Saturday, December 18, 1999

Musty Gardens filled with memories


Shootout meets one last time in old brickhouse

BY SCOTT MacGREGOR
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[gardens]
Muskies run the Gardens floor.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        The first thing Skip Prosser knows about the Cincinnati Gardens is that it smells. Not bad. Just old.

        Old and musty. Years of stale beer and salted peanuts, sweat and mildew, like an old basement packed with people.

        “From the smell of elephants to the smell of jockstraps,” said former Cincinnati Bearcats basketball star Tom Thacker.

        The kinds of smells that stir memories. And there are plenty of those.

        “Old buildings have a certain aura. You walk in, and it smells like an old building,” said Mr. Prosser, men's basketball coach of the Xavier Musketeers, who play their home games at the Gardens. “There have been a lot of great games here, a lot of tremendous players who have played on this floor. You can't help but remember that.”

[gardens]
A distinctive feature of the Gardens is the carved athletic figures - three on each side of the front entrances.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        Many of those greatest games and tremendous players have made their mark in the event that has given this building some of its best memories: The Skyline Chili Crosstown Shootout between Xavier and the University of Cincinnati.

        But tonight, an era ends when the two rivals throw their final Garden party in this 50-year-old brickhouse in Roselawn.

        Next year, Xavier moves into the Cintas Center, its state-of-the-art, on-campus arena. The Gardens will still be open for business, but future Shootouts will not be played here.

        The 10,100-seat Gardens was the home of the Shootout from 1949-75 — Xavier's Armory Fieldhouse also played host to a few in the mid-'50s when the teams played twice a year — and the game has been played there every other year since Xavier moved in in 1983. It has seen 41 of the 67 Shoot outs, with UC leading the Garden series 27-14.

        “I'm going to miss it,” said Chris Mack, a former Xavier player and now the school's director of basketball operations. “We're going to have a great new building, but this has that atmosphere, the old men drinking beer. It's like the Boston Garden. It has that homey feel to it.”

        Not everyone loves it.

        “It's old and cold, man,” said Xavier senior forward Darnell Williams.

        But there have been great memories, and not just basketball. The Beatles and Madonna played here. Billy Graham preached, Bob Hope told jokes, Sugar Ray Robinson threw punches. There have been hockey games, midget car races, circuses, rodeos and an NBA All-Star game, back when Oscar Robertson was dazzling with the Royals.

        “It was the Madison Square Garden of Cincinnati,” Mr. Thacker said.

        Many of the Shootout's great moments have played out under the old rafters: From Xavier's Dave Piontek scoring 29 points as the Muskies upset the Jack Twyman-led Bearcats in 1955 to Jamal Walker's game-winning 3-pointer for an XU overtime win in 1990 to UC's boisterous blowout in 1992 on its way back to the Final Four.

        There was the night in '67 when two players started a brawl in overtime, with one throwing a punch and the other a wooden crutch. There was the “Handshake Game” from 1994, when UC coach Bob Huggins refused to shake Xavier coach Pete Gillen's hand after the Bearcats won in overtime, claiming the Muskie coaches were taunting the Bearcats.

        And there was Mr. Robertson's Shootout debut, when he scored 29 points in a UC win as a sophomore in 1958. That night also marked one of the building's low moments, when a fan threw a wine bottle at Mr. Robertson that shattered on the court.

        “Once you walk into the building, you recollect those memories,” said former Xavier player Joe Sunderman, class of '79. “Playing there was special.”

        After tonight, even the building will become part of this rivalry's dense history. And with it — at least in relation to the Shootout — the little things that make the Gardens unique.

        The sometimes frigid tem perature on the floor, kept cold for the ice underneath. The water that has been known to seep up when it gets hot and the ice melts, pooling on the hardwood court. The faded paint in the rafter seats. The beer and cola stains on the concrete stairways. The cramped locker rooms that drive opponents crazy.

        The Cintas Center will be bright and shiny and sparkling and beautiful. But it won't have history, at least for a while.

        “The Gardens has a lot of great memories for everyone who grew up in Cincinnati loving basketball,” Mr. Sunderman said. “There's not a bad seat in the arena. And the fact that this is the last Shootout makes it special. I'll miss it.”

Flashback: Gardens turns 50 Feb. 21 report



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