The Boston Globe - game recap
MHERST -- It was 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Cold as hell. 1978. Piles of snow had caked to ice on the grounds of the University of Massachusetts.
The kid, a freshman, sat bundled in a lounge chair outside Curry Hicks Cage. A cooler of Falstaff ($4.99 a case) was at arm's length, a copy of "For Whom The Bell Tolls" on top.
The kid's professor was walking by, on the way to class, when he spied his student.
"I suppose," the professor began, "this means you're not coming to class."
"I suppose," the kid replied, "this means you're not coming to the game."
Yeah, you had to line up early for games at The Cage. The last line forms tomorrow night.
The Cage, like Wrigley Field, had ivy on the walls. Like Fenway, it had bathrooms that barely qualified as indoor plumbing. It had dead spots on the floor, like Boston Garden.
And it had basketball. Oh, how it had basketball. For the most part, it had small-time, New England basketball, where tall, gangly centers who hadn't caught up to their height and small, slow guards provided a brief respite from frosty nights.
But it was touched by greatness, too. Dr. J learned how to fly in The Cage. And it earned a reputation as one of the most difficult places for teams to visit.
Besides the dead spots, which always seemed to produce bounces that went UMass' way, The Cage had fans. Nutty fans. Loud fans. Completely wacky, mostly student, fans.
In 1985, a renovated Cage opened. It remained small, but it was spiffed up so that it became but a shadow of its former dumpy self. Once almost the unchallenged domain of students, The Cage started attracting a cross-section of the region.
Over the last few years, with one of the best young coaches in the country, John Calipari, UMass has become a national program. The team advanced to the Sweet Sixteen last season. Last Sunday, at the Centrum in Worcester, halfway between its campus and where most of its alumni live, UMass drew more than 12,000 people, its biggest regular-season crowd ever.
And so UMass has outgrown The Cage. After tomorrow's game against Southwestern Louisiana, UMass will move down the hill to a shiny new arena that will seat 9,493. It will have more than double The Cage's capacity. It will have none of its character or history. It won't have a dirt floor. It won't have squirrels.
And this they call progress.
If you must know, there was a Curry Hicks. He was the first UMass athletic director. In the 1920s, after the state promised matching funds for the approximately $290,000 needed to build a gymnasium, Hicks put the arm on every Yankee millionaire he could find. His sense of timing was exquisite; he got the pledges lined up just before the stock market crashed. They broke ground in June 1930.
If Hicks was a visionary and crackerjack fund-raiser, he was not exactly humble. He made no objection to the building being named after him. In 1931, at the height of the Depression, the Curry S. Hicks Physical Education Building was dedicated.
The place got its nickname from cage-like enclosures that surrounded the court and separated it from the track. The building's glass roof was designed to illuminate indoor baseball practice. The Cage's idiosyncracies can be traced to it being designed primarily with the national pastime in mind. Basketball was, at best, a minor sport when The Cage was built. But basketball will be what The Cage is most remembered for.
On Jan. 19, 1932, UMass won its first game at The Cage, beating crosstown rival Amherst, 17-12, in what was, to say the least, a defensive struggle. A one-hander by Lou Bush clinched the game. At the time, three decades before the birth of Michael Jordan, Bush's shot was considered hot-dogging.
"The coach had said, 'No one-handed shots,' but I grew up playing on a slippery floor in Turners Fall and all we could do was one-handed shots," says Bush, now 81, the only member of that first Cage team still living.
Bush, who now splits his time between Florida and Greenfield, won't be there tomorrow night, but the winning and hot-dogging he introduced never left The Cage.
UMass has won 355, or nearly two-thirds, of its games at The Cage, a home- court advantage made even more impressive when the years between 1979 and 1983 are omitted. In those five seasons, UMass suffered almost a quarter of its 210 losses at The Cage in 61 years.
The Cage was dark for two seasons. Because of World War II, UMass didn't play in 1944 or 1945. Perhaps because so many of the young men who in peacetime would have gone to UMass never came back from war, the basketball team didn't have a .500 record for nine years. Former Massachusetts House Speaker David M. Bartley was a guard on those teams of the mid-'50s that turned it around, "the last white midget on scholarship," as he puts it.
