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U. of Pittsburgh Basketball
Basketball: Panthers snap city out of slumber

Is Pittsburgh (finally) a basketball town?

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The delirium began long before the first dribble, in August to be precise, when the season sold out within days.

Zoo member Zack Hale, a junior from Cambridge Springs, Crawford County, shows his spirit after the Panthers pulled ahead of Georgetown in the final seconds of the game Jan.1 (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Once the games began, TV ratings more than quadrupled compared with two years ago. And that doesn't include fans who packed restaurants and taverns to cheer on the action.

National magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Street & Smith's featured the team, and basketball sportscaster/guru Dick Vitale gave them a loud "Yeah, baby."

With a 20-4 record and a No. 8 ranking, the University of Pittsburgh basketball team obviously is having a super season on the hardwood.

But most impressive is what the Panthers have done off the court.

In a city where basketball long has been but a lonely stepchild, the Panthers are making the sport part of the family.

Yet to be determined is whether this is the year they'll win their first-ever Big East Championship Tournament to be held March 12-15 in New York City or make their first-ever trip to the NCAA's Final Four games April 5 and 7 in New Orleans.

For now, they're doing the impossible: They're turning Pittsburgh into a basketball town.

The stars were aligned this season.

The Panthers are coming off last year when they won a school record 29 games and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in 28 years.

Then the Panthers' new home -- the $100 million, state-of-the-art Petersen Events Center -- opened to rave reviews.

The squad features marquee players such as Brandin Knight, Pitt's first basketball All-American in 14 years, and an unselfish, no-showboating character.

They're led by a charismatic coach, Ben Howland, who was last season's consensus National Coach of the Year.

And the student body has worked itself into a frenzy over the team, rocketing the fan enthusiasm and the noise level to champion decibels.

Panthers coach Ben Howland is congratulated after his team defeated Rutgers at Petersen Events Center Feb. 22. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Early to rise

It was very cold, in the teens, and about five hours earlier than many college students roll out of bed on weekends. But there they were at 8:30 a.m., more than 500 Pitt students, standing in line outside the Petersen Center -- The Pete -- on a Saturday morning.

Summer Kostelnik and three friends were the first to arrive at 7 a.m. She couldn't feel her toes for the cold and didn't care.

"It's Pitt basketball!" she said.

Tipoff for the Jan. 25 game against Georgetown wouldn't be until noon, but the students, who had general admission tickets, arrived early to claim the 1,200 prime seats that form a half ring around the court.

Queuing up outside the center is nothing new for these student-fans. For Midnight Madness, the official kickoff of basketball practice Oct. 12, nearly 3,000 students stood for 2 1/2 hours in a ticket-lottery line that stretched all the way down Cardiac Hill to Fifth Avenue.

On the morning of the Georgetown game, and on every day or night Pitt has played this winter, the line forms at the locked doors hours before tipoff, no matter what the weather is. Most fans wear the now de rigueur yellow T-shirts with "Oakland Zoo" in blue lettering.

The Zoo cheering section began two years ago when then-freshmen Matt Cohen and Zack Hale rounded up eight of their friends from The Towers dormitory to create excitement at Fitzgerald Field House, the Panthers' former venue. Now the Zoo includes more than 1,500 -- some young lions, but old codgers, too.

Before the game against Providence the night of Feb. 4, Pitt police Officer Scott Dubrosky tried to shake off the cold as he scanned the crowd of students wearing only Oakland Zoo shirts.

"Youth," he chuckled.

That, and a case of basketball fever.

Hoya hysteria

The arena lights went down before the Georgetown game. On the giant video screens suspended at midcourt, a slick video montage of Panther highlights began. There on the screen was Knight, Howland, other players, dunks and three-pointers, and steals and sweet passes, and the Oakland Zoo.

The sold-out crowd of 12,508 -- nearly double the capacity at Fitzgerald -- began cheering. They never stopped.

Bass-heavy music enveloped the arena. The dance team gyrated and shook pompoms, and cheerleaders waved gigantic flags spelling out "PITT."

The lights went up. The arena seemed to shake. Students wearing Zoo shirts --virtually everyone -- frantically hopped up and down as if on pogo sticks, creating an undulating sea of yellow.

The Hoyas' starting team was introduced individually. Each was booed individually.

The lights dimmed again. The announcer excitedly intoned "Jaron Brown!" The decibel level rose. A cheerleader performed a tumbling run.

"Julius Page!" Another tumble. More cheering.

The same after "Ontario Lett!" and "Donatas Zavackas!"

By the time Knight's name was announced, the arena was supercharged.

Not one minute of basketball had been played.

Now it was time for the jump ball. And now it was time to jump in the stands. Thousands of people up and down, screaming "Ahhhhhhhhh!"

During crucial points in the seesaw affair in which the lead changed more than a Pittsburgh weather forecast, a few Zoo members knelt and prayed.

More than three hours after it began, with four-tenths of a second remaining, Page scored the winning point. The sound that erupted reverberated around "The Pete's" concrete walls. The new home of the Panthers seemed to cheer along. At game's end, everyone involved -- players, coaches, announcers, cheerleaders, fans -- were physically and emotionally exhausted.

Depleted, Hale, Steve Bruno and other Zoo members collapsed into their seats, their arms around each other.

