Schnepf: ‘Bison Sports Arena closes its doors on 44 years of history’
FARGO — With six North Dakota State seniors playing in what is most likely the last college men’s basketball game in the Bison Sports Arena, it seemed more than appropriate to honor them with a 30-minute tribute after Saturday night’s 78-68 win over Denver.
It also seemed appropriate to challenge some of them with a pop quiz.
The subject: History — specifically of the 44-year-old BSA that will undergo a major renovation starting this spring and reopen in two years with a new look and a new name — the Scheels Center.
The question: Who was the most talented NDSU opponent to ever play in the BSA?
Seniors Marshall Bjorklund, Jordan Aaberg and Taylor Braun each answered Oral Roberts, Kansas State and Oakland. Braun added South Dakota State. Aaberg even mentioned the Denver team the Bison played Saturday night.
Kansas State easily comes to mind for most Bison fans. The Wildcats escaped the BSA with an 83-81 win in 2006.
In the early years when the BSA was still sparkling and considered a state-of-the-art facility, Cal-Irvine, San Jose State, Creighton and Northern Michigan played here. In the later years, players from Manhattan, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Oral Roberts, Oakland and Southern Mississippi discovered what it was like to play with arctic drafts freezing their shooting hands.
But of all the 602 men’s games that were played in the BSA, you would have to go back to the sixth game ever played here to find arguably the correct answer of our pop quiz.
Try Villanova, which came to Fargo on a below-zero night on Jan. 5, 1971. It left with a 94-61 win. Two months later, it played in the NCAA championship game against John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins.
Was Villanova the best team to ever play in the BSA?
“I think so … I really do,” said Bud Belk, NDSU’s coach back then. “They were very talented.”
It may have been the only time three future NBA players were playing in the BSA in the same game. Among them was 6-foot-8 Howard Porter, who was named the Final Four MVP that year. And there was guard Chris Ford, who later played and coached in the NBA.
Fresh off a trip to Hawaii, Villanova flew to Grand Forks where it destroyed UND 103-63. The next night, it showed the BSA crowd of nearly 6,000 fans what kind of team they were.
“I don’t think they even knew who the Bison were,” said Pat Driscoll of Moorhead, who was a starting guard for the Bison during the 1970-71 season.
The Villanova head coach knew Belk. That’s why they came to Fargo.
“Hey, I know Bo Ryan and Wisconsin won’t come here,” said Bison head coach Saul Phillips.
Belk’s Bison were not only the first to play in the BSA, known as the NDSU Fieldhouse back then, they were also the first to win a North Central Conference championship. So it seemed appropriate the last team to play in the BSA would be conference champs too.
“I was very proud to have played with that group,” said Brad Klabo, who as a 6-foot-6 junior from tiny Sharon, N.D., scored 30 points in the first men’s game ever played in the Fieldhouse. It was a 94-79 win over Minnesota-Morris.
“Everybody was very competitive on that team,” recalled Klabo, who now lives in West Fargo. “Those guys just did not want to lose.”
Sounds like this year’s Bison team — which after entertaining Saturday night’s crowd of 4,527 with their trademark defense and slam dunks — now has its eyes fixed on a berth into the NCAA tournament.
Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Take for example the original Fieldhouse drawings that called for a practice facility. NDSU didn’t have enough money for that. But they do 44 years later, with plans to add a separate practice facility to the BSA.
“We wanted a practice floor,” said Belk, who at 85 years old now lives in Sioux Falls, S.D. “The way I understand it, it would’ve been on a third floor just above the swimming pool.”
That swimming pool will be gone in two years. So will the wooden bleachers that have caused plenty of back aches and butt aches for fans. So will the outdated locker rooms that have become off limits for potential recruits.
“The place was pretty much the same,” Belk said, referring to his team’s reunion at the BSA in 2011.
So just as much as it can be argued that Villanova was the best opponent to ever play in the BSA, one can make a case that this year’s Bison is the best the BSA has seen.
“I will let everybody else decide that,” said Phillips. “I do know former players like Joe Regnier and Lance Berwald would’ve been good players in this era. There would’ve been a lot of players like that. I do know this, you are not going to do much better than this group we have right now.”
If this group keeps playing like they have recently, they certainly could be dancing. If not, there is the outside chance that the Bison could be hosting an NIT game in the BSA.
Two wins at next week’s Summit League tournament will officially end the BSA as we know it. If that’s the case, Toby Martinez was the last referee to blow his whistle in the BSA. Local ref Dana Powers was the first to toot a whistle back in 1970.
John Wojtak was the first Bison to haul down a rebound in the BSA. Saturday night, reserve Dexter Werner was the last Bison to do that.
Back in 1970, Klabo was the first Bison to make a basket. Chris Kading was the last Bison to make a basket — a resounding, fast-break slam dunk that produced one of the last roars in the BSA.
Schnepf is the sports editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum News Service.