Carving a legend: The 500th game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena

BY BEN ROSS | NOVEMBER 08, 2013 5:00 AM

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Even though the record books say otherwise, Greg Stokes claims he scored the first basket ever at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

"We would go over to the site periodically to see the construction," Iowa basketball's third-leading all-time scorer (11 points behind No. 2 Acie Earl) said about the time in when the arena was being built — it opened on Jan. 3, 1983, for a Hawkeye wrestling meet against Oklahoma (victory) and hosted its first men's basketball game against Michigan State (loss).

"We were parked at the top level," Stokes said. "I and a couple of the guys went in to see who could make the first basket. I, Jerry Dennard, and Mike Payne walked in and ran down the steps to the court, and I grabbed a basketball off of a rack on the floor.

"I went and dunked it, so I can claim I had the very first bucket at Carver."

Technically, Stokes was the first to jam a basketball into the hoop at Carver. But others came after him. Literally hundreds have tossed, dribbled, and shot the orange rock on the court in Carver.

Tonight, the Iowa men's basketball team will take to the Carver hardwood for the 500th time in program history.

'A big-time basketball arena'

Carver has hosted games for the men's basketball team, as well as women's basketball, wrestling, gymnastics, and volleyball, since it opened. Prior to that, the men's basketball players played their contests in the historic Field House, built in 1927.

The Field House was a noisy, smoky (at times), rattletrap of a building. But people loved it, especially because of the metal stands — the sound of thousands of Hawkeye fans stomping in rhythm on the metal caused many of the opposing team members to believe they were playing inside a steel drum. That's where Iowa played some of its best basketball, especially the '69-70 team, which featured John Johnson and Downtown Freddie Brown and was the only Big Ten team to go 14-0 in conference play while averaging more than 100 points a game in the Big Ten.

The Field House has a rich history, too. It hosted regional matchups of the NCAA Tournament four times — 1954, '56, '64, and '66.

The hiring of Lute Olson as head coach for the men's team in 1974 meant five-straight NCAA Tournament appearances for the Hawkeye basketball squad, beginning in 1979. Conversation about building a new facility to house the team, along with other programs, began.

These talks to build a new arena to replace the Field House were commonplace but never came to fruition. Then Olson was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 1979.

"I think because of the success of the basketball program, everyone recognized we needed to upgrade by building that facility, the locker rooms, and training area," Olson said from his Arizona home. "It wasn't just a basketball court, it was a whole picture of a basketball program. We were one of the top teams in the league consistently. We needed something to recruit so talented athletes wanted to come. We needed to make a big-time basketball arena to go with our big-time program."

The people had spoken. Then-Athletics Director Bump Elliott decided it was time to talk turkey about giving his coach a sparkling new facility in which to house his program. The Athletics Department put on a campaign to raise money for a new arena and called it the Hawkeye Arena and Recreation Project.

"There was a meeting of the minds; we were behind the times," said Elliott, who served as the Iowa AD from 1970 until retiring in 1991. "It was due time Iowa got a new arena, and we needed to work on it. I give great credit to Lute Olson for getting it done."

But fans were reluctant to settle into a new building. Iowa had been nearly dominant playing in the Field House, a venue that, quite literally, rocked. The bleachers and claustrophobic atmosphere offered Iowa an advantage that a newer, more modern arena did not provide.

"It was really tough to persuade hard-core Hawkeye fans. You had to push them into the idea of a new arena," former Iowa Sports Information Director Phil Haddy said. "The Field House held a special spot in our hearts. There was no place ever louder than the Field House. People stomping on steel stands, everyone loved it — except for the people that sat with an obstructed view of the court."

But Haddy, who retired in 2011 after 41 years in the Iowa Sports Information Department, remembered that once Carver was built, fans were happy to put the Field House memories behind them.

"Once we got settled into Carver, we realized it was something we absolutely had to have. The offices were night and day compared with what you had in the Field House."

Persuading fans to support the Carver project was no small task, either. Iowa City resident Jim Leonard, who has been a season-ticket holder for Iowa basketball since the early '60s, said people felt a connection to the Field House and said in some respects, he longs for the days when Iowa played basketball in that venue.

"Everyone loved the Field House," he said. "It was loud and boisterous; people would pour in and smoke like maniacs in a section of the Field House during halftime, and cigarette smoke would fill the court afterward. It was cruder, the place was falling apart. The fans were stacked one tier on top of another. By the time the game started, you would have this intense crowd rivalry of cheering fans. The Pep Band in the Field House only numbered around five people, so the fans were in charge. It was real wild and crazy."

