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Final Fours in Domes, From Astrodome to Alamodome

Astrodome postcard

Every year, the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament brings talk of busted brackets, unexpected heroes, heartbreaking finishes – and the perils of shooting a jump shot in an open dome, compared to a traditional basketball arena. 

A lengthy 2016 study by Greg Guglielmo revealed no overarching effect for every game held in an open dome (though it was true that particular stadiums brought down shooting percentages). Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo certainly didn’t look affected at San Antonio’s Alamodome this past Monday, hitting 10 of 15 shots — and five of seven three-pointers — to lift his Wildcats to their second title in three years, 79-62 over Michigan. This was after ‘Nova buried a record 18 three-pointers in the national semifinal against Kansas. The Wildcats proved too much to contain, whether by the Wolverines, the Jayhawks, or the elusive dome effect.

A crowd of 68,257 attended the Villanova/Kansas and Michigan/Loyola semifinals, followed by 67,831 more on Championship Monday. “It couldn’t have gone better from our vantage point,”Alamodome  general manager Nick Langella told San Antonio Express-News reporter Adam Zuvanich, adding, “I think it went really, really well for the NCAA.” Understandably so: These were the two largest crowds for sporting events in Alamodome history.

College basketball’s initial epiphany that a larger arena would be well served for its bigger games came at the Game of the Century, held on January 20, 1968: No. 1 UCLA, led by Lew Alcindor, headed into Texas to challenge No. 2 Houston, starring Elvin Hayes. A crowd of 52,693 filled Houston’s Astrodome, roaring as the hometown Cougars broke the Bruins’ 47-game winning streak, 71-69. Incidentally, the Final Four that year was hosted by the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Capacity: 16,000+. Once again, the Astrodome had served its true calling as a beacon of the near future.

In 1971, the Final Four was properly brought to the Astrodome, looking to reclaim the magic of 1968. None other than the Villanova Wildcats reached the championship game, the first title opportunity in school history. Asked about the sight of the basketball court in the middle of the massive Astrodome, ‘Nova’s Mike Daly recalled, “We all had the same reaction: ‘Oh my God, look how big this place is!’ ”

“The Astrodome,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Joe Jares, “was far more suitable for feeding Christians to lions than for basketball.” In this case, it was the Wildcats that were fed to the hungry UCLA Bruins, who snapped up their seventh championship in eight seasons before a record crowd of 31,765.

The landscape did not immediately change. Though larger open arenas were considered, the national championship bounced around amid big-city, medium-capacity locales like St. Louis Arena, the San Diego Sports Arena, The Spectrum and The Omni during the remainder of the decade.

Then, 11 years after the Astrodome took center stage, New Orleans’ Superdome outbid the University of Kentucky to welcome in the 1982 Final Four. The North Carolina Tar Heels, featuring a freshman named Michael Jordan, dispatched Houston to reach the championship, opposed by the Georgetown Hoyas and their own star freshman Patrick Ewing, punching their ticket after knocking off Louisville. 61,612 attended an unforgettable title contest. Jordan’s jumper with 15 seconds remaining gave the Heels a 63-62 lead. Setting up the Hoyas’ response, (“Get out of town”) Fred Brown mistook UNC’s James Worthy for a teammate and delivered him the ball, cinching UNC’s second national championship.

If there had been reluctance to bring the Final Four to a larger facility before, it now dissipated. Seattle’s Kingdome hosted the Final Four in 1984, 1989, and 1995. As NCAA assistant executive director Tom Jernstedt admitted in 1987, “There is not formula at this point. It is on a year-by-year basis. But it would be my guess that the sentiment is clearly in favor of domes.” The Final Four returned to the Superdome in 1987 and 1993 (another UNC championship). The Indianapolis Colts’ Hoosier Dome scored the honor in 1991, followed by the Minnesota Twins/Vikings’ Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in 1992, both Duke University triumphs.

In 1996, the Final Four was held in East Rutherford, New Jersey, at Continental Airlines Arena. In the championship game, John Wallace connected for 29 points on 11-for-19 shooting, but his Syracuse squad came up short to Ron Mercer, Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty and the Kentucky Wildcats, 76-67. 19,229 attended. That was the last time that a men’s Final Four was held in basketball arena. In 1997, the NCAA passed a rule stating that all future Final Four facilities must have a seating capacity of 40,000+.

And in 1998, San Antonio’s five-year-old Alamodome became officially involved, hosting its first of now four Final Fours. Its fellow alternating host sites – Atlanta (three times at the Georgia Dome since 2002 before yielding to Mercedes-Benz Stadium come 2020); Indianapolis (four times hosting since 2000, the most recent two at the Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium, which will host again in 2021); and the good old Superdome in The Big Easy (2003, 2012, and coming again in 2022).

Additionally, a host of modern football stadiums, from Detroit’s Ford Field, Houston’s NRG Stadium, Glendale’s University of Phoenix Stadium and Minneapolis’s U.S. Bank Stadium (next year) have stepped forward. The question has thus now been raised in San Antonio: Has the Final Four advanced so far as to have passed the Alamodome by? How large will the setting grow, and how will that affect the game?

In the end, consider the thoughts of Bobby Knight from 1987, 19 years after Elvin Hayes and Houston delighted 52,000+ at the Astrodome, 31 years before Donte DiVincenzo electrified 67,000+ at the Alamodome: “When they first started playing in the domes, I was very much opposed to it, and yet the quality of the basketball I have seen played in them has not diminished…. and maybe it is the thing because 60,000 can see a game instead of 17,000.”


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