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Saturday, November 25, 2017

Commentary

Iconic basketball program deserves attention, attendance from students


Redshirt senior Rob Gray goes for a layup in an exhibition game against Angelo State on Sunday at Texas Southern University. All of men’s basketball’s games this season will be held at TSU or Toyota Center, making it more important than ever for students to show up and give the team a reason to win. | Thomas Dwyer/The Cougar

Legends of Houston basketball took the stage in front of a packed Moore’s Opera House to film a documentary that features a panel discussion surrounding 1968’s “Game of the Century.”

The film is set to be released Jan. 20, exactly 50 years after the historic competition that saw the No. 2-ranked Cougars take down the No. 1-ranked UCLA Bruins. More than 50,000 fans packed the Astrodome that night in what was also an unprecedented television event.

Former Cougar basketball greats Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney discussed the epic occasion. How could an event with this level of impact — truly bona fide historical significance in the world of basketball and beyond — possibly cast UH in its lead role?

Unbelievable as it may seem to the current student body and many before us, UH has a rich history of basketball that consists of 1,164 wins, six conference championships, five Final Four appearances and two heartbreaking trips to the NCAA Championship, but we won’t speak of those.

Once it opened in 1969, Hofheinz Pavilion quickly became one of the hottest tickets in town for the next 15 years.

From Hayes and Chaney’s era of the late ’60s to Phi Slama Jama of early ’80s, students, fans, men, women and children alike flocked through Hofheinz’s turnstiles to support the Cougars and catch a glimpse of what was arguably the best basketball in town. Recently, support for UH basketball, however, is seemingly nonexistent.

Now let’s not beat around the bush here because, well, we’re all guilty of first-degree neglect.

Aside from football games, where the student section routinely fills when the team is doing well, virtually every other UH sport struggles to get students in seats on a routine basis despite the teams’ above-average performance.

I get it. This is Texas, where football is king, and it makes piles of money for the University — especially when enjoying success, as they have for the last four seasons. But at the end of the day, it would take an unprecedented decadeslong run of success for UH football to be considered more than the little brother in the family of Texas college football teams, a fact that is no fault of their own.

With basketball, the court is far more level, and the season will soon be in a full sprint. This year more than ever, the men’s and women’s teams need your support.

In case you haven’t driven down Cullen Boulevard in the last eight months, Hofheinz Pavilion is no more. Once bustling with fans from all walks of life, it now looks as if North Korea finally had enough and nuked the former home of Cougar basketball — a highly unusual drop site, no doubt.

The $60 million renovation project will pass the arena’s namesake torch from Roy Hofheinz to Tilman Fertitta, who’s responsible for funding roughly a third of the overhaul. Although it is an eyesore now, early renderings of the Fertitta Center show a sparkling, state-of-the-art arena that surely will be one of the nicest venues in the country.

Because of this, UH basketball is forced to relocate a majority of their home games to H&PE Arena at Texas Southern University, about a mile from where Hofheinz once stood. A free shuttle service will provide quick, safe and free access to basketball games for all UH students in the upcoming season, but will anyone use it?

Basketball attendance has waned in recent years for a variety of reasons. Most notably, I assume, fans simply did not want to enter the decaying confines of Hofheinz Pavilion.

By no means should a successful team be met with empty seats.

Since 2006, the Cougars have gone 148-50 at home. In that time, it has filled less than half of the 8,918 seats inside of Hofheinz. For the women’s team, exponentially fewer.

Clearly, getting to basketball games has not been a priority for students and alumni, and that needs to change.

Games at TSU are going to be empty if the student body doesn’t find a way to get to at least one game this season. Division I athletes, some of whom could likely be offering their abilities to higher-profile programs, are choosing to represent this University despite its recent lack of support and a timesharelike stadium situation.

Seniors like Rob Gray Jr. from the men’s team or Chyanne Butler from the women’s will never reap the benefits that come with a new stadium, yet their final season could be marred with memories of a high school-level attendance.

By getting to just one game this season, the poised-to-perform men’s team and up-and-coming women’s squad will have the chance to experience some inkling of a home court advantage, and you may even catch an affinity for one of the school’s most storied traditions: basketball.

A new arena is on the way, and hopefully a new era of UH basketball.

Let’s fill the seats of H&PE Arena now so that the seats of the Fertitta Center will be filled later. It may be unlikely that support for the Cougars returns to pre-1985 levels, but by attending games, inconvenient as it may be this season, one small step can be taken in the right direction.

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