Arena Envy a Generational Thing?

On our Monday morning show this past week — — I caught myself saying something that in my mind was the total opposite of how I felt.

I audibly said the words: “Obviously some teams got to play at MassMutual, some teams had to play at Blake Arena.” 

Even my verbiage there; got to and had to, I don’t like. Like it is punishment to have to play at Blake Arena. I feel the complete opposite.

Hoosac Valley Girls Basketball was among a handful of teams that played for a state championship at Blake Arena on the campus of Springfield College. A handful of other teams playing for those very same MIAA state championships played across town at the MassMutual Center. Blake seats a little over 2,000, while the MMC can fit around 8,000. 

Plenty was made about moving the state titles to Springfield: The Birthplace of Basketball. It provides a lot of relationship with the Basketball Hall of Fame and was hoped to have more of a basketball feel than the cavernous, but centrally-located, DCU Center (nearly 15,000 seats). 

While I can’t speak for the atmosphere at MassMutual Center, the one at Blake Arena throughout the day was exactly what I would be looking for in this type of event. While Blake is a Division III gym, it is certainly one of the more beautiful and up to date ones you’ll find even among those smaller D2 and D1 programs.

DCU is an ice hockey and concert venue and basketball always felt strange there. MassMutual is, in my opinion, also more of a hockey and concert venue. Basketball is a personal spot. The players wear tank-tops, shorts and sneakers, not helmets and pads. They play out in the wide open, not behind glass and boards. Even in the pros, if you pay enough, you can get close enough to feel the sweat from the athletes.

Basketball, even at it’s highest level, is a sport that craves proximity. The Hoosac Valley fans had a real impact on the atmosphere Saturday morning in Springfield, much more so than Monday in Worcester at the state semis. For a community like the one surrounding Cheshire, this was an event and opportunity not to be missed, win or lose.

The wider point here may be a generational gap of sorts. As much as I hate to admit it, I am growing a bit beyond the high school and college age class and maybe my feelings are different.

I understand there must be some thrill in playing in a big well-known arena where rock-stars and pro athletes have performed. However, in my opinion as a fan of the sport, I’d rather be in a small, hot gym, packed to an standing-room only level where the kinetic energy is passed from the court, directly to the crowd and from spectator to spectator. 

A huge arena is cool on the surface, but it can get cold and lonely in reality. When the fans are moved 20-30 feet from the playing floor, are they really even there?

Obviously we are a special case out in Western Mass. Spots like the TD Garden, Fenway or Gillette Stadium are a different can of worms. There you would presumably be on the same floor or field as legitimate premier pro athletes, using those same locker rooms and be surrounded by championship banners and retired numbers. That’s a slightly different argument, but not one I’d be opposed to having. I still believe a strong case could be made for that smaller, more personal spot.

Sometime last year I wrote a column in this space titled “Ode to Small Gyms.” It praised Ladley Gymnasium at Wahconah and smaller collegiate places like the old McCann Center (3,200 seats) at Marist over a place like the Times Union Center (17,500 seats). 

It’s just a different feeling, being able to get people on the sidelines involved in the game. It’s one of the greatest things about sports, and It can be a real bummer to see that taken away.