New court taking on more than just water

by Beacon Staff • January 31, 2007

Emerson Athletic Director Rudy Keeling peered over the Emerson gym-its brand-new bleachers packed almost to capacity during a women's basketball game on Jan. 20 versus Norwich University, the purple-and-white lettering along the baselines finally getting a chance to scuff and show some wear-and thought about how he never imagined he'd have this view.

Not for the obvious reasons. Not for the fact that a couple of years ago, the phrase "Emerson Athletics" either conjured a couple of laughs or made you wonder when the wiffleball league started in the spring. Not for the fact that Emerson really only had three indoor teams to support. Not for any of those symbolic reasons, either-that Emerson isn't a "sports school." Keeling didn't believe that, anyway.

He just really didn't think he'd have this view.

"This was supposed to be an overhang," Keeling said of his office, which overlooks the Emerson gym behind a backboard. "The people who built the building had never built a gym before and they wanted everything to be, you know, aesthetically beautiful. But they wanted this to hang over the top of the court."

They were going to build a gym where any regular jumpshot and pass had the possibility of knocking out a light. Keeling didn't want his office to be part of the obstacle course.

"Most of this," he said, pointing to the scoreboard on one wall and swinging his finger to the press box on the other, "is our handiwork. We talked to them about everything on the inside, from the banners to the clocks to the baskets."

That handiwork is finally starting to show, and the carefully chosen baskets are being put to good use.

And last Monday, the same Emerson gym that used to be a pipedream had taken a step to put itself in some pretty elite company. The NBA's San Antonio Spurs used the court for practice and shootaround on Jan. 22 before their game with the Celtics that night. Center Jackie Butler liked the facilities so much he stayed an extra hour to work on jumpshots in the gym.

"It's created an exciting stir, them being here," Keeling said.

The practice was closed to the public, but some Emerson students and basketball players caught the tail end of the practice from the second-level skybox.

For those that missed it, this wasn't a one-time thing.

"Other than the Spurs coming in, we've had inquiries from other NBA teams to use our facilities," said Facilities Director Jason Tassinari, who also listed the Toronto Raptors as an interested team.

More than anything, the Spurs' visit signifies the complete overhaul in the Emerson Athletics Department, at least in terms of facilities.

"We've always had a pretty good sports program, but, thing is, nobody knew about it and there was no way to tell anybody," Keeling said. "Five years ago, these teams were practicing in a hospital. Now NBA teams are using our gym."

"In '04, soccer used to meet up in the Little Building, they used to play lacrosse at Logan Airport," said Tassinari. "Just to have a home base, something to call home and be athletically recognized, I think that's what's important."

Tassinari knows full well the importance of the facility. He doubles as the facilities director of the gym and also the women's soccer coach. For both jobs, the new gym is the ultimate recruiting tool.

"It's much more impressive to have this," he said. "It catches people's eyes and it makes people know that we have athletics on a level with other teams in the conference. And with the banners everywhere and the Emerson name everywhere, it has a real Emerson environment. It's huge for all of athletics."

They are, of course, still working out the kinks. Last Friday, a washer in the laundry room directly above the gym broke, causing water to flood parts of the first floor of Piano Row and seep down to the campus center and gym below it. The men's home basketball game scheduled against Emmanuel that day was changed to an away game. The women's basketball game scheduled for Jan. 29 was pushed back to Feb. 12.

"Let it be known that there is no Noah's Ark," said Tassinari. "It's a leak, not a flood. If you look at the floor, we could play on it if we wanted to, but we're just going to err on the side of caution."

And in the weeks following the gym's reopening, expect a lot more activities involving Emerson students. This was part of Keeling's plan all along.

"We had a whole Emerson three-on-three tournament a couple of weeks ago where a team of students beat a team of security guards," Keeling said with a smile. "We want everything here-indoor soccer, there have been people talking to me about a dodgeball league starting up-because we want to upgrade our intramural program along with everything else that's going on."

Best of all for Keeling, when one of the basketball teams, both at 11-7, have a chance to defend a real home court in some pivotal conference games down the stretch or when another pro team drops by to practice, he'll be able to see it from his office.

But, thankfully, he won't be able to feel it.