"Awesome," Bruno whispered.

Fans from afar

Business was brisk Feb. 9 at Buffalo Blues in Shadyside as it is every time a Pitt game is shown on the tavern's 19 television sets.

Among the fans who packed the sports bar for Pitt at Notre Dame were friends Alex Moser, Dr. Brian Carey and Jay Alexander, the lone Pitt grad in the group.

"I'm a longtime fan, so I've suffered," said Alexander, a PNC analyst.

Also enjoying the game there was Steve Bland, a 1997 Carnegie Mellon University graduate.

"It's what we've been waiting for," the business consultant said of this year's Pitt squad. "We've had some bad coaching years, bad recruiting years, but we've got some good guys now."

"Yes!" the crowd screamed as the Panthers scored.

There also was screaming in the South -- not South Oakland, but in New Orleans. At a sports bar in Jackson Square, longtime fan and Pitt graduate Dr. Jack Smith of Greensburg and colleagues attending a convention of orthopedic surgeons cheered the Panthers on.

Smith is such a Panther fan that he adjusts his schedule so he can attend every Pitt home game, the Big East Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. He was ecstatic when, earlier that day, he stopped in a Bourbon Street store and spotted Mardi Gras beads with the names of colleges that might make it to the NCAA Final Four that will be held in that city's Louisiana Superdome next month.

"Do you have any with the University of Pittsburgh on them?" Smith asked the clerk.

"Yes," the man said. "They say they're a hot team."

Also that day, at Sports Rock in the Strip District, 93 television sets were tuned to the Pitt broadcast. Joe and Peg Cordaro sat at a table in front of a projection-screen TV so large that the players nearly looked life-size. The Fox Chapel couple tried to eat and attend to sons Dante, 7, and Anthony, 4, while not missing a play.

Cordaro, president of CRH Catering in Connellsville, used to follow the team, but when his friend Paul Evans was fired as coach, he vowed he'd never watch another game.

"Damn if last year they dragged me right back in. Now I set my clock by Pitt basketball," Cordaro said.

As in other bases for Pitt fans, the screaming at Sports Rock amplified when the outcome of the game came down to the last second. One hundred fifty pairs of eyes stared so intently at the television sets it seemed they would explode.

Nation takes note

A television explosion earlier this year in the form of ESPN's Vitale let many fans here and across the country know Pitt basketball had arrived.

The college hoops icon broadcast Pitt's Jan. 6 home game with Notre Dame after not calling a contest from Oakland in about 15 years. That day, the basketball deity deemed the Panthers one of the nation's finest teams, The Pete one of the finest basketball venues in the country and the Oakland Zoo among the nation's finest fans. At a later date, while broadcasting a Duke game, he repeated the compliments about the Pitt team, facility and fans.

"Dick Vitale is synonymous with big-time basketball and that may be an indication of how far we've come," said a smiling E.J. Borghetti.

As Pitt's assistant athletic director for media relations, Borghetti has had a phone attached to his ear since long before the season started. There have been endless photo shoots and media opportunities, radio interviews, television shows and media credentials to coordinate.

He's a busy man. And a happy one.

Regional broadcasts of Pitt games on Fox Sports Pittsburgh more than quadrupled in two years, jumping from about 11,000 households in the 2000-01 season to about 50,000 households this season.

Whereas four years ago, two reporters would show for a weekly media session with the coach and players, it now draws 22 people.

The national basketball magazine Slam did a full feature on the team, and Howland was on the cover of Eastern Basketball. Sports Illustrated included Knight in a story about five of the best collegiate basketball players.

And Knight was pictured on the covers of Street & Smith's, Basketball Times, Basketball News and on the cover of the Sporting News with players from Kansas and Arizona, two perennial basketball powerhouses.

"This is the highest national exposure this program has gotten," Borghetti said. "Being mentioned in the same breath as Kansas and Arizona is indicative of the program's heightened profile."

Indeed, in a recent Sporting News column on the possibility of UCLA being able to woo Howland, the writer referred to him as "The Next Big Thing" in noting: "Howland has reasons why he'd like to stay put at Pitt, namely: a fast-growing fan base, a brand spankin' new arena and a momentum-filled program steamrolling forward."

All-star allure

Where's all of this steamrolling moving toward?

Perhaps to Tyler Furgiuele, for one.

The 15-year-old Columbus, Ohio, youth talked his father, Tracy, into bringing him to Oakland for the Feb. 22 game against Rutgers. He excitedly bought an Oakland Zoo shirt, saying he became a fan last season when the team rose to national status.

Now he's thinking about coming to Pitt when he graduates.

That's not surprising to Lynette Jack, who marks her 25 years in the student services office of Pitt's School of Nursing by saying she "goes back to the Tony Dorsett era."

These days, the basketball team is creating much to cheer about at the university, she said before the Rutgers game. The nursing school's applications have doubled in recent years, and upward of 15 percent of those potential students said the reason they wanted to attend Pitt was the school spirit they see at the Panthers' basketball games.

Moreover, she said, the team is serving as role models for the Pittsburgh community.

And with the Steelers season long past and professional baseball and hockey championships remote, Pitt basketball is beginning to form unlikely alliances around the water cooler and on the T. As a galvanizing force in Western Pennsylvania, basketball may finally have its chance.


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.

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