OK Preps: Why The Big House doesn't have to change even when the arena does
Praises. Problems. Compliments. Complaints. They’ve all come to the attention of the man who has overseen basketball for the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association for the better part of a decade.
But this past weekend, Glover heard something new.
File it under “nostalgic concern.”
“It’s really going to be a sad day when this arena is gone,” several folks told Glover as they watched small-school games at State Fair Arena. “I hope the new arena has the same environment. I hope it’s the same.”
The reality is, The Big House as we know it is going away.
We know that now for sure. We don’t yet know when, but for the first time since State Fair Arena became home to a vast majority of Oklahoma’s high school basketball championships — and since it became known simply as The Big House — we know that its days are numbered. Three months ago, voters in Oklahoma City approved MAPS 4, a one-cent sales tax initiative to pay for all sorts of civic projects, and among them is a new arena at the OKC Fairgrounds.
The current arena will stand and continue to be used until the new one is ready. But eventually, it will be torn down.
Those who know the venue well say it must be this way.
“It is just wore out,” said former Oklahoma City mayor Ron Norick, board chairman of Oklahoma State Fair Inc. “Structurally, it’s just not in good shape, and we’ve got to do something about it.”
Norick remembers when the arena opened in 1965. His father, Jim, was mayor of the city from 1959-63 and pushed a bond issue that voters ultimately approved to fund much of the arena’s construction.
The arena was eventually rechristened Jim
Ron Norick went to hockey games there when Oklahoma City had the farm team for the Boston Bruins. Those Blazers teams had some future NHL stars, including Gerry Cheevers and Bernie Parent.
Norick also remembers the All-College Basketball Tournament and indoor track and field meets at the arena.
Still, he agrees the venue bearing his father’s name must give way to something new.
“It’s just been a grand old building,” Ron Norick said, “but you know, the time has come.”
The exact time, however, is unknown.
Construction wouldn’t start until January 2021 at the earliest, and because the design plans have yet to be done for the new arena, it’s anyone’s guess how long the project will take. Fairgrounds officials say 18 months is the best-case scenario while 27 months would be on the high end.
That means the state basketball tournaments would remain in the current arena through at least 2022.
Leaders at the fairgrounds are aware of high school sports fans’ attachment to The Big House. While the arena is used most for horse shows — that gives it the largest economic impact of any publicly owned facility in Oklahoma City, including Chesapeake Energy Arena and Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark — basketball hasn’t been forgotten in plans for the new arena. They include a way for fans from opposing teams to exit on separate ends of the floor just as they do now.
Anyone who’s been to The Big House has seen the gatherings outside the locker rooms, happy fans greeting their teams on one side of the arena, sad fans doing the same on the other.
“It’s the most emotional roller coaster,” said Bill Allen, vice president of OKC Fairgrounds. “I mean, people are just crying.”
Senior Vice President of Marketing and Sales Scott Munz said, “It’s worse than ‘The Bachelor.’”
But both men love the strong emotions that have become part of the tradition at The Big House. They want such traditions to carry on. They want kids all over Oklahoma to continue to dream about making it to The Big House. They want high school basketball fans to still see winter weekends at the fairgrounds as hallowed.
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt believes all of that will happen. Because the new arena will be similarly sized to the current one, he suspects the state high school basketball tournaments will feel right at home.
“I think everything will transfer over,” he said of the traditions.
He knows some folks are sad to even think about not playing in the current arena. But he is convinced their attachment to The Big House isn’t about the building itself.
“There are venues in America that people think very fondly of in terms of sports, but they usually have — this is me speaking more as a sports fan — certain characteristics that are memorable,” Holt said, mentioning the iconic concave ceiling at Madison Square Garden.
The Big House doesn’t have outstanding architectural features.
“Nobody’s like, ‘Oh, the columns!’ or ‘The roof!’” Holt said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a single person describe any architectural element of that building to me. It’s the history that’s happened in it for their small town, for their favorite basketball team, that matters.
“In my view, what happens at The Big House is the only memorable thing about the building itself.”
Those memories are strong, of course. That night in 2008 when fans sat in the aisles to see Keiton Page and Rotnei Clarke, then got treated to a finish in the Pocola-Walters girls game that is the greatest in state hoops history. That day in 1988 when Carnegie’s boys trailed Mount St. Mary by eight points with 24 seconds left — and won. On and on the list goes.
And of course, that doesn’t account for all the titles won, all the last games played, all the hugs and tears and moments people remember for a lifetime.
That’s why David Glover heard those nostalgic concerns last weekend. Why he’ll probably hear them again this weekend.
He’ll try to tell fans that the new arena is going to be great.
“Have you seen the video of what the new one’s gonna be like?” he’ll say of a spot with cool renderings and fun animation that runs on the big screen between each game.
But still, Glover knows what people mean when they say they’ll be sad when the current arena closes.
“That building out there has so much charm,” Glover said.
Even though it's not a long-term option, it's still been a long-term home.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.