Nothing screams "I'm a sophisticated person!" like appreciating an old building. We all love old buildings. When we walk through the doors of old buildings, we romanticize them, perch them on a heavenly pedestal and long nostalgically for the good 'ole days, back when things were pure and right. Back when the world was good, not evil. Back when people were decent.
As I approached the entrance to Municipal Auditorium, a friendly woman with a ticket scanner greeted me. As she scanned the piece of cardboard I bought for the unreasonable sum of $15, I smiled at her and thanked her. "Enjoy the show," she said. I thought I had come here for a basketball game, but
I was wondering whether I had accidentally stumbled into the Phantom of the Opera.
The theatre-like concourse of Municipal Auditorium looks nothing like the arenas and gyms I'm used to. I've seen fancy concourses so far this season, like at Mizzou Arena, the CenturyLink Center and Chaifetz Arena, where black-and-white pictures of old players and coaches from 1912 line the rafters to remind you that these beautiful, 800-gazillion-dollar buildings do in fact have some charm to them. I've seen tiny gymnasiums, too, like the one Southern Illinois-Edwardsville's Vadalabene Center, where the concourse is a 30-foot room with a drinking fountain and a few restrooms. The "team store" is a wooden table with a mound of t-shirts and sweatshirts on top of it.
The normal home gym
for UMKC, a tiny little place in the middle of campus named the Swinney Recreation Center, doesn't even have a team store. That's where the Kangaroos play all but three of their home games this season.
Thursday night just happened to be one of the games away from Swinney, at this old building called Municipal Auditorium that looked more suited for an opera than a sporting event. After resisting the urge to waste more of my hard-earned money on popcorn, a food I am not-so-secretly obsessed with, I began to explore. I saw a sign called the "Balcony," so instead of immediately walking toward center court, I decided to take this detour. I never found a balcony, but the path lead me to the upper deck of the auditorium. As I emerged from the concourse out toward the deck, I could hear the sounds of college
basketball. The warm-up shots clanking off the rim. The quiet simmering of the crowd as it begins to file in. The catchy music blaring from the poorly-installed and outdated sound system.
When I walked through the tunnel, I saw this:
And suddenly, just like that, the power of the old building hit me.
March 21, 1964. "The night the Wizard was born," ESPN.com's William Nack will write decades later. The Wizard was born in Kansas City, Mo., in Municipal Auditorium. The Wizard's name was John Wooden.
On March 21, 1964, Wooden won his first national championship at UCLA. It is the birth of a dynasty. "Last week in Kansas City, a town unequipped for too much excitement, 10,000 people at the Municipal Auditorium were permitted the treat of watching UCLA's two-minute explosion explode on consecutive nights," Sports Illustrated writes at the time. "Anybody unromantic enough to believe UCLA could not finish 30 games undefeated, with undersized, unimpressive-looking players and a coach, John Wooden, who does not smoke, drink or recruit very much, deserved to be kept awake by UCLA insurgents yelling, "We're No. 1," down Baltimore Street until morning."
John Wooden would win
nine more national championships during the next eleven seasons. By the time he died in June 2010, he had won so many titles, the individual victories almost seemed meaningless. Except for that first one. That first one was special because it was the start of something, and it all happened at Municipal Auditorium.
Damn old buildings. It's ridiculous how mushy they turn you. I felt like the kids in Hoosiers gawking at Hinkle Fieldhouse. I've seen arenas so much larger than this, and yet I couldn't help but stare at all the seats in the upper deck. Not a single person sat in these seats for this game between Missouri-Kansas City and South Dakota State, but I began to envision what this place would have looked like on March 21, 1964.
I snuck into a seat behind the South Dakota State bench by the time the game started, but even from that less epic view, I couldn't help but drift back in time. Wooden wasn't the only historical figure to roam this stupid old building. Municipal Auditorium has held nine Final Fours, starting in 1940, when Branch McCracken's Indiana team beat Phog Allen and Kansas. Bob Knight played here as a young lad in 1961, when his Ohio State squad lost the national title game to Cincinnati.
On Thursday night, 4-10 UMKC was playing here. There were 1,000 people in the building. Maybe. The school's band must have been on winter break, so the PA system played both the national anthem and the fight song. Every so often, a local high school jazz band played some tunes for us. This was the same Municipal Auditorium it'd always been. The same old building that opened in 1935, the same old building that hosted John Wooden and Bob Knight, two of the best coaches the sport has ever seen. On this particular evening, sparse crowd and all, it seemed almost incomprehensible that this place was ever so important to college basketball.
Municipal Auditorium is the past, not the present. The history, the nostalgia, the chills that go up and down your spine when you walk in the doors, that's because of the past, right?
Except for one player on the court on Thursday night. Except for this one, inconspicuous basketball player on South Dakota State's team, everything memorable about Municipal Auditorium happened years and years and years ago.
Municipal Auditorium is a stupid old building. Except for when Nate Wolters is there.
When Nate Wolters is playing within a 150-mile radius of your home, you drop everything and go
. He was playing 126 miles from me on Thursday night, so by rule, I was bound to drive to Kansas City. Wolters is a 6'4'' senior from St. Cloud, Minnesota, the same charming city a fictional character from the television show "How I Met Your Mother" hails from. He is my age.
