. "From here up."