Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: UPMC Events Center at RMU shines in spotlight |
Robert Morris

Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: UPMC Events Center at RMU shines in spotlight

Kevin Gorman

One of my all-time favorite basketball memories happened at Robert Morris University’s Sewall Center.

And it has nothing to do with Kentucky.

You had to be there to believe it.

RMU was the host site every summer for the Five-Star Basketball Camp, and word got out that camp director Howard Garfinkel was having a special guest speaker. Garfinkel, who had a flair for the dramatic, introduced one of his favorite former campers by rolling a basketball to the end of the court and saying, “Abracadabra!”

The ball stopped at the feet of Michael Jordan.

Just as Jordan started to speak, lightning flashed, thunder boomed and the lights went out. The campers had disposable cameras ready. As they took photos, their flashes illuminated Jordan, perhaps the sport’s second-most famous silhouette aside from the Logo himself, Jerry West.

Jordan didn’t miss a beat, cracking a joke in the dark about making a lights-out entrance.

This was years before everyone had a camera on their phone. Somewhere, I have a micro-cassette recording of Jordan’s speech to the campers. But I have a vivid recollection of him telling stories about Joe Dumars defending him by putting a palm to his face and repeatedly popping him in the nose. I also remember Jordan playing one-on-one against a teen camper and yanking the kid down by the wrist when he tried to dunk on Jordan.

It was the kind of moment that gave you goosebumps.

The Sewall Center had its share of moments, playing host to Colonials teams that made the NCAA tourney and won the Northeast Conference. RMU’s stunning 59-57 victory over defending national champion Kentucky in the 2013 NIT first round probably rank as the most memorable.

Otherwise, there was nothing remarkable about the building as a basketball arena.

Now, on the same site, RMU has an absolute gem.

One that university president Chris Howard called a game-changer for RMU.

Five thoughts on RMU’s new arena:

1. Full orbit: A tour of UPMC Events Center at RMU on Friday showcased the 4,000-seat Peoples Court, home to the Colonials’ men’s and women’s basketball programs and women’s volleyball team. But the building also has a 5,000-sq. ft. conference center to host banquets and meetings and already has six concerts scheduled this year.

The UPMC Events Center isn’t just the center of campus but will be a hub for the Moon community.

“Probably the most exciting thing about this experience,” Howard said, “is to see the looks in the eyes and the faces of the faculty, staff, students and alumni as they come into this space and think, ‘Wow, here on our campus, they built this. Here at RMU, we did something extraordinary that people didn’t think we could do.’ They’re very proud of the building.”

So is Howard.

2. Grand opening: RMU will host Pitt on Nov. 12 in the first basketball game at Peoples Court, which should clinch a sellout and make it the hottest hoops ticket in town.

How long has it been since we’ve said that?

“The thing that’s amazing is, Pitt’s really asked for nothing in return,” Toole told Rowntree. “They’re doing an incredibly neighborly thing, and a generous thing, to allow us to host them in our new building to unveil it and give it the proper opening it deserves. We’re incredibly thankful to them.”

3. If you build it…: The Colonials are counting on the building to boost recruiting.

RMU basketball coaches Andy Toole (men’s) and Charlie Buscaglia (women’s) were enthusiastic in their endorsements of People’s Court, the basketball arena, and the effect it will have on their programs.

“It’s enormous,” Toole told Josh Rowntree of 93.7 The Fan. “We’ve sent (recruits) pictures of the arena, but to have the real thing and to be able to walk guys through that, it really shows the commitment we have to basketball. Players want to be in a facility like that.”

It should make RMU more attractive to prospective NEC recruits, especially WPIAL prospects.

4. Perfect fit: Now that Robert Morris has an attraction, it has to find a way to fill it.

The Colonials played before crowds of 1,016 at the North Athletic Complex last season and had an average attendance of 1,072 in 2016-17. That was about average for the NEC, which had the lowest attendance of any Division-I basketball conference that year.

RMU was thinking big when it built a 4,000-seat arena, and it looks like the perfect venue for WPIAL basketball championship games. Not only is there enough seating capacity but also standing room and ample parking.

Free parking is something where neither Pitt nor Duquesne can compete.

Pitt’s Petersen Events Center is too spacious and that detracts from the championship atmosphere. Duquesne is undergoing a similar project, replacing Palumbo Center with UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.

RMU set the bar for its crosstown rival.

5. Complaints dept.: To my surprise, there were some complaints to the photos and videos I posted on Twitter.

One was about the scoreboard that hangs over center court.

That make some sense, although when I watched a game from the stands in the inaugural season at the Pete I found myself watching the games on the giant scoreboard instead of the action on the court. It can be distracting.

Another was that RMU didn’t find a way to accommodate its hockey program on campus. The university owns the RMU Island Sports Center complex on Neville Island and can practice and play games at a site that has become a hockey hub in Western Pennsylvania.

Why would the RMU hockey team want to play second fiddle to basketball?

If there was any drawbacks I noticed, it was the barriers that separate the stands from the court. It provides security by preventing spectators from getting onto the court but also eliminates some of the intimacy of sitting so close.

If that’s the worst thing you can say about UPMC Events Center, RMU did pretty well.

It’s a dramatic upgrade over Sewall Center, a place RMU is proud to call home.

“Probably the most exciting thing about this experience,” Howard said, “is to see the looks in the eyes and the faces of the faculty, staff, students and alumni as they come into this space and think, ‘Wow, here on our campus, they built this. Here at RMU, we did something extraordinary that people didn’t think we could do.’ They’re very proud of the building.”

I’ll say this: Michael Jordan would tell RMU to leave the lights on.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Robert Morris University unveiled the UPMC Events Center on Friday, May 3, 2019.
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