IN THE BEGINNING was John Roche and all who followed paled by comparison.
Well, maybe paled is not the right word, but Opening Night surely left those who came later with a tough act to follow. Certainly, a treasure chest full of memories unfolded in Carolina Coliseum, the home of University of South Carolina basketball from Nov. 30, 1968 until March 21, 2002 and a myriad of events that ranged from a John McEnroe tennis exhibition to concerts to ice hockey to unforgettable high school games.
The old arena comes to life tonight with the Gamecocks nationally ranked womens team taking on LSU in the buildings first college basketball game in a decade. The teams will face a monumental challenge to match the excitement of that first game all those years ago.
Those who remember that an old drive-in joint called the Hitching Post once stood at the corner of Assembly and Blossom could never forget Opening Night in the sparkling new building on that site. Officials rolled out the red carpet on the $9 million palace on that November Saturday evening, and could any debut have been more thrilling?
Does anyone recall what happened in the first game in Yankee Stadium? Lambeau Field? Wrigley or Fenway? At the Coliseum, moments still linger.
Firsts are etched indelibly in our hall of memories. First car, first date, first kiss, first ... first anything, and here came the first hint that something extraordinary the Gamecocks rise to take a seat at college basketballs head table would be in the offing.
The seeds of tomorrow had been sown by coach Frank McGuires first recruiting class Jack Thompson, Skip Harlicka and Frank Standard along with holdover Gary Gregor and now the ball belonged to the one who would become the schools finest basketball player, John Roche.
On Opening Night, with the score tied and time winding down, he rattled home a jump shot that not only provided Carolina with a 51-49 win against Auburn but also a hint of the promise to come.
That first game never would be mistaken for an artistic masterpiece, but excitement took up residence that night in the arena that seated 12,401 the 1 significant in that the capacity surpassed North Carolina States Reynolds Coliseum by that number.
That first night scared us to death, but very quickly we had a big home-court advantage, Bobby Cremins, a junior and the old man on that 1968-69 squad, once said in noting how the steep seating seemed to bring fans closer to the court. And in reliving the Coliseums grand opening, he said, Like he did so many times, John pulled us through.
That game launched a 34-year odyssey in which fans in the early years camped out for tickets and, in some later seasons, avoided the place like the plague. In between, they watched:
• Zam Fredrick lead the nation in scoring;
• Eddie Foglers Gamecocks knock off mighty Kentucky in overtime on the way to the SEC championship;
• Kevin Joyce bring Bob Knights Indiana to its knees with an incredible performance 26 of his 41 points in the second half of an 88-85 victory;
• Carey Rich slip a pass to Emmitt Hall for the points to derail another Kentucky powerhouse;
• and heroics such as Antonio Grants 3-pointer at the final horn to cap a frantic rally from a 20-point second-half deficit for a 67-65 win against Cincinnati.
On the womens side, Carolina won two NCAA tournament games at the Coliseum in 2002, the year the No. 8 Gamecocks and No.2 Tennesee tangled before a sold-out audience, lured by the promise of grade-A competition and $1 tickets.
Thats without mentioning that Carolina coach Bill Foster suffered a heart attack during the a 1982 triumph against 15th-ranked Purdue, high school powers Lower Richland (Stanley Roberts and JoJo English) and Eau Claire (Barry Manning and Joe Rhett) filled the arena to overflowing and the impromptu boxing match featuring USCs Tom Riker and Marquettes Bob Lackey in Marquettes one-point win.
Fans oohed and aahed at the heavyweights swapping blows, but Marquette coach Al McGuire, always quick with a quip, stole the moment with a postgame quote: So tame that a bouncer in The City (New York) wouldnt take off his jacket to break it up.
So many moments, so many memories and somehow they never grow old.
If any game pushed Opening Night off the No. 1 spot in Coliseum moments, the Gamecocks 84-79 overtime victory against Kentucky in 1997 is the most likely candidate. This Tuesday night battle for the SEC lead ranks among the best for thrills and high-quality athletes performing at a high level.
The Gamecocks had started the season 5-5 with the losses including a blowout to Clemson and embarrassments against UNC Asheville and Charleston Southern. Then, Carolina won 10 in a row before the Wildcats came to the Coliseum with a made-for-TV starting time of 9:40 p.m.
The teams went at each other with a fervor that made the pregame hyperbole look tame. Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers came out of the stands and led cheers during timeouts, Hootie & the Blowfish exchanged high-fives and Dick Vitale screamed even louder than usual into his ESPN mic.
On the verge of being blown out, Kentucky charged back and into the lead. With time growing short, the Gamecocks countered with a 3-point bulls-eye from Larry Davis and a game-tying drive from Melvin Watson. BJ McKie owned the overtime to cap a special night in a special place.
Afterward, the celebration spilled into the streets and lasted almost until dawn.
Now, the old building still used for classrooms but with the arena mostly silent will live again tonight. Ghosts will be everywhere and once again the place promises to be a haunted house for visiting teams.
Ladies, the stage is yours. What memories will you leave?