“I’m feeling a frisson already!” My friend Bob had just learned UL’s next game in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament was scheduled for Blackham Coliseum. And tipoff for the March 26 game was still 48 hours away. We agreed to meet for pregame burgers if his digestive system could handle solid food so close to game time.
Vermilion-clad fans stuffed the Ground Pati across Johnson Street from Blackham when we arrived at 5:30 p.m., two full hours before the game started. The fans came in all ages and from all eras as well.
Eric Thompson’s father first brought him to Blackham when he was 8. Tonight Eric was bringing his son Ryan, age 12. “I remember the rivalries most of all, McNeese and Lamar,” Eric says. “It would get loud and the student section was phenomenal. Andrew Toney was the first player I remember.”
Susan Cornell is a member of the Greatest Generation of Cajun basketball fans: “I was a student with Bo Lamar and Roy Ebron. Basketball was everything.”
Chuck Walker started at UL in 1969. “I went to all the games, every one. We used to get tickets at the Student Union, first come, first served.” Chuck recalled one game in particular: “I had trouble parking so I got in a minute or two after the game against Oral Roberts had started. The score was already 18-16.”
The year was 1970 and the Cajuns won 124-114. In the first five games of the year they scored 550 points, went 25-4 for the season and played in their first NCAA tournament. They lost to Evansville, their opponent for this unusual March 26 game, in the first round.
“I liked the intimacy of Blackham,” Chuck continued. “The student section consisted of temporary bleachers that surrounded the court. At Blackham when somebody stood up we all had to stand because we were all jammed together shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Entering Blackham felt like arriving at a reunion. Many folks appeared the same age as the building, 65 years old. Some of the shirts and hats looked like they had been in storage since the Cajundome opened in 1985. But this was a true basketball crowd, and when Mrs. Delores Shipley delivered the game ball the crowd stood and cheered.
UL’s athletic support staff did an excellent job prep job. Blackham was clean, the bench seats polished (maybe from the years of rears) and even the maligned restrooms passed muster. To top it off Coach Bob Marlin sported a red blazer.
There were a few glitches. The scoreboard (or its operator) often updated the point totals a possession or two late, and once the timekeeper’s buzzer continually buzzed while an Evansville player waited to take a free throw much to the crowd’s delight.
Other missing amenities were actually blessings by their absence. There was no loud pregame video, no disco ball, no spotlight, no video for commercials, no flashing lights, and no loud pre-recorded music. All this meant the Cajun Pep Band had to work harder. They did and they were excellent.
The game was excellent, too. A throwback to when high-scoring games were the norm, at least in Blackham. Evansville was led by DJ Balentine., a 6-2 junior who put on a Bo Lamar-like show: 4-7 from long range and 35 points. Shawn Long played one of his best games of the year for the Cajuns: 7-11 from the field, 10-11 from the line, 11 rebounds and 24 points. Evansville seemed to have a slight edge in experience and had to benefit from playing in the tough Missouri Valley Conference with the likes of Wichita State and Northern Iowa. Final: 89-82 Evansville.
An appreciative, knowledgeable crowd, a no frills atmosphere, and a good game; all that was missing was the student section, the bleachers that surrounded the court. Not that they were needed. The couple of hundred or so students who got free Red Dot T-shirts were loud and loyal. But it’s hard to see 3,000 of them showing up 35 years from now to watch a game in a 65-year-old Cajundome.
UL students should reconnect with their basketball team. Why? I guess you had to be there on March 26.