Paige Sports Arena takes on new meaning

Saturday, November 13, 2004

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Paige Sports Arena redefines Columbia's skyline, a big steel turtle shell rising next to the mausoleum-like Hearnes Center, ancestral mansion for University of Missouri basketball.

With its skylighted roof arch, concourses like boulevards, 24-hour practice gym and private suites with catered food and drinks, Paige Sports Arena is promoted as the nation's finest on-campus basketball venue.

"This is NBA style," marveled freshman guard Jason Horton.

But it's more than a posh home court. Since Missouri's basketball staff is barred from off-campus recruiting for a year as punishment for NCAA rulebreaking, Coach Quin Snyder predicts the arena will be an important recruiting tool.

"If we build it, they will come," Snyder declared this week of the sleek barn he calls "The Paige."

Savoring his "Field of Dreams" analogy, Snyder plowed ahead: "We don't have Kevin Costner or Shoeless Joe; we've got Jimmy and Linnie," referring to Tigers players Jimmy McKinney and Linas Kleiza.

The arena is named for Elizabeth Paige Laurie, a 22-year-old Wal-Mart heiress who attended the University of Southern California, not the college in Columbia. She explained at the arena ribbon-cutting that USC offered her preferred program in film with "a California-based feel," but added that Columbia "will always be my home."

Her parents donated $25 million to kick-start Missouri's costliest new campus building. The other two-thirds of the arena's $75 million tab came from private gifts and $35 million in public money raised through sales of revenue bonds. The money paid for an almost 321,000-square-foot shrine to sports, including a weight room five times larger than that of Hearnes, a hydrotherapy center and the latest in sports medicine equipment.

By comparison, the school's just-finished life sciences center, probing the mysteries of human and plant genetics, cost $60 million to build.

Basketball fans say the arena was worth the expense.

Lynn Truesdell, a kindergarten teacher from Clark., Mo., said it's a louder place for fan frenzy than Hearnes. "It gets the energy up," she says, "and you just have to stand up and clap and yell and get involved."

"There doesn't seem to be a bad seat in the house," said John Tuller, a Columbia accountant who brought his 3-year-old Jack to his first Missouri game. "He will surely remember this place."

There is discontent about some of the arena's most prized seats -- those closest to the court. Fans on the first couple of dozen rows grumble that the elevation between rows of seats isn't high enough.

"Hearnes seats just rose a lot quicker. Here, if a taller person is in front of you, you're blocked," said Dave Shipman, a season ticket holder from Columbia.

Shipman's seatmate, David Harris of Columbia, has been a season ticket holder since 1976. "The lower bowl here is just too shallow," he says from a spot on Row 15, "but these are still the closest seats I've ever had, so I'll get used to it."

Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters also noted in an editorial that his view was blocked. "It takes no architect, merely a plebian fan, to see this situation," he wrote. "I hate to be the bearer of this bad news, but I'm not the first to notice."

Missouri athletic spokesman Chad Moller acknowledges the complaints, but says the school has little flexibility because all season tickets are sold out. He also said some fans don't like the view through clear plastic panels that building codes required between some railings near seats.

"We're doing our best to listen and adjust," Moller said.

Fans in higher seats raved about their perspective on games.

Three rows from the top in student seating, freshman pals Kristin Goldbeck and Kristi George, both 18, of St. Louis, could watch the floor action or turn at eye level to the new scoreboard's oversized TV screens.

"And you know what else I like? It is just so bright and clean and everything is brand new," Goldbeck said as she dug into her nachos.

It's enough to stir envy in competing teams. Jason Whitlock, sports columnist for The Kansas City Star and a frequent critic of Missouri basketball, wrote after a tour led by Snyder: "Paige is a home run that might even make Kansas basketball loyalists wonder about the lifespan of Allen Fieldhouse. ... Paige Arena is a college coach's dream and a college player's fantasy."

For state Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia and sponsor of the controversial legislation obligating Missouri taxpayers to back $35 million in revenue bonds for the arena, it's satisfying to see the result.

"I always said this would work like a welcome mat for the university at large because of the visibility of the basketball program," Graham said. "But now that it's open, it may just keep our team going, once these recruiting prospects get a good look. At least I hope so."

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