Leonard still attends games at Carver, but, he said, the magic he felt while watching contests at the Field House has yet to be matched at Iowa's latest basketball arena.

"Now, the Pep Band plays nonstop. The crowd sort of starts from nowhere. During a game at Carver, if there's ever a burst of Hawkeye pride, all the opposing coach has to do is call a time-out, and the Pep Band starts playing. The crowd goes from crazy to silent again. It's revolting."

Fans aren't the only ones who feel this way about Carver. Recently retired Director of Recreational Services Harry Ostrander, who helped in the planning of Carver, said he pushed for Carver to have a center concourse so elderly fans didn't have so far to walk up and down stairs, as well as luxury suites in the arena, so some of Iowa's wealthier supporters could enjoy games in style. Neither happened.

But most of all, Ostrander said, the atmosphere at Carver hasn't been able to match that of the Field House.

"We never have been quite able to get the old noise or excitement the old Field House had," he said. "It's never quite felt the same."

'It was just a wasteland'

Despite the obvious advantages of playing at the Field House, officials turned the appropriate cogs and decided on the location for Iowa's new bastion of basketball.

Now at 1 Elliott Drive, the spot was chosen because of its proximity to Kinnick Stadium and the Dental Sciences Building, which has a sizable parking lot. But at the time, little was known of the remote piece of wooded land that was molded into Carver.

"I never knew where they were talking about, to be honest," former Iowa basketball star Bob Hansen said.

"We never went past Kinnick," he said. "It was just wasteland. They had the groundbreaking ceremony, and we were sort of like, 'Hmm … let's see how it turns out.' "

Placed in a wooded area, the construction site wasn't seen as a conventional spot to put an arena.

Some people were skeptical about the location, putting even more pressure on Carver to exceed the expectations placed on the new project. The location worked, and as it turns out, there was a method to the madness of locating a major sporting venue in a big hole in the ground.

The hill provides natural insulation, reducing cooling and heating costs for Carver. It also provided an exciting challenge for the architects working on the project.

Doss Mabe, the senior project designer for Caudill Rowlett Scott, the now-defunct architectural firm from Texas that did the work for Carver, said that at the time, the project was seen as a marvel in the architectural community.

Mabe remembers traveling from Texas to Iowa several times — at least once a month, he says — to visit the site and oversee construction. He recalls a good amount of the time was spent trying to solve problems, such as how to grade the hill and make a bowl fit in the space. He said he enjoyed working with the site simply because when one approaches Carver from the street, it appears as though it is a one-story building.

And even before it hosted an event, Carver generated buzz. The building received numerous architectural awards in the state of Iowa and Texas. It also received the coveted American Institute of Architects Honor Award in 1984.

"… I still remember I walked into the space after the roof was up, and you really got this sort of 'Oh my God,' reaction," Mabe said. "It would not have happened if not for Lute, Bump [Elliott], Bill [Barnes], Dan Gable, and Roy Carver. Mr. Carver had decided early on in the process he was going to give a major donation and be a supporter. Those were the guys. There's an old saying in architecture: 'Clients get the building they deserve.' They get huge credit. I remember them; they were already legends, really nice guys to work with. When people are that legendary, you would think it could be difficult to work with, but they were fun, and we would joke with each other. It was an incredible and exciting experience all around. I remember those guys were adored by everyone at Iowa. It was a big moment in the university's history to put this together. When it was finally finished, I was so excited the hair on the back of my head stood on end walking into that place. It still stands on end just talking about it. Whatever is left of my hair, at least."

One of the first things visitors notice when entering Carver is that they overlook the stands. This was done on purpose, as men's basketball coach Olson, along with Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable, AD Elliott, and Barnes — the project manager for the university at the time — went on a trip across the country to see how their basketball arena should be modeled.

Olson remembers stopping to see the facilities at Notre Dame and the University of Houston — both arenas that have their concourses overlooking the hardwood, similar to Carver's.

"We didn't want a facility where people walk in the doors and walk up to seats," Olson said. "That was one of the things that we were all concerned about. People don't like to walk into an arena and walk farther away from the court to their seats. With the concourse the way it is, you walk down closer to the floor."

Even though construction went smoothly and experienced few hiccups, Carver still took longer than officials had planned.