"I don't think we lost more than two or three times at The Cage during my years," says Bartley, now president of Holyoke Community College. "UMass was a Division 2 program those days. We played teams like Amherst, Williams, Harvard."
The games were hard-fought, but they were just games. Afterward, there were receptions on the hardwood floor. No one was told to take off his shoes. Bartley remembers the team was held in especially high esteem because its grade-point average was higher than the school's median.
"I remember," he says, "the roar of the crowd, the godawful locker rooms and that UMass was the only serious basketball program in the country that had a game called because of rain."
That damn roof.
Walter Novak spent 26 years as ticket manager and remembers the roof, and the squirrels that interrupted games by scampering across, and sometimes parking themselves, on the court.
"One time, during the Julius years, these two kids who couldn't get into The Cage climbed up and were watching the game through the glass roof. It was like they wouldn't be denied," Novak says. "We all wondered what to do. Somebody suggested climbing up there and getting them down. There were no takers. They just let them stay there."
Health problems forced him to retire two years ago, but you could say that The Cage is part of Walt Novak. Literally.
"When I blow my nose," Novak says, "dirt from the Curry Hicks Cage still comes out."
The dirt was a remnant of The Cage being designed for inside baseball practice. Through the 1970s, Dick Bergquist's baseball teams held spring training inside The Cage. The lighting thoroughly prepared them -- Jeff Reardon and Mike Flanagan excluded -- for long years in minor league ballparks.
The J years were the wildest. Kids started lining up early in the afternoon. In the dead of winter, the dining commons delivered "survival lunches" to the hearty souls who braved the elements.
Erving's coach, Jack Leaman, is understandably partial to The Cage. Between 1966 and 1979, Leaman compiled a 99-29 record there, a .773 winning percentage.
Leaman's favorite Cage story is the one about when UMass played Boston College in 1975 for the unofficial New England championship. There was snow on the glass roof, and when some 5,000 people jammed in for the biggest game in decades, the body heat rose to the rafters and melted the snow.
"The condensation caused a cloud to form and it literally rained on the floor," says Leaman.
The mysticism worked. UMass won.
Howie Davis was a student at UMass in the 1960s and took his future wife, Rae, on their first date to . . . The Cage.
"OK, so I'm not a romantic," says Davis. It was an appropriate beginning to the relationship, however. Davis returned to his alma mater as sports information director in 1980, and his wife and their kids became Cage fixtures.
Davis is too hard on himself, because there was something romantic about The Cage. At its peak, The Cage was a temple to the essence of college basketball, and it was the physical embodiment of UMass. Small, dirty, gritty, in-yo'-face attitude. And never was there more attitude on the floor than when Alex Eldridge played the point.
"Yo," Eldridge said in 1978, peeling his socks off after UMass had defeated Villanova in The Cage. "You know what I like about this here place? We kick some ass."
He slapped hands with Derick Claiborne. Parliament funk was blasting from a boom box nearby. At no time did UMass have a backcourt that epitomized The Cage as when Eldridge and Claiborne played guard in the mid-1970s.
Claiborne was the quiet guy, Dennis Johnson-like, strong on fundamentals. He played The Cage like Yaz played The Wall. When crowds raised the decibels to deafening levels as the visitors came upcourt, Claiborne would wait for the ballhandler to become disconcerted. The inability to hear the ball strike the floor on the dribble would lead the ballhandler's eyes invariably, unconsciously, to glance reassuringly at his hand. It was then that Claiborne struck, like a scorpion, moving in for the steal. The crowd got only louder as he loped in for an unmolested layup.
Eldridge was the consummate showman. He played the crowd like a Stradivarius, using his arms to literally orchestrate a rise and fall of the music that was The Cage din. The Cage was never louder than when Eldridge, all bad-ass attitude, would stop in open court and stuff the ball up under his shirt as he signaled the half-court offense. In hindsight, it was probably a violation, but no ref dared call it.
If Eldridge personified The Cage attitude in life, his sudden, tragic death two years after he graduated seemed to represent what had gone wrong with UMass basketball.
For a non-power in college basketball, with a home court that was, to put it kindly, a dump, UMass held the ultimate recruiting trump card in the 1970s: Dr. J went there.
