Friday, March 03, 2000

XU says Goodbye Gardens

Musketeers parting ways with old home

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Brandon Dunphy's countdown ends Sunday.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        Jeff Fogelson was on Xavier's campus in August 1983 interviewing for the school's athletic director job.

        It wasn't until the last day he was in town that XU officials took him to see the Cincinnati Gardens, a big, red, brick building tucked in the middle of Roselawn, where the Musketeers would begin playing their home games five months later.

        “I almost think they were reluctant to do that,” Fogelson said. “My sense was that they thought I would be discouraged.

        “I'll tell you what, I looked at that building, and that was one of the selling points to me. I'm not saying I was a visionary or anything, but I thought to myself, "This could really be something.' What a great old arena. I just thought it would be wonderful, and it turned out that it was.”

        An era of Xavier basketball ends Sunday when the Musketeers play host to St. Joseph's for their final regular-season game at the Gardens, their full-time home court since January 1984.

        Next season, Xavier moves into the new Cintas Center, the first time the team will play on campus since Jan. 3, 1984 when it defeated Central State 92-62 at Schmidt Fieldhouse.

        It is a bittersweet parting.

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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        The 51-year-old Gardens has its warts. It is an older facility with no glitz, no shiny exterior, no luxury boxes, no fancy video screen on the scoreboard, all hard-back seats.

        The joint has a musty smell. On game days, the odor of beer and popcorn hangs in the air.

        “The Gardens is an antique, but it's a magnificent antique,” owner Jerry Robinson said. “We're the last of the vintage arenas.”

        During Xavier games, the lights have gone out, the scoreboard and clocks have malfunctioned, condensation has appeared on the court when warm weather heats up the ice underneath the wood floor.

        But facts are facts.

        Every seat in the building is considered good. Nothing impairs the view of fans. Opposing teams and players will be glad to face Xavier elsewhere.

        XU has sold out 29 dates and has the second-best attendance in the Atlantic 10 Conference since joining the league in 1995-96.

Muskies run the Gardens floor.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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        The Musketeers are 213-25 (.895) at the arena since it became their home, including 53-3 (.946) over the past three seasons. They have won 29 of their past 30 home games.

        “It would be hard to have that record (at the Cintas Center),” sixth-year coach Skip Prosser said. “But that's the goal.”

Perfect pair
        Xavier was playing most of its home games in Schmidt (capacity: 2,900) when the Midwestern City Conference mandated that all its teams play in arenas with a minimum of 5,000 seats.

        The University of Cincinnati was the primary tenant at Riverfront Coliseum. Xavier was not thrilled with the idea of being the second banana there.

        Meanwhile, Kenko Corp., of which Robinson is president, bought the Gardens in 1979-80 with the intent of turning it into an industrial warehouse. Robinson planned to tear out the seats to create larger open areas.

        But before that could take place, the Gardens played host to a closed-circuit TV viewing of the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight on June 20, 1983 — an event Robinson inherited when he bought the building. That changed everything.

        “We did the fight and experienced show biz,” Robinson said. “It was awful exciting to have people in a building.”

        The warehouse plan was scrapped. Robinson started bringing in musical acts. What he really wanted was a permanent resident that would raise the Gardens' identity and credibility.

        Robinson, who was born in North Avondale and grew up a Xavier fan, approached the Musketeers about making the Gardens their home. He offered what Fogelson terms “a sweetheart deal,” charging a minimal rent and taking proceeds only from concessions and parking. To this day, the Gardens gets no percentage of ticket sales.

        “I can tell you factually that no university team playing in an arena that they don't own has a better deal than what Xavier had at the Gardens ...” said Fogelson, XU's AD from 1983-98, now AD at Seton Hall. “Jerry Robinson made it possible for us to grow that program.”

        For the Gardens, “Xavier dignified our presence and sent the message that this was a good place,” Robinson said.

        For Xavier, it meant being able to make enough money to put back into the program, allowing it flourish.

        Sixteen years later, both parties say the business transaction to be a win-win.