Iowa was forced to play its nonconference games in 1982 at the Field House. The first event in Carver was a wrestling dual between Iowa and Oklahoma on Jan. 3, 1983. The first men's basketball game took place be two days later, when Michigan State came to Iowa City.

'A black tie affair'

People treated the first basketball game at Carver as though the Louvre were unveiling a new piece to display. Fans wore fancy tuxedos and cocktail dresses. Quite a sight to see at a basketball game in the state of Iowa, as one can imagine.

"The opening night was a black-tie affair," Olson said. "It was a basketball game, with everyone in their black ties. It was a special, special night."

Iowa couldn't start its run in Carver in style, though — the Hawkeyes fell to Michigan State, 61-59, in a game that came down to the buzzer. Iowa players remember the emotion of that contest.

"The arena was full. I remember that it was full. This was the kind of first real game, so to speak. A lot of emotions were flowing," Stokes —father of Iowa junior basketball player Darrius Stokes — said. "I think Bob Hansen hit a shot, and it didn't count."

Hansen hit a 3-point shot with time running out that should have given Iowa a 1-point win. But that story comes out of a fairy tale. A happy ending isn't so common, as Iowa sports fans have come to know.

"Down 2 points, I took a pass from Steve Carfino and threw up what would have been a 3-pointer," Hansen said. "It beat the buzzer for the 1-point victory, but I guess I stepped out of bounds after I took the pass. People saw [Big Ten basketball referee] Ed Hightower make the call. They inbounded it and won the game."

Iowa went on to post a 21-13 record that season, placing second in the Big Ten and making it all the way to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament.\

But Olson didn't get to enjoy much more of the new building he helped make happen, leaving after Carver's first year to become the head coach at the University of Arizona. But that doesn't mean he still doesn't have a sense of pride for his previous employer.

"The good thing now is, when I watch the games on TV, the new staff really have things rolling again," he said. "That makes me happy when I look back and see they have it really going again; they had some big wins last year, and they continue to do that."

'Like a home'

Since its doors first opened in 1983, Carver has served as a fortress, quartering some of Iowa's most esteemed sports programs. This sense of territorial protection has helped shape the arena into the feared venue it is today; athletes treat competition there with a defensive attitude. At least that's what Roy Marble said.

"I like walking down the tunnel; that's when you know it's real," Iowa's scoring leader said. "When your blood is pumping, you're ready to take off and hit the court; I tell my son [Iowa senior Devyn Marble] all the time about those old memories."

The elder Marble also said that in some respects, Carver had some anthropomorphic qualities. But more than anything, he said, Carver was a home away from home. At least to him.

"Carver was a part of our team. It was a player. This is our upper hand. I would shoot around Carver and talk to Carver," he said. "I remember having conversations with Carver. Just enough light was showing onto the court doing late-night shoot-arounds, and I would talk to the court. I literally did. I was talking to the building. I would say, 'Just be nice.' If we had a game the next day, I would say, 'Please be nice tomorrow.' I would talk to it as if it was my workout instructor. I would have to hit 10 free throws in a row during these times before I left Carver. If I did that, that was Carver giving me a nod, saying I could go. It was really like a home for me."

He didn't think he was just having one-way conversations, either.

"Those nets would talk back," Marble said. "When I hit 20 nets in a row, that's Carver talking to you. Sometimes, Carver would really curse me out when I would miss my nets and shoot for an hour 45, two hours, when a workout generally took 45 minutes to an hour."

It's not hard to see where players get this sense of pride in protecting the court. Since its construction, the men's basketball team has marked a winning percentage over .700 at Carver. Iowa has never had a losing season in the building.

Marble isn't the only Iowa player that feels an emotional or cerebral connection to Carver.

"The first time I stepped in Carver was in 1984 on a 4-H visit," former All-Big Ten Iowa forward Jess Settles said. "I remember being in the tunnel. I would have been in the fourth grade. There was a flat basketball resting on the court. I got the ball, and we went out and started playing basketball on the floor. I thought I had reached the pinnacle as a young kid. About five minutes later, someone came and kicked us off the court. Who would've dreamed I could get on the court whenever I wanted, without anyone to kick me off, 10 years later? My best memory was walking into the locker room before the Black and Gold Blowout of my freshman year. I had three new pairs of shoes and a pressed uniform sitting in my locker. It looked like it was glowing, almost heavenly. It was the time you slip on the uniform and your dreams had come true."

