"More than anything, the old arena felt like a home," my friend Drew said. He was referring to SIU Arena at Southern Illinois, his alma mater and site of some of his favorite memories.
Game #9-225: New Orleans Privateers at Southern Illinois SalukisDecember 17, 2012 8:05 pm
The SIU Arena
"The smell of popcorn was always strong," Drew recalled. "Lining up outside hours before the game to get in, walking up the two flights of stairs to get to your upper deck seats, the rickety old bleachers that I swore were going to collapse when SIU beat Creighton in 2007. I remember sitting anywhere in the arena and loving the view, front row vs. Hawaii at the 11 p.m. tip, or being damn near the nosebleeds and still rocking just as hard."
SIU Arena was a case of a building matching its team and its fans perfectly. It had lots of grit and little flash.
But toward the end of the first decade of this century, SIU wanted flash and they had come to deserve it. They were on a streak of six straight NCAA Tournament bids, with Sweet 16 runs at each end. They were a program on the upswing, and they wanted a building to match. With the talk of Creighton and even Evansville getting completely new arenas, Southern Illinois took action. SIU Arena was gutted and renovated before the start of the 2010 season, a $29.9 million project.
Drew and I went to the first game in the new SIU Arena, a 9 a.m. tipoff (thanks to the WorldWide Leader's hoops marathon) against Northeastern. SIU lost 63-62 in overtime, and to this day, we're not really sure who on Southern Illinois pulled the "Webber" and called for a timeout they didn't have. The technical free throws decided the game for Northeastern, and SIU had the second of their 19 losses of the 2010-11 season.
The new SIU Arena was all about flash. All the old wood replaced with maroon plastic, which to me somehow seems harder than wood. The old big-bulbed NEVCO scoreboards are gone, new LED versions and video boards grace the corners and the ceiling of the arena. The concession stands were new and enclosed, holding in the smell of popcorn, piping it off to be let out in the middle of a corn field somewhere.
But the stadium, once again, ended up matching its team. Lots of flash, zero substance. Everything around the court was really nice. The team on the court was not. In the first two seasons in the new SIU Arena, the team went 14-16. Fans would not come out to see this team, and they had every right not to. This was not their Southern Illinois, this low-power offense and low-passion defense. The former, a Saluki fan could look past under the right scenario. The latter is a mortal sin, unforgivable. SIU Arena, and the the Salukis themselves, had become like the Pharisee's cup: Clean on the outside, dead on the inside.
But with new had coach Barry Hinson has come one new renovation in SIU Arena. The public can't normally see it, and I only caught it on the video boards as the team took the floor for their game against New Orleans. On the end of the hallway leading from the Salukis locker room to the SIU Arena floor, the last thing the every Saluki player sees and now touches before they take the court, painted in foot-high maroon letters are four words meant to break down eight years worth of the previous mindset at Southern Illinois:
IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU.
On the Salukis' wall, the phrase is officially attributed to Rick Warren, as it is the first sentence of his best-selling book "The Purpose Driven Life." It's an ironic way to open up a book most describe as self-help. I've read the book, I like the book. The idea is hardly original to Warren, but he runs with it well. Of course, we could have a never-ending conversation on just who, or what "It" actually is about.
Still, Southern Illinois has now adopted this mantra, and the results are starting to show on the floor. It's not a total makeover, not quite yet. Flashes of the old way still showed when one of the guards would hold the ball a bit too long and fire an ill-advised three-pointer.
But there were moments showing the ideals of good Saluki basketball coming back. During the second half, Josh Swan made a super-hero style dive over the table on the far side of the court for a loose ball. The fans at SIU Arena, well over 5,000 for the first time in quite a while, simultaneously came to their feet and cheered louder and longer than they had in years. And they had every right to. This is the Southern Illinois they come to see, selfless play, hustle above and beyond for the sake of the team.
The renovation of SIU Arena included a nod to the history of the program, shown in a ribbon of photographs that run through the concourse. There's Walt "Clyde" Frazier, the NIT Champions, the 1977 NCAA Tournament run, the Rich Herrin days. Bruce Weber, Matt Painter, Jamaal Tatum, and yes, even Chris Lowery are all on there, although I think some SIU fans wouldn't mind if the Lowery photos somehow slowly fade away. There are photos from the time College GameDay actually came to Carbondale and put SIU even more on the national map. That visit, along with the win over Creighton, still ranks as one of the best days of Drew's life.
"SIU Arena was where special memories had come to life," Drew said. "The new arena doesn't have that yet, just pictures of the times that were."
That's why the circle of memories that encompasses SIU Arena is still incomplete. There are a few places on the concourse wall that are still white, waiting for the memories yet to come. Maybe a photo of a Swan dive over the press table, maybe a picture of Barry Hinson in his crouch on the sidelines, maybe a snapshot of that sign on the locker room wall, and then maybe even a photo of Saluki faces yet unknown lifting a Valley championship trophy will fill that space someday. Then SIU Arena will match its team again, full of history, yet becoming something better that what was before.
at SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 74, NEW ORLEANS 61
NEW ORLEANS 3-6 (0-0) -- C. Blake 4-11 4-5 13; L. Cook 9-11 4-4 22; R. Nelson 3-6 5-6 11; T. McPhearson 2-7 1-2 6; K. Hill 1-2 0-0 2; E. Denard 1-3 0-1 2; C. Dixon 1-2 0-0 2; M. Banchy 0-0 0-0 0; E. Ganapamo 1-2 0-0 3; I. Mack 0-0 0-0 0; M. County 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-44 14-18 61.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS 6-2 (0-0) -- A. Beane Jr. 7-12 1-3 17; D. Jackson 3-10 2-4 8; T. Lindsay 1-5 0-0 2; D. Daniels 7-11 6-11 20; J. Pendleton 4-6 6-8 14; J. Swan 0-4 1-2 1; J. Early 4-8 4-5 12; C. Long 0-0 0-0 0; D. Drinkard 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 26-57 20-33 74.
Three-point goals: UNO 3-10 (C. Blake 1-4; T. McPhearson 1-4; E. Ganapamo 1-2), SIU 2-11 (D. Jackson 0-3; T. Lindsay 0-3; J. Swan 0-1; A. Beane Jr. 2-4); Rebounds: UNO 27 (C. Dixon 5), SIU 29 (J. Early 7); Assists: UNO 9 (R. Nelson 6), SIU 10 (D. Jackson 2); Total Fouls -- UNO 27, SIU 16; Fouled Out: UNO-E. Denard; SIU-None.