Dome some home for Syracuse hoopsters

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In just six years, more than two million basketball fans have braved the icy winds and unpredictable weather of central New York to see the Syracuse Orangemen play in the Carrier Dome. Crowds that have topped 32,500, and which average better than 26,000, have made life miserable for opposing players and coaches. The dome sits at the heart of the Syracuse campus, high atop University Hill, which overlooks the city. From the outside, it resembles a giant-size pillow with its white, bubble roof. Inside, it is one of the liveliest places in the country to play.

Ken Hunter, a senior at Syracuse, is just one of thousands of fans who yell, scream, and heckle opposing teams. ``There is a tradition that Syracuse fans have to live up to at every game,'' Hunter says. ``Being at the games is more of an event than just watching two teams playing basketball.''

Such noted college basketball dens as Rupp Arena in Kentucky, The Mecca in Milwaukee, Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, and The Palestra in Philadelphia can appear tame in comparison to the Dome.

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``This place is insane compared to those places,'' Mike Holdridge, the Dome's public relations director, said. ``You have to see this place in action for a sold-out game to see a zoo at its finest.''

On one occasion, when Syracuse hosted Georgetown on national television, the crowd became so aroused that the visiting team was pulled off the court until the spectators calmed down.

Though noticeably more subdued, partly at the Big East Conference's insistence, recent crowds have proved no less committed in cheering the nation's seventh-ranked squad, which is off to an 11-0 start.

If the spectators, who form a sea of orange, are not enough of a distraction, Syracuse has an official mascot and a handful of unofficial ones that parade around the perimeter of the court, whipping-up crowd support. Besides Syracuse's own ``Orange,'' there is Dome Eddie, The Beast of the East, and most famous of all, The Dome Ranger, a local disc jockey who runs around the arena in orange cowboy garb and a blue Lone Ranger mask. A number of fraternities have mascots of their own, and all move to the music of the Sour Sitrus Society, rated the nation's best pep band by the Basketball Times.

The Dome, as it's known in these parts, is the largest on-campus facility of its kind.

Built originally as a 50,000-seat football stadium, the $28 million prefab stadium was principally intended to rejuvenate interest in the school's sagging gridiron program. Though the football team hasn't generated the kind enthusiasm inspired by the '50s and '60s teams of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, and Larry Csonka, basketball has flourished under the Teflon roof. Syracuse-area fans, who once had enjoyed having the Nationals, an NBA team, in the city, have broken and rebroken national attendance records. This situation has played a role in the rapid rise of the Big East Conference to national prominence.

``I think we have a pretty good basketball facility. The seats that are way up there,'' coach Jim Boeheim says pointing to the upper deck, ``are as close or closer than they are in places like Madison Square Garden or other comparable big arenas.''

Syracuse has more season ticket holders (21,000) than many other schools have seats. Students, who line one side of the court, occupy approximately 8,000 seats. The others are sold on a preferred-buyers plan, in which location is determined by the donor's generosity. Some center-court seats require a gift of $10,000 or more.

``It has become a real social happening to come to the Dome,'' says Holdridge, who observes that ``some people people pay for a ticket and never sit in their seats.''

On one side of the curtain that splits the Dome, there is a basketball game. But behind the curtain are concession stands serving standard stadium fare, Italian and seafood restaurants, and a deli. Before the game and at halftime, there are local bands playing, and, of course, the souvenir stands remain open to sell every imaginable form of Syracuse and Big East paraphernalia. There is also a giant, rear-projection, closed-circuit television that keeps people in touch with the game on the other side of the curtain and shows instant-replays. The whole catering program was designed to get fans to come to the stadium earlier to avoid the traffic problems that plague the university area.

From a commercial standpoint, the Dome has been a great success, but the decision to move the basketball team from Manley Field House to the Carrier's Big-Top setting wasn't an easy one. It wasn't made until early 1980, with construction nearing completion.

Manley, an intimate 9,500-person arena that was always packed and always unfriendly to visiting teams and referees, had been Syracuse's home court for 18 years. The Orangemen enjoyed such tremendous success there (their record was 190-28) that many good teams refused to play them at home.

``We had just won 57 consecutive games at Manley [before losing the curtain closer to Georgetown],'' said Boeheim. ``You'd have to be crazy to want to leave a place like that. In the beginning, we thought we would only draw 12,000 or 14,000 people in a 30,000-seat arena, and that would mean it was half empty. I don't think any coach would have wanted that kind of situation.'' But since the move, the Orangemen have won at an .850 clip and last season averaged 26,255 spectators per game.

Boeheim admits that the crowds are much bigger than he ever expected. ``I've got to admit I was wrong about the place,'' he said. ``There is no question the Dome has been good to us because of television, which is always looking for something special and likes to televise games from here. And there is no question it is a selling point for our recruiting.''

Certainly All-American guard Dwayne (Pearl) Washington, now of the New Jersey Nets, was impressed. Since Washington signed in March of 1983, Syracuse has been the choice of many potential stars, and a finalist for many of the nation's top 20 recruits every year.

Blue-chip freshman Derrick Coleman said that the idea of bringing a Dome crowd to its feet was one of the reasons he signed with Syracuse. ``Just being in front of this crowd, that really makes a player want to come here,'' said Coleman, who has blossomed into an immediate crowd favorite. ``When you make a play, just to hear this many people scream and holler really gets you and your team motivated to play even better.''

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