When it comes to choosing a place to hold college basketball's Final Four, big looks increasingly beautiful to those who make the decision. Responding primarily to the soaring demand for tickets, officials of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament have decided there's no place like a dome for the wrapup. The just-ended tournament was the second played here in the Superdome, and three of the next five will conclude under similar big tops.
In 1989 the Final Four will return to Seattle's Kingdome, where it was previously staged in 1984. The event will be held at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis in 1991, and at Minneapolis's Metrodome the next year.
The trend is obvious, even if not yet official policy.
``There is no formula at this point. It is on a year-by-year basis,'' said Tom Jernstedt, the NCAA's assistant executive director. ``But it would be my guess that the sentiment is clearly in favor of domes.''
Exceptions will occur in Kansas City next year and Denver in 1990, when the era of arena basketball could end for the Final Four.
The move away from facilities like this, which seat some 16,000 to 17,000 fans, raises a philosophical and aesthetic question: How intimate a setting does basketball require to make the game appealing to spectators?
After all the sport was invented in a YMCA and still is nurtured in cozy gyms and nostalgic facilities like Philadelphia's Palestra, the Fenway Park of college hoops.
To sit in the Superdome's upper deck, as many Final Four fans have done, is a radical departure from the norm in basketball watching. From there, one can be virtually an outsider, a spectator to a spectacle.
This writer once climbed to the top reaches of these seats and discovered that the basket nets were not visble from such a distance. Binoculars are practically required equipment, unless you want to watch the game on the giant TV screen suspended from the ceiling, surely a temptation for some of the 65,000-plus this time.
Fans, however, seem to possess a strong desire to say, ``I was there,'' even if it means being in the rafters.
Certainly the 1982 finals didn't dampen enthusiasm for this year's return to the Superdome. The number of ticket applications swelled from 15,600 in '82 to 41,000 this year, of which 85 percent came from out of state.
Those whose applications are picked in the annual computerized drawing can request a maximum of four tickets at $50 each for admission to all three games (two semis and the final). For next year's Final Four, the application deadline is this coming April 15.
More and more coaches, once reluctant to embrace ``dome ball,'' seem to have accepted it.
The opinions of Syracuse's Jim Boeheim and Indiana's Bob Knight, the opposing coaches in Monday night's championship game, are perhaps indicative.
Boeheim, whose team plays in the Carrier Dome, says, ``When we first moved in, I really didn't like it, and I still don't totally like playing in a place that large. At first I was concerned about how our shooting percentage would be affected by it, but it hasn't suffered. And the dome has been great for our program because now so many more people ... can become involved.''
Knight is less familiar with the phenomenon, but he doesn't think the vast surroundings hinder performance.
``When they first started playing in the domes I was very much opposed to it,'' he says, ``and yet the quality of the basketball I have seen played in them has not diminished. ... and maybe it is the thing because 60,000 can see a game instead of 17,000.''
If there's an adjustment required of the players it's primarily one of depth perception. Dome seating configurations often leave a void behind the backboards where players normally see a wall of humanity.
Indiana captain Steve Alford says this makes gauging straight-ahead distances to the basket trickier, and may partly explain a rare two straight free-throw misses for him in Saturday's semifinal win over Nevada-Las Vegas.
Today's ``dome ball,'' however, is not nearly as challenging as the 1971 Final Four setting, which presaged a future age by moving into Houston's Astrodome. Most of the crowd was situated eerily far away from the court, creating a rather disorienting environment.
Domes may be fine for the mega-event, but they can be hard to fill on a regular basis. Several pro teams have occupied domes at one point or another. The Seattle SuperSonics, for example, moved into the Kingdome at the height of their popularity, but have since returned to the Seattle Coliseum. And the Detroit Pistons, the NBA's only current dome tenants, will leave the Silverdome within the next few years for a smaller new arena.
Someday the NCAA may consider returning the Final Four to a more intimate setting, especially if advancements in large-screen TV make home viewing more enticing. In the meantime, though, so many people want to rub shoulders with this hoop happening that keeping it a small party might be a mistake.