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Basketball: Back to Blackham

Basketball: Back to Blackham

Basketball: Back to Blackham

Coliseum had magical atmosphere

Dan McDonald

Uncomfortable wooden bench seats. Small, dingy bathrooms. Long concession lines.
"But nobody griped," said Beryl Shipley, who coached in Blackham Coliseum for 16 years for then-USL.

On the floor, there was a basketball court notorious for dead spots, one which sat on a sawdust base. Sometimes the sawdust was painted to improve the appearance.

"I never thought about all that," said Dwight "Bo" Lamar, who elevated the building’s status during his storied career. "It was just home for me."
In its later years, green plastic carpeting covered the sawdust and the facility was air-conditioned. Other improvements made it more fan-friendly. But one thing never changed about Blackham – its great basketball environment.

"There’s no place in America I’d rather be for a basketball game," said Rich Jenks, one of the founding fathers of the "Red Dots" fan group. "When I was a kid my folks took me to see guys like Bo and Roy Ebron play. That’s probably the biggest reason I went to USL. That place is great."

Jenks and scores of other fans made the winter pilgrimage to the Johnston Street landmark for 35 years to watch the Bulldogs/Cajuns play basketball. And not often were they disappointed, since Shipley had winning records in 15 of his 16 campaigns.

"Everybody in there had a good seat," said Shipley, who headed up the program from 1957-73. "And it was loud. You get that many people in that small an area … you couldn’t hear yourself think in a big ball game."

All that noise moved and changed in 1985, when the Cajun men shifted their operation to the brand-new Cajundome. The plush 11,000-seat facility gives the University of Louisiana program one of the South’s top facilities, but some fans have insisted for years that the atmosphere in the massive ‘Dome pales in comparison to venerable Blackham.

"The Dome’s beautiful," said Russell Heim, who prowled the sidelines in both arenas under the moniker of the Fabulous Cajun Chicken. "But when you were in Blackham you felt like the people were right there with you. The crowd was part of the game.

"It’s so big compared to Blackham that it didn’t vibrate. When you were whooping and hollering in Blackham, it came right back at you and you felt it. It was magical."

"I thought some of the intimacy was gone," said Lamar. "The fans are way away from you. I never played in there, but it seemed like the fans were more involved in Blackham. They could always get to the court."

Those theories and those opinions will be tested four times in the next four weeks, when UL plays four home men’s basketball games "back at Blackham." The Cajundome suffered minor damage during Hurricane Rita, but its status as an evacuee shelter following Hurricane Katrina resulted in a need for massive cleanup and renovation.

The Cajuns will return to the ‘Dome for its Sun Belt Conference schedule, but beginning with Saturday’s 7:05 p.m. meeting with a solid Charlotte team the UL squad will have its own version of "throwback" games. Blackham will also be UL’s home arena Dec. 15 against Oral Roberts, Dec. 22 against McNeese State and Jan. 2 against Georgia State.

Blackham lacks the Cajundome’s amenities, and has many of the same problems as most 55-year-old buildings.

"It was very seldom when we’d have practices or games in bad weather that we didn’t have leaks," said long-time Cajun assistant coach Tom Cox. "But it’s hard to replace the kind of atmosphere we had."

Most fans’ memories of capacity crowds stem from the years that the Lamar-led Cajuns ranked in the national top 10 and made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen. That was also the time that the Bayou Classic was drawing attention as a premier tournament.

"We were able to get good teams in here, and that got us a lot of national publicity," Shipley said. "We were getting tremendous community support, and the student body in those days was tremendous. There weren’t many cars or any buses, and they’d walk down Johnston Street from the campus hours before the game."

"They’d beat us there," Lamar said of the early-arriving crowds. "They had to. It was just crazy fun for us, and terrible for the visiting team."

One of those visiting team victims was Northeast Louisiana, who watched a huge lead vanish in the closing minutes and the Cajuns, stoked by two technicals called on Shipley, rallied to force overtime. USL won 107-104 and Lamar had a school-record 62 points.

"You looked up in the last few minutes and the place was one-third empty," Shipley said. "In the overtime, they all came back."

"You could see the people coming back in," Cox said.

Even after the NCAA’s two-year suspension of the program from 1973-75 for alleged recruiting violations, Blackham was still a landmark. The Cajuns went to five postseason tournaments – two NCAA’s and three NIT’s – between 1980-85, and the last true men’s game in the building was a typical "barn-burner" when USL topped Florida 65-64 in an NIT first-round game.

After the move to the Cajundome, it took seven years for USL to return to postseason play.

"I thought Blackham was a great place to play," Shipley said. "I still do. If you played a good club and you won, it would be packed the next game."


An excerpt from a column by the Milwaukee (Wis.) Sentinel’s Dale Hoffman, written after Marquette’s 68-58 loss to the Cajuns in Blackham Coliseum in 1984:

"It was all about screeching and bellowing and blowing trumpets, scattering confetti, throwing wadded-up newspapers on the court and making life generally warm and steamy for the out-of-town talent. The customers listened politely to a pregame invocation and then raised holy hell the rest of the night.

"Blackham is one of your old-fashioned down home, nasty, delightful pits. Barnum and Bailey sends people into cages like that, but only with a whip and a chair.

"There are bleachers situated seven feet behind the visitor’s bench, and the fans who sit in them need not be enrolled in divinity school. Two minutes before game time, the home team takes a lap around the arena, led by a larger than life Cajun mascot riding in a golf cart with a blaring siren. By the time the players hit the court, a handful of spectators and most opponents are in intermediate stages of cardiac arrest.

"There is a huge section of stands occupied solely by a group of fans in white T-shirts. They have red dots on the shirts and mayhem in their eyes. They’re called the Red Dot Club. There’s a smaller section populated by a group called the Animals, whose fame does not derive from their wardrobe. They started booing the visiting players while they were in the locker room getting taped.

"We’ll never know how much all of that helped the Ragin’ Cajuns get by Marquette, but it sure didn’t hurt. It takes more than coincidence and inspired scheduling for a team to win 40 of its last 42 home games. Marquette coach Ric Majerus lists USL as one of the five or six hardest places in the country to play."

Originally published December 2, 2005