Towson plays its final basketball games Saturday at the Towson Center, its home for 37 years. And then?
Lights out. Court adjourned.
Next year, the Tigers graduate to the Tiger Arena, a glitzy $72 million, 5,200-seat venue being built adjacent to the present facility. But not before the school pays homage to the Towson Center with a men's-women's doubleheader.
At halftime of the men's game against Hofstra, more than two dozen former players and coaches will be introduced, including most of the 1976-77 team that christened the building and went 27-3 — Towson's best mark ever. The worst? Last year's 1-31 finish.
In between, the Tigers won two Mason-Dixon Conference championships and made two NCAA tourney appearances. They also suffered 16 straight losing seasons — a streak that ended this year. In fact, a win Saturday would give Towson (17-13) the record for the greatest turnaround over two years in NCAA history.
The women's team had 16 winning seasons in those 37 years and, in 2009, scored a home upset over nationally-ranked Maryland.
"There's been a real mix of success in that place," said Bobby Washington, who starred on the 1976-77 team and who'll be one of those honored today. "When we go back to the gym now, it looks small. But back then, it seemed humongous — and it was state-of-the-art, too."
Built for $12 million, the 5,000-seat Towson Center replaced Burdick Hall, a bandbox that seated 1,500. Burdick had bleachers on one side only and thick pads on the walls close behind the baskets to cushion against routine collisions.
Vince Angotti, then Towson's coach, couldn't wait to play in the Towson Center, with its synthetic floor and spacious setting.
"Compared to Burdick, it was the Taj Mahal," Angotti said.
Then Towson held its first scrimmage, in which several players twisted their ankles and Greg Jordan, a senior guard from Cardinal Gibbons, broke his leg trying to pivot on the newfangled surface.
"My foot just stuck to the [rubberized] floor," Jordan recalled. "You could hear the bone snap. The pain was excruciating."
Jordan's season was over, and his teammates worried who'd be next.
"Aw, man, is this an omen of what's to come?" Washington remembered thinking.
"I wondered if we should go back to Burdick," another player, Brian Matthews, recalled.
"I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to lose all of my players,' " Angotti said. "But my worst fears didn't come true. We never had a problem after that."
In fact, the Tigers won their first 12 games in the Towson Center, and 30 of their first 32, winning back-to-back Mason-Dixon titles before their jump to Division I in 1979. What part did the new arena play in that success?
"The building was certainly part of it," Jordan said."But that first year, we'd also picked up a (junior college) transfer, Roger Dickens, a guard who made a big difference. So everything was coming of age. It was, like, our time, you know? A nice coming together of all the good stuff."
In 1997, Towson — by then the only Division I school playing on a non-wood surface — did install a portable hardwood floor. Officials also improved the lighting in the Towson Center, which was originally dim enough that, in 1987, ESPN had to bring its own lights to brighten the place for TV.
Glitches aside, the facility did its job.
"It served its purpose — a flexible, multi-use arena that helped us get into Division I," said Tom Meinhardt, then Towson's athletic director
"Aside from the floor, which was brutal on your knees, I have fond memories of the place," said Bill Leonard, captain of the 1986-87 team. "I think I made five or six game-winning shots there.
"The building housed a lot of great athletes and saw a lot of good games. But it was also versatile enough to give the university exposure in other events [volleyball, gymnastics, tennis]."
The Washington Bullets defeated the New York Knicks in an exhibition game at the Towson Center in 1976. Five years later, a packed house watched Calvert Hall defeat Dunbar, 93-91, in triple overtime in a high school classic.
"I remember watching the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler fight there on the big screen [in 1987] after basketball practice," Bill Leonard said. "There were a lot of great concerts there, too."
Ray Charles, Loretta Lynn and Styx performed at the Towson Center. So did The Spinners, Crystal Gayle and the Royal Lippizanner Stallions. Comedians Bill Cosby, Red Skelton and Bob Hope all played there the same year (1978).
In 2011, President Barack Obama and his family attended a men's basketball game between the Tigers and Oregon State, a team coached by Obama's brother-in-law, Craig Robinson. The contest drew an announced 3,119.
Poor attendance at the Towson Center was a chronic problem, said Terry Truax, who coached the Tigers for 14 years and led them to the NCAA tournament in 1990 and 1991.
"The annoying part was that, hard as we tried, we couldn't get people to come there unless the game was on TV," Truax said.
The first game Towson played there, a 101-72 rout of C.W. Post on Dec. 11, 1976, drew 420 spectators. The largest basketball crowd at the Towson Center (5,086) watched Michigan defeat the Tigers, 75-72, in 1997.
"It has been a good place to watch games, with no obstructed views, much better than the First Mariner Arena," Truax said. And while the new venue will sparkle, he said, "I'd like to have seen us fill the one we had."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun