Basketball is back in the Park Blocks

Someday in the future, basketball historians will look back on the stat sheet from Saturday night’s victory in their attempt to understand what fueled the Vikings’ best season since the basketball program was restarted in 1996. They’ll see Seamus Boxley’s 25 points, Will Funn’s seven assists and the 58 percent shooting and get a good idea of the strengths that have carried the Vikings to a 17-6 record, but they may miss a more telling statistic buried below the point totals and percentages: attendance 1500.

They’ll miss the fact that this Vikings team did something more amazing than winning 17 games: It brought basketball back to the Park Blocks.

Thirty years ago basketball thrived in the Health and Physical Education Building (now the Stott Center). James Mason, MVP of the 1974-75 team that fell three games short of making the NCAA tournament, remembers it well. "Everybody came to play at PSU; U of O, OSU, certainly the Blazers, everybody came to PSU to play. It was where the real basketball was being played in the state."

But budget problems and allegations of improprieties in the program led to its being cut after three losing seasons in 1981. Since the program restarted in 1996 few have come to play and even fewer to watch.

At an early season game against Pacific last year I was able to count the number of fans in the entire "student" section during a 30 second timeout. The only person sitting in my row was an elderly man with an oversized hearing aid who passed off a stale pirate imitation for cheering. "Yaargh!"

Such was PSU basketball.

Losing records, little talent, a gym that wouldn’t cut it for many high schools, an awkward location, general apathy on campus and in the greater Portland area – you name it, it plagued the program. But winning has an odd way of curing all ills.

Saturday night the Stott Center came alive. The third consecutive sell-out crowd packed the general admission section 30 minutes before tip-off. Latecomers sat on the floor along the baselines and stood in the exits.

When the teams took the floor for their final warm-ups the fans greeted the Vikings with a standing ovation and lustily booed the Eastern Washington Eagles – a far cry from years past when visiting fans were often louder than PSU supporters.

The cozy confines that used to be a sign of PSU’s second-rate status have been transformed into one of the biggest home court advantages in the Big Sky Conference. With fans seated inches from the court there’s no doubt the players hear every word they say. A green couch alongside media row and almost on the court provides the ultimate heckling experience.

Opposing coaches are taking note that a date at the Stott Center is no longer a sure thing. "Their fans stayed on us," said Montana State coach Mick Durham after PSU beat his then-first-place Bobcats. "They fed off the energy of the crowd."

The dramatic turnaround in atmosphere has created an enviable problem for athletic director Tom Burman as he schedules next year’s opponents. "Nobody is going to want to play in our bandbox," he said.

If the last few games are any indication, he may be right (though "bandbox" seems an overly generous term considering the gym barely holds our tiny pep band). A combination of foot stomping, cheering and yelling bolstered the Viks’ sagging confidence and made life difficult for the Eagles as the Vikings mounted their late rally. Two weeks earlier against MSU, the raucous crowd forced the Bobcats to waste a timeout and incur a 10-second violation late in the game. Head coach Heath Schroyer knows two possessions can be the difference between winning and losing and has taken the PA microphone after the last two games to personally thank the crowd.

"It gives you that sixth man," said fifth-year senior Seamus Boxley, who has witnessed the duration of the transformation. "We appreciate everybody who comes out here, the fans and the support. It’s a dream come true."

The team’s exciting play has spurred fans to dream too. Zach Kronser, a PSU student, didn’t hesitate to share his renewed enthusiasm. "I’m at the game because we’re going to the tourney and we’re going to beat Duke!" he enthused.

Probably not, but the fact that he and fans like him are proudly talking about the team is a testament to its success. This year’s team has done more than bring basketball back to the Park Blocks – it has brought fun back.