Bring back the Cage
By Rob Greenfield, The Daily Collegian Columnist, 11/17/2005

From a distance, the Curry Hicks Cage doesn't seem special. The black brick pyramid top is the only distinguishable feature in its appearance.

It is tucked in between Garber Field and Herter Hall - a cozy location in the middle of campus. The front entrance is cluttered with construction; the silver, chain-linked fences (that we've all become accustomed to seeing) crowd the narrow walkways in between buildings. There are only 10 parking spaces for the Cage, and those are blocked right now by the construction in between Tobin Hall and Bartlett Hall. It is utterly inaccessible. But UMass basketball should still bring it back.

The mundane Mullins Center is a polished facility, oozing convenience and providing accessible parking for visitors and comfortable locker rooms for the players. But there is something missing.

Rarely does the Mullins Center sell out these days. Rarely is there the deafening noise that gives big college basketball programs a significant home court advantage. And the lofty ceilings, spacious hallways and the separated location leave the Mullins Center feeling empty and foreign.

Playing in the Cage would be a welcomed change of pace for Travis Ford, who is trying so desperately to get an electric atmosphere back on the UMass campus.

The nuances of the Cage are what make it such a special basketball venue - and it has plenty of quirks that make it unique.

In the silence of the Cage after the women's basketball practice, the fluorescent lights - which are hung from long, thin wires that stretch all the way to the ceiling - buzz, and the crackling of the heat ducts pierces through the gymnasium.

There are wooden stands that pull out almost to courtside on the long ends of the hardwood, and fold back onto a rubber floor to make room for the retractable basket to be lowered from the ceiling for practice. The seats in the wooden stands are numbered by black paint written on the front of each space - there wouldn't be much space for each person, but then again, there isn't at Fenway Park, either.

About 20 rows up, there is a metal railing that divides the side sections, and there is another set of rows above the railing. The head room for the fans would decrease the further back they are, and the upper stands go nearly to the wall, leaving an aisle about four feet wide behind the stands for fans to get by each other and find their seats.

Behind each baseline, the stands run down to the base of the basket and stretch up 15 rows before a glass railing divides the lower section from the upper. On both sides, the railing extends around the court until it reaches the stands on the side. Behind the seats in the upper section, the white paint is pealing off of the walls - the result of an aging complex.

The stairs that go directly to the upper levels are hidden away in the four corners of the complex. In order to get to the other side of the gym from the entrance, a fan would have to take a detour through the bowels of the building, going underneath the side stands and walking on the track that runs around the court.

The faded red running space wraps itself around the court while going down narrow hallways underneath the stands on both sides. The hallways are lit by broad fluorescent lights that you can probably find in your nearest bathroom.

Along this hallway you can find exits to the outside of the building, as well as something you might not expect to find at the former home of UMass basketball: locked inside a floor-to-ceiling fence, there is old gym equipment - jump ropes, hockey sticks, orange cones - just in case a game of floor hockey breaks out.

There is only one scoreboard in the gym, and it hangs from the rafters along with group of speakers (no surround sound in this place). The scoreboard is old-school - no video screens, no commercial endorsements, not even a screen for keeping track of individual player fouls. The small CocaCola sign at the top is the only reference to a commercial endorsement. The scoreboard shows only the UMass score, visitor score, period, team fouls and time.

The fluorescent lights hung throughout the gym are kept up, like the scoreboard, by an elaborate set of bars and beams that seem imposing when observed from the stands. The ceiling hangs deceptively low.

Despite the obvious aging, there is no obstructed-view seating - even from the corners of the stands, in the darkest parts of the Cage, there is still a full view of the entire court. The ceiling is low compared to the modern basketball facilities, and the 2,000 fans the Cage holds could easily make Mullins Center noise with the acoustics of a tight gymnasium.

The fans would be right on top of the court, prompting a more interactive relationship between players and their supporters. And everyone knows that, in last year's UConn triumph, the Minutemen got an assist by a loud and raucous Mullins Center crowd.

The hardwood still glistens under the glare of the Cage lights, and despite a few kinks here and there (including the felt on the bench chairs peeling off), it would be prime real estate for an intense, Division I college basketball atmosphere. The Cage breathes basketball. It is a throwback to the smaller gyms (I could easily see the Cage in the movie "Hoosiers") in which basketball was created.

When you walk into the outer hallway of the Cage, you will see a trophy case (in high school fashion) displaying the various awards UMass sports have collected over the years. There were scattered awards from different UMass sports, but I looked closely and was surprised to find an autographed picture of Julius Erving.

Dr. J is history, and history is in the Cage.

Sure, the parking would be a nightmare if the Minutemen played there. The basketball program would sell fewer tickets, and the players' luxuries would be downgraded. But I'm tired of sports being about money and excess all of the time. It is about the game, and playing at the Cage would be a better atmosphere for UMass basketball. The Mullins Center is a great facility, but Massachusetts basketball should do the real fans a favor: bring the Cage back.

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