Arizona Basketball

Arizona Wildcats’ McKale Center, Tucson’s home, getting better with age


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McKale Center is to Arizona fans what Pauley Pavilion is to UCLA fans or what Notre Dame Stadium is to Fighting Irish followers. It’s a place born-and-bred Wildcat followers can speak of with dignity. It is the promised land.

It’s where Tucson hero Sean Elliott broke Lew Alcindor’s Pac-10 scoring record. Lute Olson crafted 11 Pac-10 championship teams and four that went to the Final Four at the hallowed place. Josh Pastner had one-to-one coaching sessions with teammate Mike Bibby on the McKale court often until 10 at night in the months leading up to Arizona’s 1996-97 championship.

It is the Tucson equivalent of Larry Bird putting in the necessary hours at the storied Boston Garden.

So much history is in that place, which turned 40 in February. The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac played there. The President spoke in McKale after the Gabrielle Giffords shooting tragedy of 2011. Shaquille O’Neal lost there. Reggie Miller was booed lustily there.

Tucsonans reveled in what McKale Center brought to the community in 1973. The population of the city was only 265,000. The arena made the Arizona program relevant outside the state.

In the season before McKale Center opened its doors, the 3,200-seat Bear Down Gym could not draw a sellout. The Wildcats sold out four of the first five games played at McKale, which had a capacity of 13,500.

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MCKALE CENTER AT A GLANCE

Ground Broken: Fall 1970
Cost: $8.1 million
Building Dimensions: 428 feet long, 339 feet wide, 77 feet high
McKale.jpg
First Game: Feb. 1, 1973; Arizona 87, Wyoming 69
UA Record in Facility: 516-102 (.834)+
Current Capacity: 14,545
Cumulative Attendance: 8,123,433 in 42 seasons
Undefeated Seasons: 10 (1976, ‘77, ‘86, ‘88, ‘89 ‘90, ‘91, ‘98, ‘99, 2011)
Longest Homecourt Win Streak: 71, Feb. 14, 1987 to Jan. 11, 1992
Most Points Scored, Arizona: 127, Arizona vs. Arizona State, Jan. 5, 1998
Most Points Scored, Opponent: 110, Arizona State vs. Arizona, Feb. 17, 1973
Biggest Winning Margin, Arizona: 64, Arizona (118) vs. Robert Morris (54), Dec. 28, 1996
Biggest Winning Margin, Opponent: 30, BYU (99) vs. Arizona (69), Dec. 28, 2009
Most Points Scored, Arizona Individual: 41, Al Fleming, vs. Detroit, Jan. 10, 1976
Most Points Scored, Opponent: 49, Jimmer Fredette, BYU vs. Arizona, Dec. 28, 2009
+ record reflects 11 vacated victories during 2007-08 season due to NCAA infractions
Source: Arizona Athletics

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In the first game on Feb. 1, 1973, the capacity crowd at McKale Center set an indoor sporting attendance record in the state.

Of course, Arizona State, not to be outdone, followed suit with the opening of its 14,227-seat Activity Center in 1974.

“When I meet with recruits for our different sports, when they come in, I talk about how if you look at the overhead to Tucson, our university is right smack in the center of our town … The McKale Center for a lot of years has been right at the center of that and is such a critical part of our community.”
Greg Byrne, Arizona athletic director

The battle is waged to this day — and will never end — to show recruits, media and fans who has the best facilities in the region. McKale is behind others in the Pac-12 in that regard. The arena turns 41 this season and is in need of more. Not more seats but more to show. Facilities, uniforms and high-definition video boards are part of today’s show and tell.

Show recruits the amenities of playing for an elite program. Tell them what playing in that environment can mean to their future.

Sean Miller already recruits the area better than anyone. The $30 million worth of McKale Center enhancements announced Monday afternoon will make the program the most attractive this side of Lexington, Ky. The fund-raising drive for the necessary funds was kick-started by $6 million donated by Tucson philanthropists Cole and Jeannie Davis.

Every seat will be replaced in McKale Center with an awe-inspiring design of only cardinal red and navy blue. No more yellow seats in the upper-concourse level. Why are they in place anyway? Isn’t that a color belonging to ASU?

“Those beautiful iconic yellow seats have to go after spending that time in the maize and blue environment at the University of Michigan,” said Arizona president Ann Weaver Hart, who attended the Wildcats’ 72-70 victory in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Saturday. “We don’t want to be ambivalent or ambiguous with the messages that we send.”

Up until Lute Olson’s first couple of years, metal bleacher stands were used for seats adjacent to the court. Banging your feet made quite a sound but that had more of a WAC flavor than Pac-10.

A new court with the symbolic block “A” will be installed. For the fans, concession stands and restrooms will be enlarged, and who does not need more space for that with lines? A players’ lounge, a must-have these days, will be built. Miller and his staff will occupy a new locker room for themselves. They will also have a video room to go over opponents, work on their team and take recruits to display how they could fit into the program.

With Phase 1 (scoreboard, seating, floor and locker rooms) scheduled to start in May, some of these renovations should be in place by the start of next season (November), according to athletic director Greg Byrne.

A new high-definition videoboard will be in place before the men’s basketball home Pac-12 opener against Washington State on Jan. 2.

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“This next phase, it will benefit all of our sports 100 times over,” Miller said. “Talking about basketball, it will put us on course, I think, to compete for a national championship and to be able to compare ourselves with the other elite college basketball programs.

“The meaning is the next 25 years. I think when you walk into McKale in the future, you’re going to sense that today is one of the great moments in our athletic department’s recent history.”

McKale Center will be in its 60’s at that time. In the ongoing facilities race, it will be interesting to see the state of McKale Center in 2035 or so.

Those of us who grew up watching games at McKale, and witnessed its evolution through good times and bad, hope the heart of Tucson stays right where it stands.

WILDCAT MOVEMENT from Litteer Films on Vimeo.

WILDABOUTAZCATS.net publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He also writes articles for Bleacher Report, Lindy’s College Sports and TucsonCitizen.com.

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