Fifth Third Are-er, check that. The Shoemaker Center - yeah, that sounds right - closed last night. Not for good. It'll reopen in a year and a half, and it'll be better. Just not the same.
And that's okay.
As a physical structure, no one is going to miss The Shoe. It lacks aesthetics and amenities, and it quickly went from modern to outdated about a minute after it opened in 1989. The building itself has never had much charm, and in recent years, it's looked more and more like the living room of a newly-divorced buddy who's just let himself go. I remember the first time I ever got a chance to see at game at the Shoe. After a few years of wondering when I'd ever see my beloved Bearcats play in person, my Uncle Jim took me to a UC/Austin Peay game in 1994. After surveying the scenery and feeling underwhelmed by the surroundings of a place I'd once dreamed of being at, I turned to him and said "so this is all there is, huh?"
I was an absolute delight as a teenager.
But what makes a house a home isn't the foundation, or the walls, or the stuff that's put in it. A home is where moments happen and where memories are created.
And man, did I walk out of the home of UC basketball carrying some memories, many of which are among the happiest of my life.
It's the place where I fell in love with college basketball, a place where I formed a passion for a program around which I've formed friendships, shaped myself professionally, and where - no matter where else life was taking me - I've always felt totally at home. It's where I've celebrated victories and agonized over defeats. It's where I've gotten drunk and cursed at opposing coaches and where I've soberly and silently muttered profane things at officials under my breath. It's a place where I've high-fived strangers after wins, and where I've trudged out of into the cold, lonely night after losses.
It's where my dad would set aside his UK allegiance to take me to games, shaking off his mobility issues - and the floor seats that could've come with them - to hike up toward those last rows of the upper deck, where sitting all but guaranteed him a chiropractor visit the following day.
It's where my college girlfriend and I would trudge down from Dayton to see a team that represented a school that neither of us attended, and where I'd pay far more attention to what was happening on the floor than what was happening with her.
It's where I first hung out with the man who'd eventually marry my mom. It's where I sneaked into every game of the 1998 C-USA Tournament, it's where I attended by myself the Third Place Game of the Delta Bearcat Classic, and where me and a guy named Nick once bribed an usher with 15 bucks to let us sit in empty seats somewhere in the upper rows of the lower bowl for a game against West Carolina.
It's where my friend Rich Walburg took me to for nearly every UC game from 1998 through 2002. It's where I got to see up close the senior seasons of Kenyon Martin and Steve Logan, where we yelled at a nice, older, couple who implored us (me) to stop standing up, and where we later won those same old people over by convincing them that if the Bearcats topped 100 points in a blowout over Tulane, everyone in attendance would win a Buick.
It's where we (I) harassed an Athletes In Action player during his postgame testimony beacause he'd played at Louisville, where (I) mercilessly hammered a UNLV player who showed a little too much flair on a missed dunk in the final few seconds of a blowout, and where we'd sit silently in the final moments of any close game, only speaking to acknowledge that it was "nervous time."
The Shoemaker Center is where I've gotten to work since 2002, and it's a place that's afforded me one of the best seats in the house to watch a team, and a sport, that I love. It's where for more than a decade and a half worth of home games, I've gotten to sit next to Dan Hoard, hearing in real-time the calls of the best play-by-play man in the game, and it's from that seat where I've learned how a consummate pro meshes both a journalist's objectivity and a fan's passion.
It's where I've gotten to work with, get needled by, and learn from Chuck Machock. He is college basketball's greatest character, the most genuinely kind man I've ever met, and as the man who - as a coach and a broadcaster - might have been a part of more UC basketball games at The Shoe than anyone, his presence courtside is part of the building's heart and soul. No one loves the Bearcats more.
He's seen more at the Shoe than I've seen, and I've seen a lot. I've seen some of UC's best teams and many of its iconic players. I've seen it's greatest games and some of its most lopsided blowouts. I've seen signature wins and devastating losses. I've seen the University of Cincinnati basketball program rise to the level of the nation's biggest powerhouses, only to get leveled and turned into a national afterthought. And in recent years, including this one, I've seen it rise again.
From somewhere inside The Shoe, I watched The Gunslinger, The Helicopter, K-Mart and Mad Max. I watched SK, Lo, Born Ready, J-Jax, Biggie, and Hurricane Ron. I saw Kenyon become the Player of the Year, I watched as Steve Logan craftily turned himself into an All-American, and I watched as Kilpatrick tallied more points than any Bearcat not named "Oscar."
I was there when Kenyon put back Ruben Patterson's miss against Charlotte, when Donald Little hit the jumper against Marquette, when Kenyon had the triple-double against DePaul, and when Lenny went for 31 against Louisville.
I saw Steve Logan outscore Southern Mississippi's entire team. I saw Yancy Gates go off, making the most improbable shots against Xavier. I saw Melvin Levett hit ten threes against Eastern Kentucky. I saw Zack Tobler score on the very first possession of his final home game.
I was there to say goodbye on Senior Night 2000, when Kenyon's final home game seemed for that UC team, as it if was just the beginning. I was there for those same festivities six years later, when Eric Hicks and company honored their former coach. I was there in 2011 for an emphatic Senior Day win over Georgetown that solidified a return to the Big Dance. I was there last night for a Senior Night when the Cats finished off an unbeaten home season.
At the Shoe, I watched the fury and fire of Bob Huggins, and saw him continually work his mastery over the officials. I saw him walk onto the court weeks after nearly dying. I watched Andy Kennedy use a deft touch to guide one of UC's most endearing teams. I saw him have the plugged pulled on his final postgame show. And I've watched as Mick Cronin has thrived in the shadow of a predecessor, working through unenviable circumstances to consistently assemble tough, hard-working, and likable teams. I've watched him keep his foot on the pedal while coaching a current group of Bearcats that's having a memorable season befitting the of place it's called home.
I've been there for triumph. The OT win over Memphis in 2002. The improbable comeback against Northern Iowa in 2004. The Marvin Gentry Game against West Virginia in 2007. A win in Huggs' return in 2009. The signature wins over Louisville and Marquette in 2012. All 26 victories in their current home winning streak.
I've sat everywhere there is to sit at The Shoe. Upper deck and lower. Top row and courtside. Student section and suite. I've overpaid for tickets and I've enjoyed the luxury of having a press pass and getting in for nothing. I've lost my voice after cheering, and I've bitten my tongue while stewing in silence. I've given unsolicited observations to strangers in the stands, and I've been lucky to fill in and call the action from press row. The Shoemaker Center was a place that's hard to love, yet it's one of the places I love the most.
And yes, it's was a dump. But dammit, it was our dump.
And now, almost mercifully, the Shoemaker Center as we know it is closed.
It will get re-done, and when it re-opens, it will be better. The new arena will be a jewel for the university, and an asset for the basketball program. It will have levels of comfort, class, and beauty that The Shoe in its old form has always lacked. It will be a place where new stories are told, new characters are formed, and where more memories are created.
But the building itself, and the teams that play in it, will have a long legacy of Shoemaker Center stories, people, and memories to live up to.