RICHMOND, Va. – It’s about a mile-and-a-half from the door of Shaka Smart’s office to the floor of the Richmond Coliseum. An absurdly fit man, it’s not silly to think he can run there in about 10 minutes (probably less). But Barclays Center in Brooklyn? It would take a Forrest Gump-like effort and a couple pairs of Nikes to make that jog.
But that’s what Smart would be facing if he wanted to leg it to the conference tournament this year, VCU’s first in the Atlantic 10. While the Rams traded the Colonial Athletic Association for the more highly regarded A-10 this year, they also traded the familiar confines of the nearby Richmond Coliseum for Barclays Center, some six hours away, depending on traffic, of course.
Although the Rams have parted company with the convenience, VCU-friendly crowds and homespun appeal of the Coliseum in March, Smart isn’t losing any sleep over it.
“A lot has been made of the fact that we’re not playing here in home at Richmond,” he said Tuesday. “But I’ve coached at a lot of schools. This is the only school I’ve coached where we’ve played a conference tournament in our home city. That’s more the exception than the norm. We’re like everyone else. We have to travel to New York to play.”
For the first time since it joined the CAA in 1995-96, VCU will play in a conference tournament outside the city of Richmond. The Rams joined the A-10 this summer, in part because the league will host its championship at Barclays. The arena, located in America’s hoops haven, New York, provides the A-10 Tournament with a curb appeal the CAA just couldn’t match.
Barclays Center opened this fall as the centerpiece of a $4.9 billion – yes, billion, with a ‘B’ – sports, shopping and residential complex in Brooklyn. It’s home to the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and beginning in 2015, it will welcome the New York Islanders.
Located on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, the arena is real estate developer Bruce Ratner’s magnum opus, a cosmopolitan gateway to a vision of a gentrified Brooklyn. The building itself is marked by steel latticework panels that are said to evoke Brooklyn’s brownstones, as well as a giant “Oculous” structure that houses an LED display and reigns over the main plaza. The whole arena looks like an audacious industrial art display. Inside, it’s just 18,000 seats, a distinct herringbone floor design and one of the most state-of-the-art scoreboard displays ever conceived. Since October, Jay-Z, The Rolling Stones and Coldplay have all held concerts there.
You can capably make the argument that Barclays Center is America’s most chic sporting venue at the moment. No arena in recent memory opened with as much fanfare. The Richmond Coliseum…uh, the media buffet wasn’t bad.
More than ever before, there’s a tangible buzz around the A-10 tournament. Yes, the league has never been better, but playing at Barclays, in New York, has turned the tournament into an event for fans and players alike.
“I think they’re excited about it,” Smart said of his players. “It’s a big-time arena. It’s Jay-Z’s arena. It’s the Brooklyn Nets Arena. They’re a trendy team. So, there are a lot of things that make the Barclays Center unique and make it special. Our guys are excited to be there.”
Freshman Melvin Johnson grew up in the Bronx and agrees that there’s a big difference between playing a conference tournament Richmond and playing it in America’s largest media market.
“It makes it feel more exciting,” Johnson said. “Just it being on TV, it being in the Barclays. There’s just so much surrounding it that we want to get there already.”
“Oh yeah, we love New York,” guard Darius Theus added. “Everybody loves New York.”
VCU’s move to the A-10 was an effort to advance the program into the national consciousness. The A-10 Tournament at Barclays Center submerges the league into the deep end of the national media’s swimming pool. No Swimmies here, folks. This is big kid stuff. It was a bold move by the league, but one that appears to be working.
“I think it’s great for the league,” Smart said. “Brooklyn is obviously an epicenter of a lot of things and basketball is one of them. Michael Jordan, LeBron James, they both said that New York is the basketball Mecca. We’re excited about playing in the conference tournament in Brooklyn.”
When Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade announce the league’s five-year deal with the arena in 2011 (from Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall), she of the tournament, “Bringing it into the New York market and into Brooklyn, with the density of population and the density of our Atlantic 10 alumni base, is certainly going to put everything in place to really catapult this championship to the next level.”
There’s no reason to believe she’s wrong. The building is impressive, the stage, larger than any in A-10 history. Just by the sheer force of playing the tournament at Barclays, the A-10 has elevated its profile. By extension, it appears the same has happened for the schools involved, VCU included.