Detroit is not a college basketball town

During my youth it was easy to find an uncle or older neighbor to drive us to Calihan Hall to watch the Detroit Titans do battle on a Saturday afternoon.

The place was packed or near capacity as the Titans played some of the top programs in the nation. One evening we saw future Boston Celtic Kevin McHale destroy Detroit with his patented up and under move as Minnesota won a thrilling contest before a packed house.

It was the place to be and there was enthusiasm even in the crowded and tight corridors that circled the arena. The old heads showed up in their best leather jackets and fedoras.

In the streets of my old neighborhood people snapped up University of Michigan basketball tickets from numbers runners and drug dealers who passed them out to satisfy good customers. This was a college basketball town.

Today it isn’t.

What happened?

There could be a few factors in play. With the decline in high school talent in Michigan there is not that high profile star player we all want to see play in college. Also most of the media attention is focused on our four sports teams.

In the case of UDM and Oakland, they play teams we are not interested in. Detroit had an opportunity to join the Big East and I wonder if there would be more juice if Georgetown, Villanova and St. Johns were rolling into town once a year.

One of the frustrating occurrences of doing talk radio in this town was trying to generate talk about college basketball. Whether Michigan, Michigan State or UDM had exciting basketball news, it didn’t matter.

Our phone lines were mostly empty. Bring up the Lions, warm pizza and cold drinks and the lines were filled. As Michigan marched to a Big Ten title and number one seed in the NCAA tournament I kept hearing from folks who love college basketball complain about the lack of buzz in this town.

The men should get a boost today on 97.1 FM because Michigan State blew a tournament game against UCLA and people will want to bitch about young men choking and an old head with bad clock management.

When I covered the Fab Five I often sat in Crisler wondering why there were so many empty seats for one of the most exciting runs in Michigan sports. Calihan is no longer the place to be.

That was even the case during the Perry Watson era when he brought a tough brand of basketball that often won conference titles and advanced to the NCAA tournament. Rashad Phillips played a dipsy doozle, dizzying brand of basketball that should have ignited an entire town.

He also played to mostly empty seats at Calihan. Stories were often buried inside the sports pages of the Detroit News and Free Press because the general public did not read them.

They sell out Breslin Center in East Lansing, but how many people in Metro Detroit care about the Spartans until they make magical runs in the NCAA tournament? In Ann Arbor there is a store dedicated to former football coach Bo Schembechler who never won a national title, but nothing dedicated to Michigan basketball who has.

The basketball offices badly needed upgrades, but school officials refused to give basketball one red cent until the Big House was spruced up to alumni’s likings. Coaches had to walk a quarter mile for practice. Jalen Rose, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard grew tired of playing before an unenthusiastic crowd and convinced school officials to move the student section from the second level to lower level to generate more noise.

Oakland University got it right. Instead of building a 10,000 arena, it packs its family, friends and supporters in a mini 4,000 seat stadium. That way you get the enthusiasm of a filled arena even when 3,000 folks show up to see the Golden Grizzlies battle the likes of Cleveland State or Wright State.

Oakland and UDM face the same problem. The Horizon League is filled with teams we don’t want to see. The Titans got a nice crowd boost when Butler came to town. Or when they played Oakland. Other than that, crickets.

We love sports in this town. College basketball just isn’t one of them.

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Published by terryfoster8

I am a 58 year old retired sports journalist, husband and father of two living outside of Detroit in search of his next big adventure in life.

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