The Penn State basketball team heads back to Rec Hall Saturday, taking on Princeton at 2 p.m. It will be the Nittany Lions' first appearance in the venerable gym since leaving for the Jordan Center in January of 1996.
For anybody wondering what it was like to witness a college basketball game in Rec Hall, you are in luck. It just so happens that I covered a few games in the building way back in the day.
He are the top 15 things about Rec Hall that stick out in my (admittedly media-perspective-skewed) mind all these years later.
15. Fly-fishing classes being held on the main floor of Rec Hall. I showed up early for a press conference one day in 1986, only to see a fly-fishing class in session. Not only that, but hoop players Carl Chrabascz and Mike Iuzzolino were in the class. Neither seemed to be the reel deal.
14. Opposing teams entering through the front of the arena. That's right, the opposing team bus would park in front of Rec Hall.
13. Being within reasonable walking distance of downtown. This was great for fans, players (you know who you are, men) and sometimes even opposing coaches looking to unwind after a game. In the mid-1980s, Blue White Illustrated beat writer John Fever Severance ran into Temple coach John Chaney on Calder Way following a night game at Rec Hall. Chaney was looking for a certain place to eat. When the restaurant in question turned out to be closed, the two bought a 40-ounce beer at a bottle shop and shared it while looking for another place to dine.
12. Then-coach Bruce Parkhill holding his weekly press conferences in his office, which was on the second floor of Rec Hall. You had to check in with administrative assistant Pam Byron -- who worked for John Bach, Dick Harter, Parkhill, Jerry Dunn, Ed DeChellis and Pat Chambers until retiring in 2011 -- and then sit in her small office before heading back to see the head coach in his (even smaller) office.
11. The Be There! guy. For several years, one guy yelled Be There! every time a Penn State player released a free throw. It was as annoying as hell. But not as bad as the Pep Band's You, you, you! chant every time an opposing player committed a foul.
10. The Media Room. It was really a glorified closet in the far upper corner of the building. Reporters had to traverse a banked curve of the track to get there. If you arrived early enough, you had to dodge joggers on the track to get to the media room. The upside was that you could gorge yourself on Domino's Pizza. The downside was that this was when Domino's was pretty much sauce and melted cheese on a piece of cardboard.
9. Playing pickup ball on the main floor -- albeit on the side-to-side courts that traversed the main court. And if you knew when to show up, you could find yourself running with guys from the team (who -- even when the team was awful -- made you realize how bad you really were).
8. Preseason games against the Marathon Oil touring team. I'm not sure why an oil company sponsored a semi-pro touring team. And those crafty Marathon coaches always seemed to sign one former Nittany Lion before playing at Rec Hall. In fact, you never knew who would suit up for Marathon. Former Bradley star and NBA sharpshooter Jim Les played for Marathon in 1989 and went off for 32 against PSU.
7. Postgame media gatherings at the unofficial gathering spot of the beat -- Zeno's. How did it gain that designation? It helped that then-CDT beat writer Tom Flynn moonlighted as a bartender at Zeno's. Everybody knew your name
and your byline. The Rutgers' press corps figured this out and made Zeno's its home away from home. In related news, Zeno's manager Dave Staab still recognizes old scribes who stop by now and then.
6. The precarious seating on press row. Press row at Rec Hall was an OSHA investigator's nightmare. It consisted of a narrow elevated platform up on the track. Any reporter who pushed his or her chair back too far from the table risked tumbling backward onto the track -- something one unlucky Minnesota beat writer learned the hard way in the early 1990s.
5. The post-game interview set-up. This seemed to change every year, moving to different jury-rigged rooms around the sprawling Rec Hall complex. There was the little boardroom where St. Joe's coach Jim Boyle dead-panned that Dave Degitz is a pro, the room at the far end of the gym (behind the stands) where Minnesota's Clem Haskins referred to Parkhill as Coach Barnhill, and the room -- halfway to the South Gym -- where Michigan State great Judd Heathcoat had to get on all fours to ascend a raised platform. There was also a room where Wisconsin coach and Reading, Pa., native Stu Jackson told David Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot-News: I never forget a face
or a pen. Alas, I did forget where that room was.
4. Penn State's locker room. It was right off the main playing floor. After a PSU loss to Lehigh in 1987, reporters waiting outside the locker room could hear Parkhill tearing into the Nittany Lions. He never did come out to be interviewed (though we're assuming he did leave the room at some point). The door of the locker room featured a weird mechanical key pad lock that looked like it was designed by Jules Verne. The only way the locker room could have been closer to the playing floor was if the players came up through a hatch at midcourt.
3. The scoreboard. I mean the one at the main entrance end of the building. Some poor son of a gun had to manually add the player names for both teams before every game. And it was changed for all sports. For hoops, it allowed fans to keep track of how many points and fouls each player had. Going digital a decade or two earlier could have saved thousands of name-changing man hours. But the athletic department was rolling in cash in those days. It just didn't spend it on pizza.
2. The students being right on the court -- literally. When players inbounded a ball from in front of the student section, people actually had to move to create space for them. And yet there were surprisingly few instances of students overstepping their boundaries, so to speak. Official Sid Rodeheffer lost his cool and bounced a kid for dropping F-bombs on him in 1993. But the smartest officials ignored them. And the smartest opposing players -- like then-No. 5 Michigan's Chris Webber and Jalen Rose that same year -- engaged in friendly banter with the students. They don't know how lucky they are to have an environment like this, Webber said after an 80-70 win. I hope they don't take it for granted. Which brings us to
1. How opposing coaches and players loathed and loved the place. As legendary Purdue coach Gene Keady said after the Lions upset his seventh-ranked Boilermakers in 1994, There's 15 high school gyms in Indiana bigger than this one.
They do have a great edge here. If I was them, I wouldn't even build a new field house.