Hawkeyes' Hilton

While Iowa players enjoyed the luxuries of Carver, its opponents were left to suffer from the advantages it had for the Hawkeyes and the tribulations to all those who dared cross its threshold.

Like the visitor locker room at Iowa football's Kinnick Stadium, the walls of the opponents' locker room in Carver were painted a pink hue, as part of former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry's belief that pink is a relaxing color. The merits of this claim have been disputed, but one can't deny that opponents do take notice of these unique surroundings in a hostile environment. (The pink walls have since been painted over when Carver underwent recent renovations).

Former Illinois standout Stephen Bardo said he knew Iowa meant business when he first stepped into that locker room.

"When I was a freshman at Illinois, the thing that stood out to me was the pink locker room. I remember thinking, 'This stuff is serious.' For a team to go as far to do research what colors do to your psyche made me realize what it was. Iowa basketball is about getting up and down. When we went to Carver, we knew you had to have your track shoes on and your ear plugs in. You would be running, and the crowd was deafening."

Bardo wasn't the only one surprised by the contents of Carver while playing a game there.

Former Indiana basketball player, Hoosier head coach, and current color commentator for ESPN Dan Dakich said he didn't even know Carver was a basketball arena when he first saw it, which was following a game where Indiana had been beaten by Iowa in the Field House.

"I remember thinking, 'What the hell is this?' Because it was built underground, and all we saw from the top were the beams," Dakich said. "We went in it, and we were blown away by the amenities. That was the first arena that had — we called it the beauty station. It had mirrors around your lockers and pink in the locker room. I remember it being the nicest place I had ever been."

But the amenities and color scheme of the locker room aren't the only things opposing players remember. Iowa basketball was the real deal in the past, and getting a win in Carver was damn near impossible, recalls former Purdue player and current Boilermaker head coach Matt Painter.

"I remember Tom Davis' press and how loud it would get when they would score baskets," Painter said. "It seemed like when they got a steal and dunk and go back into the press, it was an automatic time-out for us, because we realized we would be pretty even with Iowa for 38 minutes. I was always taking the ball out of bounds, and I had Acie Earl, or Chris Street, or someone with an unbelievable wingspan on me, and it was always difficult. I remember how loud it would get and how hard it was to win. You work all week on that press, but you couldn't simulate it."

'Something we want to protect'

After a few unspectacular seasons, Iowa basketball is poised to return to the glory days the team had under Dr. Tom Davis in Carver. The squad set a school record with 18 home wins last year with a team that made it to the NIT championship game.

Iowa is ranked in numerous preseason media outlets for the upcoming season, and with 93 percent of its scoring returning from a year ago, it's hard to disregard the hype surrounding the current squad.

Ticket sales are reaching record highs before the first game has even been played, which bodes well for the return of immense crowd support that's been signature of successful Iowa teams of past.

"In some respects, it shows the meaning of loyalty of people at the institution; it's great, I can't fully explain or describe it," former Iowa basketball coach Davis said. "I lived in California and in the East, but there's nothing quite like the Midwest. I look at Carver-Hawkeye and see the people as a big advantage Iowa has."\

Current head coach Fran McCaffery has the chance to lead the Iowa team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. McCaffery has brought at least one squad at his previous three head-coach gigs to the Big Dance, and this may be his most talented group of players ever.

Before he ever commanded a game on the floor at Carver, McCaffery had the chance to experience all the facility had to offer for opposing coaches. As the head coach at Lehigh, McCaffery coached against Iowa in 1985 during the Hawkeye Invitational Tournament.

"It was packed. It was sold-out," the fourth year head coach recalled. "Our first game was against University of Alabama-Birmingham, and that was crowded. Iowa was ranked I think around 17th during that tournament. They had B.J. Armstrong, Roy Marble. We ended up playing them in the next game. That was different. The night before was fun; there was a big crowd that didn't really care who won. The next night was different. It was going to be a difficult day for us. We were a good team, but we weren't at that level. For us, it was going to be, Can we handle their full-court pressure? We hung with them for about 32 minutes, then they ended up winning by about 17 as I recall. [Iowa won, 89-68.] I never dreamt to have the opportunity to be on the other sideline during my career."

Now, McCaffery has the chance to live out any tap-dancing dreams he may have for this team in the upcoming season.

"Last year, we were 18-2 [at home]. It's something we're proud of, something we want to protect. We know the crowd will help us do that. We play a certain style on this floor. The teams that have had the most success here over the years have all played that way."

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