He makes me feel like a bum. During the past three seasons, he has blossomed as one of college basketball's most versatile point guards. By Mid-Majority standards, he is most certainly a legend, especially after helping the Jackrabbits to a Summit League tournament title and an NCAA Tournament appearance last March. He is a prolific scorer who scores about 20 points per game, a prolific passer who dishes about six assists per game, an above-average rebounder from the backcourt and, without a doubt, the best player in the Summit League.NBA
scouts like him. They don't love him, and they won't tell their teams to pick him in the first round, but they like him. The very fact that any NBA scout is paying any sort of attention to a player from South Dakota State would have seemed outrageous as recently as a decade ago. In 2005, coach Scott Nagy's program made the switch to Division I from Division II. It took eight long and excruciating seasons, but he finally led the Jackrabbits to the tourney a year ago and has the added bonus of an NBA prospect.
I looked for Wolters the second the Jackrabbits ran out on the floor at Municipal. There he was. Number three. Looking no different than any other player on the court. When he moved, my eyes moved. Nobody else in the arena would admit it, but everybody else was doing the same thing. There was a legend among us, and all of us wanted to see the show.
When I plopped down illegally behind the South Dakota State bench before tip-off, I scanned the fans decked in Jackrabbits gear around me. I wanted to see if his family was here. One older gentleman resembled him a little bit, but you can never be sure about these things. I was impressed that about 15 fans, mostly family probably, had traveled all the way to Kansas City on a weeknight to see South Dakota State, but this could be a special team with a special player. The Jackrabbits haven't been perfect this year, but they won at 17th-ranked New Mexico a few weeks ago and are still the favorites to win the Summit.
On the second possession of the game, Wolters fires a pass to one of his forwards. It is an improbable pass through several UMKC defenders, and yet it falls right into the hands of his teammate. The dude was so surprised the ball made it to him that he missed a point-blank layup.
Wolters' first points come on floater in the lane. Looked pretty, kid. He'll add another layup in transition a few minutes later. Not bad.
Then, the show begins. On every possession, one of Wolters' teammates sets a high screen for him and lets him go to work. He dribbles the ball like it's a toy, like it's something he can just fool around with. He always finds the open man, who finds the other open man, who eventually finds a three-point shooter. This team can really pass. And it can shoot, too. It started with a few treys by a floppy-haired guy named Jordan Dykstra. He seemed to have a nice touch.
Dykstra made a third. Then a fourth. Then, Chad White started to heat up. He made four in a row. Wolters hit a few. By the end of the first half, South Dakota State has made 10 three-pointers and leads by 29 points. I immediately logged onto my smart phone to Google the record for three-pointers by a team in a regular season contest.
It seemed in jeopardy at this point. After the break, though, South Dakota State lets up. It hits only two from beyond the arc, and it wins by 16. Just 16.
Nate Wolters finishes with just 23 points, just seven assists, just four steals and just six rebounds. Just. He's a terrific player, everything I thought he would be and more. I liked his demeanor, I liked his leadership, and I liked the fact he seemed so comfortable and so confident at the point guard position. I think the NBA scouts liked him the same way I did, wherever they were sitting in this old building.
As the small crowd began to leave Municipal Auditorium, I stayed seated. Nothing legendary had happened on this night. We did not crown a national champion, nor did we see John Wooden.
The nostalgia starts to creep in. I start to long for the old days, before I was even born, because as they say, the world was so simple then. People were good. Basketball was good. Life was fair. There were no problems.
Then, just as I'm about to drift back into 1964, I catch myself. I wake up. I start to realize something.
We love old buildings because we think we can walk into them and escape the present. I can use Municipal Auditorium as a time machine to help me rid the world of corruption, crime, terrorism, racism, cheating in college athletics, poverty and all the other horrible, terrible things that make this current world so unlivable.
But it's a mirage. That year the Wizard was born, 1964? That's the year the world was so horrible we needed the Civil Rights Act to stop people from discriminating based on race, religion and gender. That's 13 years after a point-shaving scandal rocked college basketball. The world had bad people back then, bad people who were racists, cheaters and everything in between. Those bad people exist now, too. Longing for 1964 doesn't do anybody any good.
I don't know when it will happen, but at some point, probably at the encouragement of some sort of multi-million dollar corporate scheme, construction crews will implode Municipal Auditorium. They'll take some of the dry wood and metal and sell it to the public, and they'll talk about how John Wooden won his first national championship inside this old building on March 21, 1964. But the secret about old buildings is that nobody cares about them anymore. People are more than willing to knock them down, because people only care about what old buildings used to be, not what they are now.
I had never been to Municipal Auditorium before Thursday night. Somebody else created my memories of John Wooden and Bob Knight in that building. Those memories exist in photographs.
I created my own memory of Nate Wolters on Thursday night. It is a pleasant memory of the first time I watched a guy with NBA potential live up to each and every expectation I had for him. I created my own memory of watching South Dakota State light up UMKC for 10 three-pointers in one half, forcing me to wonder momentarily whether I might see history on this particular night.
The way I remember Municipal Auditorium, it's a quiet, mostly empty building with dim lighting. It is peaceful, and the seats offer enough room for me to stretch out my legs.
No national championships. No sellout crowds. Just Nate Wolters.
I'm already nostalgic.