Julius Erving, in fact, spent only two seasons on the varsity. In that short period, however, he put UMass on the map, especially with black kids like Eldridge from New York City who were considering places to play outside the Top 20.
UMass quickly squandered that legacy, and nowhere was that more apparent than with how Alex Eldridge was treated after he died of a chronic heart problem in 1980. A group of friends and former players tried to organize a memorial program, but were greeted coldly by the stuffed-shirt administration of the time. The administration reluctantly agreed to give Alex a night.
But it was an awkward night at The Cage. Many people, the black kids especially, remembered a sweet, gutty guy who wore his heart on his sleeve and would give you the shirt off his back. Others remembered a brash, difficult young man who did not go softly into the night.
Eldridge was probably all of that, yet he represented something that UMass needed, not just on the court, but off. The City. Alex was The City. And the bow ties dissed The City when they dissed Alex.
The word got back. The brothers heard it. Ain't no place for a brother. They dissed Alex. The word got back.
"I heard all that stuff," one black player who was a member of the early 1980s teams says. "It didn't stop me from coming to UMass, but it stopped some others."
UMass struggled through the early '80s. The Minutemen posted the worst records in the school's history. Kids would stand at one end of The Cage, hissing at a College of the Ozarks transfer, an awkward kid named Jim Mosier, who had come to symbolize just how low UMass had sunk. Cage fans insulting UMass players. It was unheard of.
What had happened? To paraphrase Yeats, romantic UMass was dead and gone, it was in the grave with Alex Eldridge.
Steve Buckley, a senior editor at Boston magazine, was a student at UMass in the 1970s. When in 1983 he returned to campus for the first time since graduating, he impulsively decided to go to that night's game.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh, I'll never get in,' " he says.
Not only did Buckley get in, he had the whole place to himself. There were just a few hundred people in the stands.
"It was sort of numbing," he says. "It was like watching the Washington Senators two weeks before they left town. It was just this big empty building, and the kids that were there didn't get it. They didn't know what they were missing."
Full, The Cage had more character than any gym in New England. Empty, it looked sad and tired.
A young coach, so hyper he resembled a Cage fan in a suit, turned things around. His name is John Calipari.
It is ironic that Calipari came to UMass from Pittsburgh, and that two players who best exemplified the change at UMass came along with him. A decade ago, when UMass was at its lowest, one of the players of dubious character who had been recruited from Pittsburgh ran up outrageous long-distance bills calling his girlfriend back home on the basketball office's phone.
Calipari's Pittsburgh kids, however, were Jim McCoy and Will Herndon. McCoy could score. He lit it up, becoming the school's all-time scoring leader. Herndon, jumping center at 6 feet 3 inches, had the best vertical leap in the country. He jammed to the mutha.
They started slowly. In 1989, they finished 10-18. The next year, Calipari delivered the first team better than .500 (17-14) since 1978 -- the year Alex Eldridge last played for UMass.
Besides the Pittsburgh kids, Calipari brought in hidden gems like Anton Brown, Tony Barbee and Harper Williams, none of whom was highly recruited nationally.
The students returned to The Cage in droves. Calipari shamelessly egged them on, turning to them in the middle of a game, compelling them to scream. He told them to paint their faces, their bodies. This was, after all, college basketball.
To get his team and the university national exposure, Calipari begged ESPN to televise a game from The Cage. When the TV executives replied they could only do a midnight game, Calipari told them to wheel the cameras in.
"I knew if I could get them in the building, they'd see the college atmosphere. The Cage is what it's all about," he says.
ESPN came to The Cage and was born again. As was the UMass program. At the end of 1991, UMass had won 20 games for the first time in 14 years and anything seemed possible. Calipari and the boys then produced a season in which only they and Duke won 30 games, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. It took Kentucky, a team coached by a guy named Rick Pitino who learned how to win as a player in a dump called The Cage, to end a Cinderella season.
And now The Cage is Cinderella. The last game is tomorrow, at 1 minute to midnight, after which The Cage turns into a pumpkin.
The "new" Cage is weird. The lighting is far too good. There are people hawking stuff -- programs, shirts, souvenirs. To the purist, they resemble moneychangers in the temple.
