It would be difficult to arrange a better college basketball celebration than the one that took place yesterday at the University of Maryland. The school officially opened its new arena, Comcast Center, and at the same time unfurled the 2002 NCAA championship banner. As hard as new arenas are to come by, national titles are more of a treasure. To have both at once produced a happy time in the high-tech red palace on the College Park campus.
The first big cheer -- the first official one, at least -- went up for Coach Gary Williams, who raised his fist high to salute thousands of chanting students as he bounded from the Terrapins' new entrance at a corner of the gleaming hardwood court. That was something new, the entrance, with Maryland's long-familiar tunnel at one end of the court a thing of the past along with Cole Field House itself as the site of Terrapins basketball. The new place has its new angles. It's large and comfortable, upscale if you will, which takes some getting used to.
Cole often was overheated and always cramped, but it had history and few complaints.
Comcast Center is the future that might have been imagined as long ago as the earliest days of Cole in the 1950s, at least by some others who had an idea what the future held. The new center is a bit across campus from Cole but it's an upgrade and in no way out of character with that which Maryland students and fans have grown accustomed.
After all, how many of us thrilled repeatedly to the feeling of walking in the front doors of Cole and looking down, as if from a mountaintop, on a sea of red seats? Cole has been, in some ways, an inspiration to builders of assorted arenas across the country, so it would be hard for the designers and builders of Comcast Center to ignore the enduring model on the very same property.
Comcast Center's red seats sweep up from the hardwood just as they did at Cole, but they rise higher with a capacity of 17,950. And on the way toward the top are all the reasons why there is a Comcast Center: luxury suites, corporate logos and video boards. This is big-time college sports as it has come unmistakably to be: a $108 million building that seems both as massive and slick as any basketball arena to be found on any campus other than the gargantuan structure in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The pleasure derived from Comcast Center may vary from the politicians and corporate and school officials who helped get the place built and who took bows at center court yesterday (Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening, to boos), to those settled comfortably in their suites for the first time, to others who will be buying seats in the top rows, the very high top rows. But just about all might share pretty closely a satisfaction -- an immense satisfaction -- from the building's simplest touch, made possible by hard work and happenstance.
That would be the banner that hangs from the ceiling at the east end. Shortly before 5 p.m. yesterday, it was dropped into place.
A red banner with white lettering.
"NCAA Champions. ACC Regular Season Champions. 2002."
There it was: a brand new building and the college game's most coveted adornment to go with it. That's timing.
The Terrapins players, thoughtfully, kept the mood fresh by playing well enough for a 64-49 victory over Miami (Ohio) -- thus, unique in Maryland history, beginning defense of their national title. They carried over a six-game winning streak from last season and extended their 18-game home streak constructed at Cole. To do that, they didn't really have much time to stand around and admire the championship banner.
"It was a great moment for the university and the Comcast Center, to drop it at our first home game," senior Steve Blake said. "It was a great feeling, but we had to let that go and start the game."
"For a second, it was a good feeling," another senior, Drew Nicholas, said similarly, "but I know, me, myself, right after that, I had to change my mind-set to playing this basketball game."
Comcast Center, no doubt, will appeal to high school players looking for a college just as Cole attracted the likes of Williams the player and scores of others such as Len Elmore. When he was shown Cole for the first time, Elmore said yesterday, "It was like no other place I'd seen, except for St. John's, which presented Madison Square Garden as its home."
When the banner came down, Williams allowed himself a few moments to think of many of those great Maryland players who never were fortunate enough to play on an NCAA championship team: the likes of Elmore, Tom McMillen, John Lucas, Albert King, Joe Smith, Steve Francis, Len Bias.
"It was an unusual day with . . . the emotion that was involved," Williams said.
Even the visiting team was happy to have been present for the festivities.
"When we get a chance to dream wildly, we dream about winning a championship," Miami's coach, Charlie Coles, said. "To see the banner was beautiful."
To see it unfurled was a culmination. To see it unfurled in a new home was a beginning.