Eulogy For an Old Barn: Oregon’s McArthur CourtPosted by rtmsf on January 1st, 2011
Kenny Ocker is an RTC contributor.
Oregon’s basketball game Saturday against Arizona State on the surface seems to just be an early-season Pac-10 Conference game between two teams that started off their seasons earlier this week with disappointing blowout losses. However, the game is also the last men’s basketball game at McArthur Court, Oregon’s 84-year-old on-campus arena, before the Ducks move into the $200-million, Phil Knight-funded Matthew Knight Arena on the other side of campus. McArthur Court was constructed in 1926 and was paid for by an increase in student fees. The arena has played host to many events and teams over the years, from Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, to the Japanese men’s national gymnastics team’s first loss in international competition, to Oregon gymnastics and wrestling, but the building nicknamed The Pit is best known as the home of Oregon basketball.
The Ducks have an occasionally storied tradition as a basketball school, and McArthur Court has been there for nearly all of it. The team dubbed the Tall Firs won the NCAA’s first national championship in 1939, led by the wonderfully named center Slim Wintermute and the wind-erfully named forward Lauren Gale. Those two, along with point guard Bobby Aney, were named All-Americans, as the Ducks went 29-5 in the season en route to the NCAA title. (I don’t believe “One Shining Moment” was played then.) Oregon’s form suffered after this, with only three NCAA Tournament berths between the 1939 title and 1995. The Ducks went to the NCAAs in 1945, 1960 and 1961, with an Elite Eight trip in 1960.
However, the program undertook a rebirth in the 1970s, led by former Penn head coach Dick Harter, who dubbed McArthur Court “The Pit,” a nickname that lives on to this day and is reflected in the name of the student section, the Pit Crew. Harter’s “Kamikaze Kids” had three straight berths to the NIT from 1975 through 1977. Those teams were led by All-American Ron Lee, but also featured future Oregon basketball coach Ernie Kent, the man who put Ducks basketball back on the map after a lackluster decade in the 1980s.
Kent, the first head coach since Harter to have a winning record at Oregon, led the program to six NCAA Tournament appearances and Elite Eights in 2002 and 2007, and restored the atmosphere at McArthur Court to one that was dubbed “the best gym in America” by the Sporting News in 2001. Kent’s first Elite Eight team was led by Freddie Jones, Luke Jackson and Luke Ridnour, and won the school’s first conference championship since 1944. (It’s hard to win conference championships when the team is going up against UCLA every season. That’s how a predominantly basketball-first school can only have four of them in its lifespan.) Speaking of UCLA, the Bruins lost three times at the Pit coming to Eugene as the top-ranked team in the country. The Bruins probably aren’t too sad the Pit is going away. Back to Ernie Kent’s teams for a second, however. The second Elite Eight team, led by Aaron Brooks and Malik Hairston, lost to the eventual national champions, Florida. Joevan Catron, the current team’s leading scorer and rebounder, is the last vestige from the Elite Eight team and is also the last remaining player to have played in an NCAA Tournament game for Oregon.
Until a few years ago, Oregon was considered a basketball-first school. And then Phil Knight started pouring untold millions of dollars into the football program, catapulting it toward a position as one of the country’s best teams. At that same time, Oregon’s basketball program was neglected somewhat, turning a program that had gotten to the Elite Eight two years earlier into a Pac-10 bottom-feeder. Things got so dire in Eugene during the 2008-09 season that fans Rushed the Court (tm) when the Ducks defeated Stanford in the team’s second-to-last home game of the season — for its first conference win. (In the interests of full disclosure, I was one of those fans.) To stem this tide, the school dismissed Ernie Kent and brought in Dana Altman from Creighton to change the course of the program and to be the face of the team as it opens its new arena. Kent was the man who built the program back up into relevancy again, but he didn’t get to reap the rewards of his own hard work.
McArthur Court has witnessed all of these teams and events, and the charming arena will see its doors close after Oregon’s game against the Sun Devils on New Year’s Day. The charm of The Pit is in its three-tiered construction, where the sections are suspended one atop another, trapping the noise of every fan. The charm of The Pit is in its obstructed views and the incessant smell of popcorn, giving the aura of old-time athletics (unless you’re one of the unlucky few stuck behind a pole). The charm of The Pit is how the whole building shakes whenever Duck fans come to life. With the new year comes the end of a long and illustrious era of Oregon basketball. The last game at McArthur Court will be a game of old in a year of new, with uniforms borrowed from a different time and a flight of Duck fans feeling blue.