There is even a mascot now. A Minuteman. Or at least a Minuteman who looks like a character in the Miss Peach cartoon strip. His head is gigantic. The Minuteman would not have lasted five minutes in the old Cage. He would have been tackled and pummeled, chopped up like so much confetti, the more to shower upon those dreaded, wicked, white-legged Catamounts from UVM.
The mascot, however, is safe these days. He will move down the hill, to the new facility named after William D. Mullins, a deceased state representative from Ludlow. Mullins had always believed that one way his beloved UMass could get a better shake out of the skinflints on Beacon Hill was to have a first- class athletic facility. Build it, Mullins said, and they will come.
No, the new place won't ever be The Cage. But then, The Cage could never lure the pols out from Boston. There was nothing there worth stealing.
The Cage has changed considerably, but some things never change. A few hecklers still swear like sailors, suggesting that opposing players and refs who make calls against UMass do things that are anatomically impossible.
Bob Price, the Methodist minister who has served as official scorer for the last six years and sits directly in front of the foul-mouthed hecklers, forgives them their trespasses.
At the next-to-last Cage game, after UMass had missed 11 of its first 14 free throws before beating Temple with a buzzer-beater, Price admits he said something un-Christian. Under his breath, of course. Something about the place, Price explained, that makes people emotional.
Jack Leaman expects to be emotional tomorrow night. He's all in favor of the new arena. But his heart is torn.
"I don't think you should stand in the way of progress," says Leaman. ''But when you lose places like Comiskey Park, places like The Cage, you lose tradition. You lose history. And a big part of me, and a lot of other people, will be gone after that last game."
MHERST -- They used to call it Notre Dame East. The first conversations about it were in 1963, when then-University of Massachusetts athletic director Warren McGuirk ventured to South Bend, Ind., and was so impressed with the school's basketball/hockey facility that he sought to have a similar structure built on the UMass campus.
McGuirk commissioned a scale model of the would-be facility and kept it in his office. He showed the model to basketball coach Johnny Orr, who was elated. Of course, you'd be elated, too, if your home facility had no locker room at the time, forcing your team to dress in a classroom.
McGuirk worked hard to make Notre Dame East a reality, but the school's financial woes sidetracked him before any cement could be poured -- and what began as a promising vision soon became a running gag.
"After I left the school, they hired Jack Leaman to coach, and every three months or so, I would call him and say, 'They build the arena yet?' " recalled Orr yesterday. "He would laugh so hard. Then they hired another guy Ray Wilson, and I asked him if they showed him the plans, and he said, 'Yeah, they're going to build a new facility,' and I'd say, 'Expletive.'
"When they hired current coach John Calipari, I called him and asked had he seen the model, and he told me that they were going to build it, and I told him, 'Don't be so sure.' "
Now, some three decades later, UMass has stopped gagging. The school will unveil its $51 million, state-of-the art William D. Mullins Memorial Center to the public Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The facility, replacing Curry Hicks Cage, will officially become the home of the Minutemen basketball team next Thursday night, when UMass hosts West Virginia.
The center consists of an arena, an Olympic-size hockey facility and a plaza that links the two. It is expected to seat 9,493 for basketball, 8,389 for hockey (also Olympic-size), 10,413 for center stage concerts, 9,121 for gymnastics and 10,177 for commencement. The arena also can be converted into a full fine arts theater with a 30-foot by 60-foot stage.
The ice rink will be used for year-round skating and practice. The facility also has seven racquetball courts. And unlike most other facilities in the state, there's plenty of parking.
"In terms of what we have to work with in these two buildings and how we have to operate them, there isn't any other building, professional or college, that is more technologically advanced than this one," said Lee A. Esckilsen, executive director of Ogden Entertainment Services, which has been contracted to manage Mullins Center.
"The thing is that we don't have the intimacy of The Cage, the feeling of people on top of each other," said Calipari. "But now we have more people who can come out and see the game, and it gives us an advantage in recruiting, because it's the nicest building in the East.
"People say that the arena in Phoenix is the nicest building in the country. But when it comes to buildings in the East, like the Spectrum and Boston Garden, this building will be second to none."