        Despite a season-ticket base of roughly 500, Xavier drew 8,114 to its Jan.14, 1984 game against St.Louis at the Gardens, where the Musketeers would win their first 14 games and 19 of 20.

        That March, XU drew more than 9,500 each for National Invitation Tournament victories over Ohio State and Nebraska.

        “It was a great atmosphere from the first game,” then-coach Bob Staak said. “There was a buzz in the place. It was a big-time atmosphere. It was a great basketball arena. It was tremendous to have almost 10,000 people to see your games.”

        Robinson said he purchased the floor — which formerly belonged to the University of Cincinnati — from a warehouse in Westwood and had it restored. He was the only bidder for Louisville's old scoreboard when the Cardinals got a new one, and landed a great bargain on that.

        Staak brought in old furniture from his home — a couch, a few chairs and a coffee table — for Xavier's locker room.

        It was home.

Cold days
        Xavier remained the Gardens' lone tenant until 1990-91, when the Cincinnati Cyclones minor-league hockey team made the Gardens its home. When the Cyclones moved downtown to the Firstar Center, the Mighty Ducks hockey team moved in in 1997-98.

        This created a few problems for the Musketeers.

        They have not always been able to practice on their home court before games. This weekend is a perfect example: Xavier plays St. Joseph's on Sunday but will have to practice at Schmidt on Friday and Saturday because the Ducks have home games.

        The building also gets quite chilly unless the heat is turned on in advance. Even this season, XU players have taken the floor in sweatshirts.

        “Sometimes kids used to come out for practice with hats and gloves,” said former coach Pete Gillen, now at Virginia. “It was difficult at times. You could see your breath when you were at practice. It was freezing. You could spell your name with the hot air.”

        Still, Gillen said, he has “mostly fond memories.”

        “It was far and away a big positive,” he said. “It had some charisma. It was a players' court, a nice shooting court. The portable floor was soft on the guys' legs. It was a big-time atmosphere even though it wasn't state-of-the-art. It helped Xavier get up to a next level as far as perception.”

        Gardens officials have worked to enhance the building each year, going through a Xavier wish-list. They have painted the seats, fixed up the locker room and made sure Xavier was well represented inside and outside the building.

        The school's championship banners and retired jerseys hang from the rafters on one end of the arena; on the other side are banners from American Hockey League teams such as the Lowell Monsters, Portland Pirates and Saint John Flames.

        Side-by-side are signs on the outside of the Gardens proclaiming it as “Home of Xavier basketball,” and “Home of Mighty Ducks hockey.” On the side of the arena, another Xavier sign lists years of the school's NCAA Tournament appearances and conference titles.

        “I've really only known the Gardens as Xavier's home court,” said Prosser, who arrived as as assistant in 1985. “I've seen so many outstanding players and plays and games there, it's really going to be missed. I guess it's much more palatable because we've had great success there. But I think I'm really excited about the new place. I just think it's great when college games are played at the college.”

        “It was a great run,” Gillen said. “I think it was a great move by Xavier going from Schmidt to the Gardens rather than going to the place downtown. I think the Gardens was cozier. I think going to the Gardens was a step up. Now, I think, certainly the new place is a step up from that.”

        Robinson is having a hard time with this era ending. When Xavier told him the Cintas Center would not be ready for the 1999-2000 season, as they originally hoped, he readily welcomed the Musketeers back for another year.

        He has told XU officials that if for any reason they can't play at the Cintas Center when next fall rolls around, he will accommodate them in the Gardens for as long as needed.

        “We just have a lot of feeling for them,” Robinson said. “There's a big sense of loss ... I'll be there Sunday. I suspect I'll cry.”

        He is storing the baskets and court in case an opportunity to house another basketball team — perhaps a minor league club of sorts — comes up. XU has considered asking for some item — perhaps a seat or two — to take into the new place to carry over some tradition.

        “I do think there is a real sense of nostalgia and of watching the program really grow up during our time in there,” XU Athletic Director Mike Bobinski said. “That is something that people who are a part of that will always remember. That's where the thing really got going, and that will always hold a soft spot in people's hearts.”

Xavier best homes games at the Gardens
Previous story: Gardens turns 50 Feb. 21, 1999

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