Sleeping Giant: The past, present and future of Mac Court
University of Oregon’s McArthur Court gives the appearance of a high school gym: rickety, wooden bleachers suspended over an ancient wooden floor. In the building’s prime it held just 9,000 people, and what the arena lacked in amenities and space it made up for in pure energy.
The bleachers would thunder and rattle under the feet of euphoric Duck fans. Rims on the basketball hoops would shake nearly four inches left to right with the crowd’s vibration. Fans felt Mac Court could come crashing down at any moment.
But to lifelong Duck fans like Corey Bickler, Mac Court — as it is commonly known — was a childhood home.
“When you go to the Rose Garden or Staples Center or some place like that you got these infinity ceilings,” Bickler said. “Mac Court was nothing like that. It’s raunchy, it’s old, it’s nostalgic.”
UO hosted the first game at Mac Court in 1927, and it served as the primary indoor arena for 83 years. Since the athletic department moved its facilities to Matthew Knight Arena in 2011, Mac Court has served multiple purposes, but to this day there is no long-term plan for the building’s future. On a campus which lacks space for internal growth, Mac Court is the rare opportunity to repurpose a prime campus location. But the now-empty arena is chock-full of memories — and it’s a piece of campus history that’s proving difficult to change.
Mac Court Memories
Once the home to all of Oregon’s arena sports (including basketball, volleyball and wrestling), Mac Court also served as a concert and event venue. Numerous prominent entertainment and political figures visited over its lifespan, such as Elvis, John F. Kennedy, the Grateful Dead, Barack Obama and others.
But it was the men’s basketball games that Bickler said were most memorable.
“When people would go nuts the lights up there would start rattling and the place felt like it was going to fall down,” Bickler said. “It was like an earthquake going on.”
While Bickler himself never attended UO, his family had season tickets at Mac Court since the 1970s and are die-hard Duck fans. He said the chip-on-your-shoulder, underdog mentality that Mac Court represented has been lost in recent years due to the success of the athletic programs and the new facilities.
“A lot of the newer-wave Oregon fans can’t identify with that [mentality],” Bickler said. “It was really cool when Oregon would go [into Mac Court], no one even giving them a shot, and they would do things that would amaze people and get everyone talking.”
Vicki Strand, director of events for Oregon athletics since 1998, had a tough-love relationship with Mac Court. While she appreciated the raucous atmosphere the building induced, she said event coordination at Mac Court was hamstrung by its limitations.
“I don’t miss producing events in there,” Strand said. “I don’t miss having to explain for the 150th time that there is no elevator to go up, and I still feel sorry for all the TV crews that had to haul cameras up to the third balcony.”
The lack of an elevator was just the tip of the iceberg. Mac Court had only 17 handicap-accessible seats for a capacity of 9,000, according to Strand. The arena’s top floors lacked restrooms or food service, there was no loading dock for large concert-type events and the main basketball hoops could not be removed from the floor without taking off the shot clocks.
“I’ve heard stories of way, way back in the day when they would bring the circus to town and it was at Mac Court, that the elephants would have to crawl in,” Strand said.
She said all the lightbulbs needed to be checked about twice a year because the crowd’s constant screaming and stomping would loosen the light bulbs to the point of falling out.
“If you spilled a Pepsi on the third balcony, it would seep through all the wood and drip on someone three sections away,” Strand said. “And it was just pure syrup by the time it got there.”
But despite the challenges the arena presented, Strand still appreciated Mac Court’s environment. One of her craziest memories of Mac Court actually came during a 1999 loss to USC when Adam Spanich hit a buzzer-beating half-court shot to beat the Ducks.
“He proceeded to jump up on the table where Phil Knight sits and do a slashing throat gesture towards our students and then run off the floor,” Strand said. “You could imagine; the students lost it.”
Meanwhile, the students had been issued white hard hats with the idea that they could collect stickers on their hats throughout the season for each game they attended. Strand knew this plan would backfire. She told the marketing department before the game that the students would inevitably throw the hats onto the court — which they did.
After Spanich made the gesture, “The hats start coming out,” Strand said. “And I managed to catch one of them. I said, ‘Knock it off.’”
The Oregon Duck mascot had it moments at Mac Court as well. Mal Williams, Duck mascot for Oregon from 1999 to 2003, said his most vivid memories are from the “Luke-to-Luke” years, when the Oregon men’s basketball team featured local stars Luke Jackson, Luke Ridenour and Freddie Jones. At that point, it was the highest-ranked team nationally in program history. Williams remembers sitting in his dressing room in the basement of Mac Court and hearing the game unfold just five feet above his head.
“Because it’s an old wooden building you’re hearing ten basketball players going north in the building, and then south, and then north, and then south,” Williams said. “I really remember just listening to the sounds of that building while I was down [in the basement] because I knew very few people had that perspective.”
Williams acknowledges that the need for another large indoor arena is diminished but still sees value for keeping Mac Court around. Mac Court is now designated as a surge facility space for UO. The Robert D. Clark Honors College is currently using Mac Court while Chapman Hall, the traditional home of the Honors College, is under renovation.
He said that because the Honors College is still using the space, it is actually reconnecting those students with Oregon athletic history that they otherwise would not be familiar with.
“Any usage of Mac Court I think is a good thing because it is still getting some love,” Williams said.
After Chapman Hall’s renovation is completed at the end of this calendar year, Oregon Hall’s departments will move into Mac Court while Oregon Hall is under renovation. The UO club volleyball team and the physical education department also use the building.
John Much, an Oregon student from 2009 to 2013, said he remembers the transition from Mac Court to Matthew Knight Arena during the 2010-2011 season. He said the students were really excited for the new arena, but the novelty wore off as the men’s basketball team struggled.
“You had that first really big blowout of a night to open [Matthew Knight],” Much said, “but you need some success to keep it going. Oregon has really turned into more of a basketball school but back then you had the football team just destroying people.”
While the architects had the legacy of Mac Court in mind while constructing Matthew Knight Arena, it is impossible to recreate the thunder Mac Court wrought.
“At Matthew Kight,” Much said, “it feels a little more like an NBA game — a little more corporate.”
As Matthew Knight Arena begins to develop its own history, Mac Court’s legacy is beginning to fade away. But the question still remains: what to do with the physical space?
“Anyone who has been there in the last four years has only known Matthew Knight,” Much said. “So McArthur [Court] must seem like an old thing in the middle of campus that’s not really serving a purpose.”
Mac Court’s potential has not gone unnoticed by the UO Campus Planning department.
“There have been a number of assessments about how possibly to reuse Mac Court as a structure,” Campus Planning Manager Christine Thompson said. “But it is a challenge given that it was built for a very specific use.”
One option is an underground parking lot, as shown in the Campus Physical Framework Vision — a document of professional suggestions for the future of campus buildings. While Thompson acknowledged there is a need for increased parking on campus, she felt that other locations could serve this purpose better, like north of Franklin Boulevard.
Removing Mac Court could also provide increased open space for a more pedestrian-friendly area. Thompson hopes to move away from the car-centric, street-oriented layout that exists today.
“There is a lot of discussion about how to help make that part of campus integrate better with our open space framework,” Thompson said.
“Of course we are going to try to continue to make [Mac Court] a useful structure,” she said. “But in the long run it is clearly a building that was built for an arena use and we now have a new arena. So the goal would be to use that land for academic use.”
While the arena is a historic reminder of what the environment in Mac Court used to be like, the clock is certainly ticking toward a full overhaul of the space.
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