Jim Gazzolo column: Home after the holidays

Published 8:27 am Wednesday, January 5, 2022

Right when you open the door the smell of fresh paint greets you.

As you turn the corner you hear the sound of a bouncing ball, squeaking tennis shoes and a buzzer going off. occasionally

On the floor, the McNeese State Cowboys practice their game while workers put the finishing touches on their rebuilt arena.

At that moment one is taken back to the first time the Cowboys were practicing at their on-campus facility. It was before hurricanes and insurance claims, before pandemics and forced renovations.

When the $40-plus million Heath and Human Performance arena first opened in 2018, it was to be the centerpiece for the new McNeese athletic campus, a symbol of future expansion.

This week, as the men’s and women’s basketball teams returned to practice, it has a new name and a new mission.

Now called the Legacy Center, it is no longer a symbol of the future but rather a model to what we have all continued to overcome.

The renaming won’t become official until Jan. 15 when the building opens once again with a pair of games against Houston Baptist. But the players say they are happy to be back in their own gym, even if only one of them ever played in it before.

“It is great to be here again,” said guard Collin Warren, the lone Cowboy who had stepped foot in the arena before it was destroyed by Hurricanes Laura and Delta in 2020.

“It is a really nice place to play. Fans are right on us; they come out and support us. It is a real home-court advantage.”

The road back to the Legacy Center has been a long one. It was 497 days between workouts before the Cowboys returned to their home court last Sunday. They had practiced in nine gyms, from Lafayette to Houston.

That included a workout in the Foreman-Reynaud Community Center here in Lake Charles.

“It has been crazy,” Warren said. “It’s been a long time since we were in here.”

They were forced to play their home games back in their longtime home, Burton Coliseum, until the year switched over. They also split most of their practice time between there and the Rec Center on campus. Neither is ideal for workouts.

“Burton was great to us when we need it,” said head coach John Aiken. “But this is our home. I think we will shoot better here and play better here.”

One thing for sure is the Cowboys won’t be basketball nomads.

“We will be able to get our routine down,” Aiken said. “We will know our practice times and have set days. It is just a better feel.”

Guard Kellon Taylor said it simply: “This beats Burton and the Rec Center, that’s for sure.”

McNeese players have the feeling of returning home after a long vacation. This is where they live, or want to live.

It was still strange to see them do their work while men in hard hats continue theirs above. Yet somehow that too is maybe a symbol.

The combination shows just much progress has been made and still how far we have to go. That seems fitting around these parts.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com