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AA celebrates 30th anniversary

Feb 15, 2012 - Kevin McKinney, UW

Laramie, Wyo. - It hardly seems possible.

But this month marks the 30th anniversary of the beautiful Arena-Auditorium. It was Feb. 20, 1982, when Wyoming basketball opened its new digs.

Memories flow when I think back on that opening evening. The anticipation was overwhelming. Everyone had watched the progress of the construction--a building of its size and architecture was a major undertaking--and couldn't wait to get inside. It wasn't ready for the opening of the 1981-82 season, and some officials wanted to wait until the beginning of the 1982-83 basketball campaign.

But Wyoming's fans, and Jim Brandenburg's Cowboys, couldn't wait. While some subtle adjustments would be made to the building, it was decided to open the fabulous new structure for the Air Force Academy game scheduled near the end of February.

It was a bitter-sweet time for me. I was raised watching Cowboy basketball in War Memorial Fieldhouse. While I had seen many gyms and arenas traveling the country, I never saw a place that had more of a home-court advantage than the Fieldhouse. With its portable court set in the middle of the massive building--much like a concert stage--and the huge curtains hanging on the walls at each end of the building for a background, it took some getting used to for opponents and their shooting marksmen. With fans seated in bleachers not 10 feet from the benches there was the great intimidation factor as well. To be sure I saw some ugly games in that building, but there were many magnificent wins as well.

I vividly remember the last weekend the Cowboys played in the old barn. There were travel partners in the Western Athletic Conference in those days, and it was the New Mexico-UTEP weekend. Both were consistently successful basketball programs. The Lobos came to town first that week--the league schedule called for Thursday-Saturday games at that time. The Pokes earned a hard-fought victory, 56-45. Keep in mind that Brandenburg had a great team then. Bill Garnett, Mike Jackson, Chris Engler, Greg Thesenvitz, Dwight McClendon and Anthony Martin were among the Cowboy heroes. Also keep in mind that there was no shot clock, no three-point arc, and just two officials. It was a different time indeed.

Bill Garnett during UW's last game in War Memorial Fieldhouse.

Following the New Mexico win, the stage was set for the final game in the Fieldhouse, Feb. 13, 1982. Coach Don Haskins, "The Bear" and the Miners from El Paso, were the final guests. The Cowboys, who were on their way to an NCAA Tournament berth (they were 18-5 heading into the game), had lost to the Miners on the road earlier in the league season, and wanted to beat them in the worst way, especially since it was their final performance in the venerable building.

But the Bear, whose teams could work clock with the best of them, dictated the pace of the game. Wyoming led at half, 17-15 (no kidding), but the Miners battled back to outscore the Pokes 28-20 in the second half for a 43-37 win. It was difficult sitting in the building after everyone but the writers had left. I can remember how sad I was. It was the end of an era, and the Cowboys had dropped their last game in the building. That day I was wishing we weren't moving to a new home. I wanted to play one more, and leave it on a positive note.

But everything was ready for a grand opening and Wyoming basketball was moving to its new home in a week. You can only imagine the anticipation. Capacity was 15,004 at the time. We probably could have seated 30,000 had the building been that big. It was sold out. It didn't matter what day of the week, what time of day or what opponent--Air Force happened to be the unfortunate victim--nobody wanted to miss that game. The atmosphere was electric, the feeling was surreal, and the Cowboys were at their very best. Everyone was so hyped up it was difficult to hold back the emotions. I believe the Los Angeles Lakers would have had a difficult time beating Wyoming on that night. The Cowboys defended the Falcons right out of the new building. Air Force managed 13 points in the first half and 16 in the second half! That's right the Pokes gave up just 29 points for the game and did not allow a double-figures scorer. Garnett, Jackson and Engler were the scoring leaders for the Cowboys. It was a memorable night. I recall sitting there during the game thinking about the new arenas in the WAC that were state-of-the-art like the "Pit" in Albuquerque, the Special Events Center in Salt Lake City and the Marriott Center in Provo. I couldn't get over the fact that now Wyoming had a building to match those great venues. Wyoming's new building was officially opened. While everyone would have to wait until the following year (1982-83) to enjoy a full season in the new place, we now had a great facility of our own. Like the Half Acre Gym before it, the Fieldhouse was but a memory.

Thirty years, where did they go? The Cowboys have played 447 times in the Double A, and the Cowgirls nearly that many. The two programs have won 73 percent of their games in this great place.

The building has seen many great events in its time other than basketball. It has hosted graduation, great concerts, special speakers and even a bull riding event through those 30 years. I can't begin to list all of the games that have been memorable to me, there's so many. Interestingly it has been tournament play in the building that has been most special to me. There's the Cowboys' three-game run in the NIT in 1985-86, which sent them to New York, and the Cowgirls' magical six-game streak to earn the 2007 WNIT Championship. I will never forget the two Western Athletic Conference Tournaments the Cowboys hosted -especially the first one in '85-86. The Pokes clinched on Saturday, and hosted the eight-team tournament the next Wednesday. It was stressful but exciting.

I have two special single-game memories, and both are obvious. For the Cowboys it was the 57-56 victory over Utah during the 2001-02 season. That victory clinched the Mountain West regular-season championship before the largest crowd in the history of the building (16,089). My Cowgirl memory was their victory over Wisconsin to win the WNIT in 2007 before a sold out house. It doesn't get any better than those two epic events.

The Double A still looks great thanks to the special care it has received from our facility staff through the years. But at 30 years old some upgrades must be done. Preliminary work is underway on a plan that would bring the "Dome of Doom" to the cutting edge once again. It will be an energetic project requiring lots of dollars. But thanks to the Wyoming Legislature and our fan base, there's no doubt in my mind the plan will be completed.

Until then I still love the place. Happy birthday Arena-Auditorium, Double A, Dome of Doom, and many, many more!