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(Karen Wink / American Press)

(Karen Wink / American Press)

Time may be right for sports arena in downtown Lake Charles

Last Modified: Saturday, December 15, 2012 7:31 PM

By Jim Gazzolo / American Press

Kevin Hardy put it best when he said, “There is something different about playing here.”

The McNeese State sophomore guard was standing inside the Lake Charles Civic Center on Wednesday night when he uttered those words.

Hardy and the Cowboys had just beaten Louisiana Tech 80-72 in a perhaps their best game of the season. It was at least their most exciting.

Part of that was the intimacy of the Civic Center, which gives off a much better feeling than Burton Coliseum, McNeese’s main home.

The Civic Center is a garage compared to a barn Burton resembles. There is also history in the Civic Center and Hardy, a kid who grew up in Lake Charles, is aware of that.

“I grew up watching the Tournament of the Stars played in here, the old American Press high school tournament and the Cowboys,” he said. “It feels special to play on the same court as some of those guys and games.”

Crowds are louder if not bigger in the Civic Center and the Cowboys seem to play better.

“This is a shooter’s gym,” said Hardy. “Every shot we put up seems to go in here.”

There is history at Burton as well, but not nearly as much. It is also way out of town, which seems to hurt. But mainly it is much bigger and seems much colder.

Noise often gets lost in the rafters and more empty seats leaves one the feeling of an empty room.

“We can get fans from all sides of town here,” Hardy said of the Civic Center’s downtown location. “People from all over can make the games.”

Numbers don’t seem to indicate that, but it is just a different feeling you get in the smaller arena.

McNeese head coach Dave Simmons talks like a politician when asked about the subject.

“I always say we are blessed to have two great facilities we can call home,” said Simmons.

Yet McNeese is the lone Louisiana school that plays all its home games off the main campus. Ideally, he would love to see that change.

“It would be nice to have an on-campus arena,” Simmons said.

He’s right, of course. It would be nice to see one of the big area plants build a campus home for the Cowboys and plaster its name all over the place. It has worked in other parts of the country.

While I still believe the Cowboys will one day play on campus, there might be even a better solution.

The City of Lake Charles, which proclaims it is trying to build up the downtown area, could use sports as a way to do it. This has worked in other cities, both larger and smaller than this one.

In a perfect world the casinos and plants would come together and build a new Civic Center, one that could do more than host the Cowboys and Swashbucklers. At the least they could fix up the old one we have.

Watching a game inside the Civic Center does leave one with the feeling of being in your neighbor’s unfinished basement. And what is up with that Partridge Family bus look on the north wall?

It is easy to remember when inside the arena that this facility was built before disco. Even the old orange chairs leave you with the thoughts of high school cafeterias.

But the possibilities are endless.

First, a new or redone arena would be perfect to go with what all believe is an economic boom coming to the Lake Area. We have some of the parts already here.

Nothing goes better with sports fans than casinos and we have are share of those with more coming.

Think about this, a preseason NBA game in town between the New Orleans Hornets and the Houston Rockets. Hey, Joe Dumars, the former McNeese standout, came to town once to play Patrick Ewing and the New York Knicks so why not. NBA players love casinos so it looks like a match made at the blackjack table.

What about bringing the Southland Conference basketball tournaments to Lake Charles? There is a reason the football coaches hold their media day at L’Auberge and it has to do with a little golf and gambling, though they proclaim it is about a central location.

Simmons even suggested a possible college basketball tournament, a two-day, four-team event that featured two doubleheaders. Bring in Lamar and Louisiana-Lafayette to go along with McNeese and maybe another Texas school, possible Houston or Tech. Fans would stay over the night, likely in a casino or two, and get four games in two days.

Maybe the old high school tournament would come back over the holidays. We already have state regionals being played in the Civic Center now.

Seems hard to believe but this could happen if you get the right people behind the project.

Folks will have a reason to return to the lakefront and where there are people businesses have always followed.

“I think there are a lot of things that could work here if you have the right place to play,” said Simmons, who could possible bring in bigger names as Cowboy foes with the right facility.

“We are probably never going to get an LSU here, so we have to realize what we can and can’t do, but there are a lot of other good teams that might be interested,” said Simmons.

The coach also knows it helps if you have something better to sell those teams. Fans proved they would fill even Burton for the right event.

When Boston College played the Cowboys two years ago in the first round of the NIT, the coliseum was hopping. However, that is not the norm.

A top facility and good events can help not only sell McNeese State but also Lake Charles. It’s a win-win situation.

Right now the Civic Center would have trouble hosting a men’s and women’s doubleheader with only two old and outdated dressing rooms.

Still, with the right planning and the right amount of money…oops, there is that word, money.

There seems to be enough cash around town, now it’s up to us to convince those in charge of it just how valuable an arena could be.

If we need a starting point, I’ll put the first five dollars into the pot.

It may not be much, but bigger deals have been started with less.

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