BANGOR, Maine — Beginning late Friday afternoon — weather permitting — hundreds of Maine high school basketball players and thousands of fans will begin making their annual mid-winter pilgrimage to the Queen City.
It’s tourney time.
But instead of flocking to the Bangor Auditorium, the character-filled edifice that yielded more than five decades of half-court shots, leaky roofs and championship celebrations, the Maine Principals’ Association Eastern Maine Classes B, C and D tournament has a new home.
Where the auditorium stood is now a parking lot. Just in front of that site and immediately behind the Paul Bunyan statue between Buck and Dutton streets is a state-of-the-art $65 million arena designed to lure a much wider array of activities to the city while remaining the region’s high school basketball home — the Cross Insurance Center.
No doubt a visit to the Cross Center during tournament week will evoke memories of the good old days of the auditorium, but for most playing in the biggest games of their lives on this shiny new stage, the overriding goal is to make new memories.
“It’s an awesome building,” said Kyle Bouchard, a junior forward who will lead undefeated Houlton High School into the Class C tournament. “I’m sad to see the auditorium go, but everything in the new building is nice. There’s no birds flying in the rafters, there’s no bad seats. Everything’s comfortable. It should be exciting to play there.”
For the participants
The Cross Center basketball court is 94 feet long to accommodate one of the facility’s major tenants, the University of Maine basketball program.
That college-length court is 10 feet longer than a regulation high school court and the one previously used at the Bangor Auditorium, but it is the same length as tournament courts used at the Portland Exposition Building and Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland.
The court at the Augusta Civic Center, where the Eastern A tournament is played, is 84 feet long, but the ACC plans to replace that with a 94-foot court next year.
“One of the reasons Augusta is making the move is so we’re consistent at all three sites so there won’t be that advantage or disadvantage to have played on one length during the regionals and another one in the states. We’ll have that consistency,” said Dick Durost, executive director of the tournament-organizing MPA.
For players at John Bapst Memorial High School, who play home games at the Cross Center, the extra court length generally comes into play more during practices.
“In the games, you’re running on adrenalin, and you don’t notice it as much,” said John Bapst senior Cody Lyons, “but definitely in practice you can feel it running line drills.”
John Bapst boys basketball coach and athletic administrator Rick Sinclair doesn’t believe the additional court length will have a significant impact but suggested it won’t go unnoticed.
“Some of the smaller schools that come here from closed-in, tight-feeling gyms where they can run their half-court traps and it’s to their advantage are going to find out that although it’s only 10 feet, it creates a lot more area on the floor,” he said. “We noticed that we’d have that first burst of energy, and then we were tired, and it took a little bit of getting used to throughout the year.”
Another difference between the facilities is the lighting, which at the Cross Center is focused more directly on the playing surface than throughout the arena.
“I’m there when both the home teams and visiting teams get there, and the first comment they make is how bright it is on the floor,” Sinclair said. “I don’t think once you get playing you notice them,but those are big, heavy-duty lights that are shining down on you when you’re playing.”
With the court situated at the south end of the arena, there’s open space beyond both baskets, particularly at the north end.
“It’s a bigger building, and that changes your ability to shoot,” said Lyons. “At both ends, there’s a bigger distance between the backboard and the stands at one end or the wall at the other end, so the shootaround before the game is important, and if you can get up 50 or a hundred shots that helps.”
There’s also plenty of locker room space with amenities including clocks synchronized with the scoreboard clock, so teams won’t be late for the start of games or the end of intermission.
“The only thing I miss is there’s a little more security now so you can’t explore, which I wish I could do because it’s beautiful in here,” said John Bapst senior Colby Kohn. “We used to be able to run around the old auditorium and see everything, and now you have to go straight to your locker room and straight to the court.”
For the fans
Soft, individual seats with cup holders, more concession areas and more restrooms are just a few of the comforts Cross Center operators and tournament officials hope will ease the transition to the new arena.
“Most of the changes fans will see should become pleasant surprises once they become used to the idea that the auditorium obviously doesn’t sit there anymore,” said Mike Dyer, the Cross Insurance Center general manager who had held the same post at the Bangor Auditorium since 1993.
Fans will enter the parking areas only from the Buck Street side of the arena, with the Dutton Street side turned into a pedestrian walkway during tournament week. The area vacated by the former auditorium has been turned into more than 200 parking spaces, though most of the parking will remain in its previous location next to the adjacent harness racing track.
“We’re going to make sure to the best of our ability that there aren’t the traffic jams from people coming off the interstate and piling up all trying to come up Dutton Street,” said Dyer. “And on the way out, the traffic coming in and the traffic leaving aren’t really going to cross each others’ paths the way they did in the past, and folks leaving the building, with very few exceptions, won’t have to cross over incoming traffic and will have very few times when they’re crossing over exiting traffic.”
Fans will enter the Cross Center through the Southwest concourse on the second level and walk down to their seats. If they are waiting for the next session, they are less likely to have to wait outside as was the case in the past.
Six large concession areas plus portable carts in the concourse will provide food offerings that include W.A. Bean red hot dogs, Papa John’s pizza, baked stuffed potatoes, New England clam chowder, beef stew, chef’s salad, barbecue selections, hot dogs, hamburgers and popcorn.
“Every time you turn around, you’re either at a food stand or at a restroom,” said Dyer, “so I think people will find it a lot easier to scoot out of their seat, get to a restroom or concession area and get back and not really miss any of the action.
Some fans may complain of sticker shock at the concession areas, particularly with the initial tub of popcorn costing $6 — it’s $2 for a refill.
Dyer said food prices were established locally by in-house food and beverage personnel.
“We have looked at what is being charged in Augusta and Portland, and we’re competitive, and we’re tweaking the menus all the time to make sure we have things that people not only want to have but can afford,” he said.
MPA officials and Eastern B, C and D tournament co-directors Jerry Goss and Norris Nickerson said they plan to run the tournament similarly to past events in conjunction with Cross Center management.
“There’s certainly a great deal of anticipation and maybe even a little nervousness any time you move into a new facility,” said Durost. “We’re going to keep things as normal as we can based upon some of the things we’ve done in the past, and there are some things we have to change and do differently just because the facility’s different.
“We also know there are things we can expect and anticipate 998 out of 1,000 times, but there are always going to be those two things that turn out differently. We know we’ll have some things to deal with, but we look forward to getting people in here, getting the schools and the teams in here and giving them the chance to play in this unbelieveable facility.”