A few hours after the men’s basketball team lost to Fordham at the Barclays Center last weekend, the fans started filing in. Sporting navy blue shirts and yellow towels, the had come to support their Michigan Wolverines as they took on West Virginia in the NBA’s newest and most hyped-up arena.
The crowd for the Michigan-West Virginia game was far larger than the crowd that came out to support St. Johns or St. Francis in the game before that, which in turn was larger than the fan base that turned out for Princeton or Fordham in the day’s first game. But for the Barclays Center, which is trying to establish itself as a “must-play” for both local schools and top national teams, the pull and popularity of the teams it invites to play are not necessarily the most important factor.
“Having local ties is very important to us,” said Barry Baum, Chief Communications Officer for the Barclays Center. “You can’t have just top 10 schools playing here. You need to have a well-rounded schedule of teams to play here, but you want good teams. You want quality programs, and Princeton’s always been consistently good, and it’s only an hour away by train."
The Barclays Center dwarfs most arenas that host the Tigers. Situated at the intersection between Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues at the heart of a resurgent borough, the arena towers over the surrounding neighborhood. Inside, the Barclays Center fits almost 18,000 for basketball games, with high-rising bleachers providing an intimate feel from all sections of the arena.
Despite the grandeur and the hype surrounding the arena, the Tigers said they were not distracted by the size of reputation of the arena. They practiced in the arena earlier that morning, so they were accustomed to it by game time.
“We had a shoot-around there in the morning, so you get the awestruck thing out of the way then,” said junior point guard T.J. Bray said, who had never been to Brooklyn before Saturday’s game. “I’d seen it on T.V. so many times so I knew what to expect on the inside."
Princeton was invited to play the game almost one year ago by the committee organizing the tournament, called the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival, according to head coach Mitch Henderson ’98. Though he had coached at Madison Square Garden while an assistant at Northwestern, this was Henderson’s first game in an NBA arena as a head coach.
He described the facility as a “great sports arena and charming at the same time.” He said that while he was more focused on the game — a 63-60 loss due to a late-game collapse — he understood that playing at the Barclays Center was an important experience for the players.
“It was important that they appreciated that we had gotten invited to a very special place to play,” Henderson said, noting that he impressed upon the team that they had gotten invited because of the program’s strong tradition, in addition to the current team’s successes in recent years. “It’s got its own little history already. There’s already a cache to playing there.”
Baum said he hopes that last weekend’s tournament — the second weekend of NCAA games hosted by the arena — marked the beginning of the Barclays Center’s “college basketball franchise.” He added that the chance to play at such a prominent NBA arena was an enriching experience for lower-profile, local teams such as Princeton. That sentiment was not lost among the Princeton players.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen it, and it’s been fantastic playing here,” senior forward Ian Hummer said. “Seeing the outside, playing inside, it’s a great arena and they did a really nice job.”