Part Three of a Three-Part Series
An old gnarly tree stretches its limbs. It is Southside Chicago. The pep band warms up; the dance team rehashes learned moves in ramshackle garb reminiscent of Chorus Line. Slowly, player relatives trickle in, preceding the semi-frequent fan entrance. Lively people perk up the grumpy, seemingly dormant oak. The UIC Pavilion is coming to life.
The University of Illinois at Chicago, like many Illinois universities, plays in a multi-purpose arena. The Flames' administration has done all it can to enliven the otherwise warehouse-like atmosphere. Still it is clearly an all-purpose arena originally designed for hockey. The rink corners remain in place, standing side-by-side with characterless concrete slabs around the beautiful parquet court.
There is a good amount of tradition though. The pre-game is unlike the typical bombastic rap-music-led, speaker-pounding introductions. The lighting of the flame is an important ceremonial aspect in the tradition-laden pregame.
With a corny, dated song supplying the backdrop, Sparky the Dragon carries a lit torch. (As an aside, any torch-bearing mascots receive high accolades in my book.) The cavalcade continues with glowing cheerleaders. More and more the song resembles a scratchy recording of Bing Crosby.
Once Sparky runs in a few circles, leading the group onto the court he pauses reverentially for the ceremony. As a longtime proponent of burning things, this lighting of the flame certainly impressed me, though its quick extinguishment disappointed. Understandably the players need room to warm-up, yet a backstage dousing would not destroy the climatic moment nearly as much.
A beaming, humble coach in Jimmy Collins defrays the ordinarily cold, blustery, windy city environs. Windy describes the Chicago outdoors and also the constantly circulating air within the pavilion. Many newer, fresher looking buildings suffer from stuffy, stagnant air.
The biggest gripe for number-conscious fans is undoubtedly the lack of a center-hanging scoreboard. Without strong, informative details rimming the façade, little more than the score, time and timeout information is readily available.
Every sporting event aims to entertain between actual gameplay. UIC seemingly takes the best mini games. For example, a 2 on 2 UPS delivery race energizes the crowd. Dressed in brown hat and shirt one teammate rushes downcourt with empty boxes stacked on a dolly. The transfer includes costume change with the second teammate and pass off of the boxes.
A sumo-wrestling contest on a wrestling mat surrounded by cheerleaders, a dice roll, and spot shooting for some cash keep fans focused and even exceeds the game in interest level for some younger onlookers.
Wins will be tough this season for the UIC Flames, but the non-basketball entertainment level is at the very least on par with any college game I've attended. If and when the program again pulls in a Chicago Public League stud of Cedric Banks' ilk, the Flame ceremony will once again be the preamble, not the centerpiece, of the entertainment.