don't know how to say this in an eloquent or lyrical way: I like gyms. I consider myself a connoisseur. And this one is just a bit too big.
The University of Massachusetts at Amherst used to play at a small but famous place called the Cage, but now, since basketball has gone big time, they have built the Mullins Center. It's impressive from the outside, architecturally pleasing. But at 10,000 seats, it fails the cozy test. And I can never really love a place with this many corporate logos attached to it. Is this a college or a trade show? There are nice touches: They've been selective with the retired jerseys, for example. Only two U-Mass basketball alumni are so celebrated: Lou Roe and that unbelievably talented magician with the ball, Julius Erving.
And then all my misgivings go away when the echoing voice of the announcer finally starts things off. "At starting forward, wearing number 40, a 6-foot-11 inch junior from Middletown, New York. . ."
Here we go again.
I do this a lot. Several times a winter, I find myself exploring distant gyms and campuses up and down the East Coast. During basketball season, when the George Washington University Colonials (I'm going to start a campaign to change that name) are away, so am I. I'm a one-man traveling squad, using college basketball as an excuse to take overnight junkets that have as much to do with the rituals of the trip as with the game.
Not that I don't love the game. Basketball has been beloved to me since I scored 17 points against St. Michael's for the University of Chicago Laboratory High School Maroons. But on these trips, I get as much pleasure out of finding good bookstores, always a perk of college towns. I walk the campuses and do a little lightweight research on famous alumni. I buttonhole desk clerks and professors to find good local restaurants. I search for the perfect martini.
And I've been to some great gyms. Cameron Indoor Stadium, at Duke, is the country club of gyms. But my favorite is the Palestra in Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania plays. It is the Valhalla of basketball palaces. It's old, but the seats are close to the floor. When it gets loud, the place shakes. I hope they never tear it down. Next year I'm planning my first trip to Olean, N.Y., home of the Bonnies from St. Bonaventure. Olean is not near anywhere. My kind of trip. But GW wasn't playing them away this year.
I go four or five times a season, often to Philly to see GW play St. Joseph's, La Salle or Temple. I've been as far afield as Seattle, but usually I go where trains or a car can take me in a half-day. In the Great Blizzard of '96, I was practically the only car on the Pennsylvania Turnpike returning from the GW-Duquesne game. I have a friend who says that when it comes to basketball, I'm a devotee of the degree-of-difficulty school of travel.
This one was easy. Amherst is a good seven hours by car, so I planned to go a day before the game and stay two nights. I began as always, canvassing my friends, looking for graduates of these schools to give me some inside tips. One named some restaurants. Another painted me precise directions.
There was snow on the ground -- serious snow, New England snow -- when I checked into the Holiday Inn Express in Amherst. I asked for the best Italian restaurant in town and the consensus of the small crowd that gathered around the front desk was unanimous: Pinocchio's.
Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't. This time it worked. When I walked in and glanced at the TV above the bar, the guy in charge looked at me and asked, "College or pro?" I almost always prefer college, but Jordan and the Wizards were playing. How could I pass that up? I ate at the bar and talked basketball and had a fine veal marsala with a memorable Belvedere martini and four oversize olives. Amherst was delivering.
After dinner, I took a quick stroll around town (Est. 1759) and found the Atticus Book Store, a classic college town bookstore with a lefty patina. There was a poster of Woody Guthrie singing "This Land Is Your Land" and a whole shelf devoted to Emily Dickinson. Amherst was her home town.
Across the street I came upon the magnificent town hall, the defining structure of central Amherst. It was built in 1889 and remains formidable.
I was now quite cold. It was delightful to put on my seldom-worn leather gloves -- a Hanukah gift from a great and generous friend. Sometimes it's nice to travel to the northern cold just to be able to dress for it. But it was still cold, so I headed back to the Holiday Inn. Maybe there was a game on ESPN. Or ESPN2.
I started game day on a more extensive and disciplined tour of the town and the campus. Make that campuses, for this is a multicollege town. I climbed to the hilltop campus of Amherst College, past the statue of alumnus preacher Henry Ward Beecher (Class of 1834) at the entrance to the college. I went first to Johnson Chapel, a traditional white New England structure built in 1827. The English Department is housed there. On the third floor is the chapel, where the walls of the sanctuary and balcony are lined with oil paintings of Amherst notables, including that model of New England rectitude, Calvin Coolidge. Amherst's only president of the United States has no label attached to his portrait. You just are supposed to know it's him.
I usually drop by the alumni office on these campus walk-arounds, where they are always willing to hand over a list of favorite sons. This one was titled "Accomplished Alumni," and it included John J. McCloy, the embodiment of the American WASP establishment; Melville Dewey (Class of 1874), of Dewey Decimal fame; and Charles R. Drew (Class of 1926), founder of the first Red Cross blood bank and father of former D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis. Burgess Meredith went to school here, too. And so did Dr. Drew (Class of 1980), of MTV's "Loveline."
The Amherst gym looked like a ski lodge with a simple, old-fashioned scoreboard. I liked it. But a bigger gym beckoned. It was closing in on game time so I headed out to UMass. There is only one word for that campus: sprawling. It has the big state school look of high-rise dorms housing the students and institutional buildings housing the academic disciplines.
I asked for directions for the alumni headquarters, but they were impossibly complicated. So I phoned the office to learn about such UMass alums as Jack Welch (1957), former CEO of General Electric and now best-selling author and corporate guru; Richard Gere (1971), actor; and Natalie Cole (1972), singer.
I did manage to find the enormous Mullins Center. I discovered it by 5:30 p.m. for a 7 o'clock tip-off. I'm always early for basketball games. I buy a program and spend the time watching the shoot-around, gauging the opposing players, criticizing both coaches before the game even starts, and walking around the gym assessing the crowd. It's a solitary pleasure.
By the way, GW lost.
Next year, Olean, N.Y.
Mark Plotkin is local-politics commentator for WAMU radio.