Does college basketball belong in jumbo stadiums?
The question arose here during the conclusion of this year's NCAA tournament. Saturday's semifinal doubleheader, plus the championship game between Georgetown and North Carolina Monday night, were played in the Superdome, a structure that dwarfs even the largest basketball arena.
Only one other indoor crowd approaches the 61,000 who watched from the Superdome's unobstucted-view seats, some 15,000 less than the football capacity.
The previous record was set 14 years earlier when Houston and UCLA drew 52, 683 to the Astrodome for a heavily publicized regular season game.
''It wasn't a good place to play a game or watch a game, but it was a spectacular event at the time,'' John Wooden, UCLA's retired coach, has said.
The court was placed in the middle of the Astrodome, but is situated off to one side in the Superdome's special basketball seating configuration, which uses a movable grandstand section to sandwich the court. Still, the games here lacked the intimacy normally associated with college basketball, for which 20,000 is a big crowd.
In the Superdome, many fans watched from what are end zone seats for football. The ultimate bleacher bums, though, were the thousands in the upper deck on the otherwise vacant side of the dome.
Before one game, as the players warmed up far below, I ventured to the most distant seats. Just hiking to the top of the Superdome required some courage and stamina, for whether one reaches the portal to this section using ramps or escalators, a steep ascent remains.
To watch from this eagle's nest truly was unlike anything I have experienced during many years of spectating. Player numbers were too small to read, the nets on the baskets almost imperceptible. The Goodyear blimp might have afforded a closer look. Binoculars were pretty much a necessity to gain any feeling of being more than a detached observer. And frankly, watching the TV gondolas that hang from the roof is a poor substitute for viewing a good clear picture on the family set.
To the credit of tournament and Superdome officials, every prospective ticket buyer was given fair warning as to what to expect. Those placing orders were mailed photographs taken from various locations, giving an idea of the distance from the court, all the way up to 375 feet away.
In a departure from past tournament procedures, prices were scaled from a high of $36 for the two sessions to a low of $16. Those in distant locations were entitled to a refund if they didn't like their seats, but fans still paid to be in on this sports spectacle.
Demand for tickets to see the Final Four generally far outstrips supply. This year's event was an experiment to see how many people could be accommodated.
Bill Curl, the Superdome public relations director, said from the outset that the facility had a lot riding on this year's event. ''We'd like the Final Four back in '87 (the earliest date not already scheduled),'' he said.
NCAA spokesman Dave Cawood indicated that if some of the intimacy of college basketball could be attained in the Superdome that ''it could be in the future of the NCAA to look into that type of facility on a regular basis.''
Next year the tourament moves into the University of New Mexico's 30,000 seat arena in Albuquerque, but Seattle's Kingdome will host it in 1984, after which it returns to regular arenas in Lexington, Ky., and Dallas the next two years.
No committment has been made regarding the number of seats to be sold in Seattle. Obviously the NCAA wants to wait a while until it learns what the reaction to this year's Superdome bash was.
''I think having the tournment in a stadium like the Superdome is something the NCAA should do once in a while, maybe every 8 or 10 years,'' said coach Gene Bartow of the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
In seeking to let ticket sales reach their natural level, the NCAA opted for a 60,000 -- rather than a 40,000 -- seat setup here.
Something like 30,000 seats might be a better outer limit as the NCAA contemplates invitations from the increasing number of domes sure to express interest.
As it is, the Kingdome lists its capacity for Seattle SuperSonic pro games at 40,192, while the Detroit Pistons consider 22,366 a sellout in the Pontiac Silverdome.
New Orleans once had a National Basketball Association team, the Jazz, who now play in Utah. A crowd of 35,000 turned out to see one of their games, and last March's NCAA midwest regional semi-final attracted 34,000 to the Superdome.
So large basketball crowds were nothing new here, yet people wondered what it would be like to almost double that figure. As it turned out, many fans at the Final Four held no rooting interest and did little if anything to contribute to the noise level.
''It was so big in there we could hardly hear them,'' said North Carolina forward James Worthy. ''You'd think it would be loud, but it wasn't loud at all. It didn't have any effect.'' In a smaller arena, 20,000 people probably could have made as much if not more of a racket.
But history was still made, and of a kind that basketball may not soon see repeated.