Copyright 2006 Maddie's Daddy Productions
Chapter IV: HouseAs he descended down the escalator at Statehouse Convention Center, Newell’s head was spinning. It was the spring of 1984 and the new coach at UALR was trying to find a suitable place for the Trojans to play men’s basketball games.
UALR had played most of its previous five years of Division I basketball at Barton Coliseum, the gold-domed, 7,500-seat facility on the State Fairgrounds, which was primarily used for rodeos and concerts. Barton had also hosted a handful of Razorbacks basketball games through the years.
It was dark, gloomy and could feel almost dreary with crowds of 700 or fewer that typically filed into watch UALR’s basketball games there. For 12 home games during the 1983-1984 season, the final under Kestenbaum, UALR drew an average crowd of 629 per game. Take away the 1,250 that saw the Trojans take on Arkansas State, and the average attendance for other games was a dismal 572.
Barton Coliseum had one more cosmetic problem. The floor had a large, red Razorback painted on it with the word , “RAZORBACKS” painted across the baseline.
“I wasn’t playing on a floor that had a damn hog on it,” Newell said. “It wasn’t going to happen. Not while I was the athletic director.”
But it was home. And it was better than UALR’s on-campus facility, Trojan Fieldhouse. The 1,000-seat gymnasium wouldn’t even pass for a high school gymnasium in most Arkansas schools. Before its renovation in 1999, it had wood bleachers that weren’t in very good condition. They weren’t much better in 1984.
“It had wooden backboards [on the side courts]. Can you believe that?” Newell said.
At first, Newell was just thinking about a place where basketball camps could be held, but it quickly became something more.
“Les Wyatt told me to look around and see what else might be available for use,” Newell said.
One afternoon, Newell was eating lunch at the Excelsior Hotel (now the Peabody Little Rock hotel). He went for a walk toward the Statehouse Convention Center, which is attached to the hotel by several escalators.
As he descended, he started to have a flashback.
“The year before, the Final Four was in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Hyatt is sort of hooked on to Rupp Arena. You can go down the escalators and stuff. As we went down the escalator at The Excelsior, for some reason, I thought we could do it,” Newell said. “It might not be on the same sclae as Kentucky, but we can do it. We can do it.”
The basement of the Statehouse Convention Center looks like the meeting rooms of nearly every major hotel in the country. Relatively low ceilings -- at least for basketball. Concrete Walls. And movable dividers to separate the rooms when needed.
“Here’s how crazy I am. We don’t have a floor. We don’t have any seating. But I can picture it. I can envision the hospitality room. I can envision people staying downtown after work and going right to the game. It could be really neat,” Newell said.
He was sold but he had to sell it to Wyatt.
“I just kept telling him, ‘I’ve got it. I’ve got it,’” Newell said. “The Excelsior. That’s what we’re going to do.”
They quickly left campus and drove back downtown for a look. A meeting was quickly scheduled with Barry Travis, who at the time was the chief executive officer of the Statehouse Convention Center.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say I thought they were crazy, but definitely a little off base,” Travis said. “It was pretty bizarre to think of it. A friend of mine’s motto is, ‘Not possible today, possible tomorrow.’ That’s kind of what this was.”
Newell and Wyatt were persistent, and by the time their first meeting with Travis had ended, the three of them had decided to further pursue the possibility of playing there.
“Mike was just way out of the box in his thinking about things like that. We just had to figure out how we could do it,” Travis said. “We started with what floor do we use? Where do we get it? How do we get it?”
Newell had been negotiating a road game at Providence when the subject of the floor came up. The Providence Civic Center was replacing their floor and had one to sell. UALR bought it for the bargain price of $10,000.
They bought scoreboards and moved portable concession stands, like the kind you might find at a state fair, into the corners of the large room. During the games, the lights would flicker throughout, beckoning patrons to come over and enjoy a funnel cake or some popcorn.
The Statehouse Convention Center and UALR jointly purchased portable risers that could be installed on game days around the court. Just getting the risers to the facility was an adventure. They were stored behind a chain-link fence under a nearby highway overpass.
“They were huge boxes, and they weighed like 4,000 or 5,000 pounds. It was like moving a car. And there was only one forklift in this area that we could find that could lift those. We had to contract to get it,” Travis said. “There were times we’d have a basketball game in the evening and a convention the next morning. It was a problem because there was only one way to do it.”
UALR assistant Coach Jeff Dittman was in charge of making sure it happened. He would grab team managers and anyone else he could find to help. Frequently, it would be an all-night process. Virtually all of UALR’s athletic department employees were dragged in to help at one time or another.
“We generally had about 12 hours to set that booger up,” Dittman said. “And we didn’t have a budget for it. It was pretty much volunteer labor.”
They created box seats around the court. Really, they were just floor seats divided by drapes into sections of eight. But they were almost like having luxury boxes. And they sold them that way.
“You got eight tickets, hospitality room with drinks -- we had to stop that because people weren’t coming out for the second half of the game. You had your parking. It was a neat place down there,” Newell said.
They sold 52 of the 100 boxes the first year.
“Most people bought out of the kindness of their hearts. Most didn’t even show up that first year,” Newell said.
Myron Jackson plays defense against
Mercer at Statehouse Convention Center.
“As it turned out, it was one heck of a place to watch basketball,” Travis said. “We had some good games and good times.”
Newell described it as “plush,” while Travis said it was “very, very nice at the least.”
“Walking into that hotel, it was first-class all the way,” Dittman said. “We always felt it was better to have a full arena and some environment than to go to Barton and have it one-third full.”
The first game at Statehouse Convention Center was scheduled for Dec. 18, 1984, and UALR defeated Prairie View A&M 85-56 before a crowd estimated at 1,200. But it’s a wonder that game ever took place. The risers UALR had ordered were delayed, and officials scrambled just to get enough of them put together that fans could come in and watch the game.
“Myself, Les Wyatt, my assistant coaches, we put those risers together,” Newell said. “I can remember stopping work on the seating to go and take a shower in the Statehouse and put a coat and tie on to go coach the game.
“We had plywood over [walkways] for stepping on. It was wild.”
No ticket or head count was ever done that first night, but the estimated crowd was a moral victory for UALR. Especially because the Razorbacks were playing across town at Barton Coliseum, drawing 7,812.
Attendance continued to improve throughout the first season at the convention center. By the second season, crowds were routinely topping 2,000 and quickly building to 3,000.
“It worked really well for UALR at the time because they didn’t have a following to fill up a Barton Coliseum. It was a unique situation, it was fun, everybody was into it that was surrounding the program,” Morgan said. “It was an exciting time. Anybody who went to those games would tell you what a great time they had at those games.”
And it wasn’t just your typical college basketball fans buying tickets.
“[Former Alabama-Birmingham Coach] Gene Bartow told me once that he’d never seen so many fur coats at a basketball game as he did in Little Rock. We had the who’s who,” Newell said.
The furthest seat from the floor was about 50 to 60 feet. There were cushioned, chair back seats. The concession stands and rest rooms were close by.
“It was a very good entertainment venue,” Travis said. “And it was very, very successful.”
Scheduling games at the arena was the biggest challenge they faced. The Statehouse Convention Center was becoming a popular place for conventions of all kinds. And dates filled up quickly.
For the 1985-1986 season, tickets were priced $55 for 12 home games and $30 for UALR students. Floor boxes, priced at $1,000 each included eight season tickets, two parking passes and a pass to the hospitality room. They sold 85 boxes.
UALR was getting better on the court, and people were starting to notice. Season ticket sales doubled and expectations were high.
Tomorrow: Newell evaluates talent and lucks into some more