The men's and women's basketball offices overlook the main arena. Each player's basketball locker has dressing room-type mirrors. There is also a banquet room that overlooks the main arena.
"We have one of the most technologically advanced heating-cooling systems in any arena," said Esckilsen, whose company also manages The Great Western Forum in Inglewood, Calif., the Target Center in Minneapolis and several university arenas, including Hilton Coliseum at Iowa State, where Orr is now coach.
"We can not only control the temperature, we can control the humidity and we can control the air flow, all done by computers," he added. "Our engineers can make it such that half the building can be cold, half can be warm, so the humidity on one side of the building can be 80 percent and on the other side could be 60 percent.
"Obviously, you're going to get a lot of air travel in a place like this, but unlike in Boston Garden, where they worry about fog coming up from the ice, our computers will be such that we will never have to worry about fog coming up from the rink. When ice is in here, people will be able to sit up in the stands in their bathing suits if they want to, as if they were in Florida."
The lighting systems are horizontal and vertical, allowing television cameras to capture a close view, "as opposed to some of the older arenas where they just have vertical lights and it's difficult to see faces and numbers," said Esckilsen. All the lighting is on a computer, giving engineers the capability to adjust the lighting configuration according to the event with a punch of a button.
Then there's the sound system. It "basically hears what's going on in here," said Esckilsen. "So if we set the sound level where it's audible at the beginning of the game, and if the game goes into overtime and the crowd level goes way up, the computer will automatically adjust the announcer's voice level so the announcer's voice level goes up with the audience's level."
Orr, who also coached at Michigan, said college basketball has reached a point where fancy buildings are a must. "You've gotta have them, particularly if you're way out in Amherst," he said. "I think they're nice places to show recruits . . . but I really don't think they help as much for recruiting, because most every major program has one. They're not a novelty anymore."
The building is named for the late State Rep. William Mullins of Ludlow, then vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. In 1986 -- one year before his death -- he said the state university lacked an indoor facility of sufficient size for major sports and other events. In 1986, House Speaker George Keverian and Senate President William Bulger jointly sponsored a bill to appropriate state funds, which in conjunction with a student fee would provide the resources to build the arena. Five years later, the late McGuirk's vision came to pass as groundbreaking for the building began.
Crews are expected to begin working 24 hours a day to make certain the building is operational for Sunday's grand opening and next Thursday night's game against West Virginia. The facility is expected to be complete in the spring.
"All the major areas for liability and responsibility will be done," said Esckilsen. "For someone coming to see the game, they'll think it's done, but to someone who works here, you'll see odds and ends that are not quite finished."
MHERST -- If matchboxes could talk, Curry Hicks Cage would have yelled, ''Why me?" last night.
Just when University of Massachusetts men's basketball has reached limelight status, in part because of noisy, rowdy fans at its tiny arena, the school has decided it needs more space. So last night the 60-year-old Cage joined the long list of state employees who have reluctantly accepted early retirement.
Folks in these parts knew very little about Southwestern Louisiana prior to the game. The Ragin' Cajuns (11-8) showed they were a competitive, scrappy bunch, but not scrappy enough. The game was close throughout the first half, but the Minutemen (12-4) then took charge, jumping out to a 15-point lead with 9:36 left on the way to an 84-74 win.
With three seconds left, UMass coach John Calipari called timeout and both teams headed for the locker room. Calipari warned the fans not to vandalize The Cage. "We still have to practice here. The Cage will always be here," he said. "You're the greatest fans in the world. Don't mess the building up."
Just prior to fan admittance, security and police were warned of rumors that some persons had planned to enter with crowbars, screwdrivers and other tools, planning to take a piece of The Cage with them for souvenirs. There were even security personnel placed in bathrooms. One shirtless student was thrown out about 90 minutes before the game after refusing to stay off the court. At halftime, captains of all UMass teams that played in either the NCAA or National Invitation Tournament were recognized.
Doors opened at 10:04. UMass students -- many still shivering from standing out in the cold -- came storming in, running to their seats, stomping, chanting and crowding in front of the television cameras. At 10:30, Calipari walked across the gym floor and the half-full gym erupted in ovation.
The crowd included students who braved cold temperatures Wednesday night and early Thursday morning to get a ticket.
