The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR — Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Feb. 17, 1982, editions of the Port Arthur News.
Despite owning the nation's longest home floor winning streak of 54 games, despite having compiled a 107-38 record over the last five seasons, despite having knocked off highly ranked teams in each of the last three NCAA tournaments, Lamar University basketball remains an enigma of the first order.
The Cardinals, who've overachieved far beyond what their resources dictate, are a contradiction to accepted sports theory that winning is everything, that everybody loves a winner. Although they haven't lost at home since February 15, 1978, Lamar's played before only three sellout crowds the last two years.
Almost anywhere else in America a team with Lamar's track record would perform to nothing but volatile, standing room only throngs. Tickets would be virtually impossible to come by. Fresno State, for instance, a team which hasn't been winning nearly as long as Lamar, and plays a boring brand of basketball, saw its 6,700 seat Selland Arena completely sold out before the season started.
But in Beaumont, where there are only 5,500 seats to fill at the downtown Civic Center, Lamar's average attendance is 4,623. In their most critical game of the season Monday night against Texas-Arlington, the Redbirds drew 4,116. The week before, against Louisiana Tech, they played to just 4,040. Even the annual bloodletting against arch-rival Southwestern Louisiana failed to pack the house.
The most obvious response to what's holding the crowds down is live television. Certainly there's some validity in that reasoning, just as there is in contentions that Lamar's ticket policy runs off some fans and inadequate parking discourages others. It is also true the Civic Center is an abortion of a basketball facility, with too few choice seats and horrible sight lines.
Even considering those factors, however, sheer numbers favor wall-to-wall turnouts for Cardinal basketball. Lamar, after all, is a school with an enrollment of better than 10,000, in an area which probably has a quarter million people within 30 minutes driving time of the Civic Center.
"It's baffling to me," Lamar coach Pat Foster addressed the attendance problem after the victory over UTA. "No doubt carrying home games on live television has something to do with it. We need to take a hard look at our thinking on that after this year. It's served the intended purpose -- to expose Lamar basketball to more people -- but now we need some of those people at the games."
Television, ticket policies, parking and Civic Center shortcomings aside, Foster says he can't help but feel there's a reason or reasons that haven't surfaced yet. One theory he quickly rules out is that the Golden Triangle is so football oriented there's just not overwhelming basketball interest.
"I might be willing to consider that, if it wasn't for personal experience," he says. "Everywhere I go, whether it's to Safeway, a movie, a shopping center or out to eat, people come up and start talking about our basketball team. Why that type of interest isn't manifested in tickets, I simply can't explain."
Foster's thoughts are on attendance this week because of a very significant happening related to tonight's game with the University of Texas-San Antonio. Sports Illustrated magazine will have a staff writer and two photographers in attendance, working on a feature about Lamar's home-floor streak for its Feb. 29 issue.
The chance for exposure in a publication as widely circulated and read as SI is a blessing for any school's program, especially one which fights the constant battle for recognition that Lamar does. What Foster fears, though, is a half-filled Civic Center changing the focus of Alex Wolf's piece on the Cardinals.
"It would be embarrassing for us and for Beaumont, if a small crowd caused the guy from Sport Illustrated to dwell on attendance instead of the basketball team," frets Foster. "Hopefully, we'll have a big turnout and the story can be a tribute to Billy Tubbs, Mike Olliver and the others who helped bring this program to where it is."
Working in Lamar's favor is the fact the UTSA game is not being televised, either live or delayed. But the flip side of the coin is a 7-15 opponent the Redbirds decimated last month in San Antonio. In all honesty, the Roadrunners aren't much of an attraction.
"It's not the game I'd have picked for Sports Illustrated to attend," admits Foster. "Actually, it wasn't the game they picked either. They got mixed up on dates and thought we were playing Arlington Wednesday night. But the important thing, of course, is they're going to come."
According to Lamar sports information director Rush Wood, SI chose to do the feature without any arm twisting. "They're on my mailing list, and I guess they must have been impressed with the winning steak," notes Wood. "I think a story like this is well deserved. I just hope our fans realize how important a big crowd can be on something like this."
It will be a real shame if they don't.
Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.