Interactive entertainment center, “Call the Highlights,” gym, museum, College Basketball Hall of Fame, Final Four, March Madness, NCAA
One of the best things about college sports is the way they hold an almost magical sense of intimacy. Something about the high stakes—win this game and you’ll be remembered forever—mixed with the immediacy of space—you can feel the players’ sweat hanging in the air like humidity—can make for one of life’s truly spine-tingling moments.
Most of us will never know what it feels like to sink a three-point buzzer beater that sends our team to the Final Four while a crowd 20,000-strong swells into a roaring cheer. And we might never experience the pride from placing a championship ring on our finger, but the College Basketball Experience, an interactive “entertainment facility” that’s part gym and part museum in downtown Kansas, City, Mo., comes as close as anything to participating in NCAA March Madness.
While almost every major sporting event—championships, All-Star games, Olympic trials—comes with its own Fan Fest, where spectators can test their batting skills against Randy Johnson’s pitching or measure their wingspan against Michael Phelps’, those are limited-time affairs, concurrent with the event itself. The College Basketball Experience, on the other hand, located at 14th and Grand Streets on the northeast corner of Sprint Center, is a permanent exhibit, open year-round.
The CBE and the Sprint Center have been landmarks since 2007, when the arena provided the anchor for a $5.4 billion revitalization of downtown, one of the nation’s greatest and most aggressive investments in such a project. But Kansas City’s relationship with college basketball goes all the way back to the beginning—founder Dr. James Naismith introduced students at Kansas University to the game in 1899. After the inception of the NCAA tournament in 1939, nine of the first 14 Final Fours were played in Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. The Sprint Center has hosted the Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championships since 2010, and in 2013 hosted over 200,000 people when it held the second and third-round games of the NCAA tournament, which featured a matchup between the legendary Kansas Jayhawks and North Carolina Tar Heels.
Getting chills next to huddled KU players chanting “We ready” before they step out into a thunderous arena is not far off from the feeling of entering the CBE. You emerge from the elevator into a brightly lit hallway surrounded by full-length photos of team benches, cheerleaders and screaming fans. From there, you enter a self-guided basketball clinic. In different pods, you can test your skills at passing, shooting free throws or dunking on hoops of various heights. There’s even a full-sized court for pickup games. Signs sprinkled throughout highlight historical tidbits, biographies of notable players and skill pointers. “A great dunk is money!” says one sign. “But, ‘throwing it down’ requires a powerful effort anchored on solid fundamentals of timing, jumping, concentration and ball control.”
The ground floor includes one of my favorite attractions, “Call the Highlights.” You sit behind rolling cameras at an ESPNU desk and improvise your own SportsCenter rundown of classic games.
Finally you arrive at the serious stuff. A biography of the late coaching great John Wooden lines a hallway that branches into a movie theater showing short films on topics ranging from integration of college basketball to innovative coaches and players that changed the game. Continue through the glass doors into the College Basketball Hall of Fame, which commemorates founding father “Phog” Allen, unforgettable player Larry Bird and still-active legend Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, among many others.
There are moments at a great sporting event when the history that led up to it and the magnitude of people’s attention overwhelm me with an instant of choked-up wonder. It’s truly an honor for Kansas City that the beating heart of college basketball makes its home in the center of our downtown.