Thorr Bjorn, UMass director of game operations and ticket manager, said students began lining up for tickets Wednesday night, hoping to beat the rush when the office opened at 7 a.m. Thursday. By 2 a.m. Thursday, the group had swelled to about 1,500 (not necessarily a large number by Cage standards).
"I got a call from police at about 2 in the morning; it seems that four kids who had too much to drink began rushing the line from the back, and it was about to turn into a melee," said Bjorn. "So I told the police to tell the kids that we were coming to raffle some tickets. At first, they didn't believe it, but we came and started handing out raffle tickets, and then calling out numbers. Then some started leaving. Eventually, about 400 stayed."
The students were then allowed to sleep inside The Cage, just in front of the ticket office, until the window opened. By 7 a.m., the group was back up to about 1,500.
"We're hoping that they were the same ones who went home earlier that morning to get some sleep," said Bjorn.
Senior Mike Poster of Brooklyn, N.Y., Speaker of the Student Senate, was the first ticket-holder in the gym last night.
"I've been in line since 8 a.m., I don't have classes on Friday," said Poster. "It's going to be tough leaving this place. The Mullins arena is a bigger place, but there's an intimacy to this building. It's like a musician who plays in front of clubs and then starts playing in auditoriums. You miss the smaller crowds."
T-shirts went fast, the last few sold auction style to the highest bidder.
The Minutemen won their last 14 at The Cage. The building bowed out by hosting its 26th consecutive sellout for a Division 1 match.
MHERST -- John Calipari could hardly take his eyes off the stat sheet early yesterday morning. The reporters wanted the University of Massachusetts coach to deliver some memorable parting words about the last men's basketball game at Curry Hicks Cage. All Coach Cal could do was read from the paper in his hand.
"Hey, what about Harper Williams tonight?" said Calipari. "He's a warrior -- 23 points. He sat out nine games with a broken hand, and he's come back with more passion than he had prior to the injury."
Sure, coach. But how about the last game at The Cage?
"We'll miss it. Hey, Derek Kellogg, he had a great game for us, didn't he? Look at this -- 6 assists and not a single turnover."
Yeah, not a single turnover. Now can we turn this into a Cage discussion?
"Great game, the fans were great tonight. Hey, Tony Barbee -- just 8 points, but 5 assists. He took just four shots. He played unselfishly for us."
Coach Cal didn't purposely avoid Cage conversation. He was simply aware that the event could easily have been one of the most memorable losses in Cage history. As Southwestern Louisiana staged layup drills prior to the game, which began at midnight Friday, the partisan crowd chanted, "Goodbye," and ''It's all over." But when the game began, it became apparent that it would be a while before the fans chanted that again.
When most schools celebrate the opening or closing of an arena, they usually host a creampuff team to assure themselves of a crowd-pleasing victory. But the Ragin' Cajuns showed they were no St. Leo, silencing the boisterous gathering with clutch shots throughout the first half.
But the Minutemen, up by only 4 at halftime, took charge in the second half, taking a 15-point lead with 9:36 left and holding on for an 84-74 win.
UMass (12-4) finished its tenure in The Cage having won 14 consecutive contests there.
Calipari told his players not to concern themselves with Cage hoopla.
"We couldn't worry about that," he said. "You're talking about a wide- open team in Southwestern Louisiana. If you don't go into that game ready to play, you're going to get beat."
"They're a pretty good club; they came out ready to play," said UMass forward/center Lou Roe (15 points, 11 rebounds). "They figured they had nothing to lose."
"At halftime, we came in and said that the only way we're going to win this game is with defense," said Williams. "That has always been the key to our team, good defense."
It was the key to a 10-0 run that turned a 3-point lead into a 64-51 advantage. During the spurt, the Cajuns failed to score on eight consecutive possessions, committing a turnover or foul on the first five.
"This is a great win for us, against a quality team," said Calipari, who finally answered a few questions about The Cage and the new Mullins Arena, which UMass is set to christen Thursday against West Virginia.
"We've enjoyed it, but you know, I'm really not the person to talk about it," he said. "This night meant most to former UMass coach Jack Leaman. He built the program in this building. The Cage has been great, and we'll miss it, but we're now ready to move on to a bigger arena."