At a recent open gym at the College Basketball Experience, elementary school aged kids dashed on to Center Court.
Their excitement was heightened by the lights, banners and piped-in crowd noise.
And the floor, a shiny wooden surface with logos from several colleges painted in the end zone.
“Every week you see their eyes light up,” said Michael Rowe II, a CBE ambassador and O’Hara High junior who oversees the play. “They love dribbling on this floor.”
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It’s just a floor, right? Part of the game’s basic furniture along with a goal and ball.
Not at all.
The basketball court, like the ones used in this year’s Final Four and regional finals, has become a star.
Complete with a tour.
This year’s journey started in Idaho, where the floor was finished. Monday it will make its way to Salt Lake City, the home of Connor Sports Court International, which produces portable courts for the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments.
Then the court heads to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after several planned stops in the state where fans can see a replica of the floor. The real deal will measure 70 by 140 feet, the largest court ever used for a Final Four. There’s additional room on each end for photographers and reporters.
The court wasn’t always the star it is today. Two years ago, when the floor arrived at the Final Four in New Orleans, a parade was thrown in its honor, complete with a jazz band.
When the Final Four is over, the floor becomes a treasure, sold to highest bidders and proudly displayed.
Yes, even the playing surface has become a vital marketing component of March Madness.
The Final Four and regional-round games for the men’s and women’s tournaments are contested on specifically created floors by Connor. The company’s lumber mill is located closer to the trees used in production, in Amasa, Mich.
Installment at the venues begins long before the first bounce of the ball or squeak of the pivoting sneaker.
Wisconsin-based Menominee Tribal Enterprises provides the Northern hardwood maple, which reach 40 feet when they’re cut for lumber, and some 30 trees are required to create a new basketball floor.
Sawmill to tip off takes about six weeks. If a building already has a floor, too bad. It goes into storage and one that the NCAA paid anywhere from $85,000 to $95,000 is used.
A few practices, three tournament games — two semifinals and a championship — an on-court celebration, and the floor has done its job and is off to its next life.
Take the 1988 floor, the one in Kemper Arena where Danny Manning and “The Miracles” pulled off the title game upset of Oklahoma.
Seven years later, Chad Kills Crow, a freshman basketball player at Haskell Indian Nations University, was told the team couldn’t practice for a couple of days while the school installed a new floor — the 1988 Final Floor.
“I saw these stacks of panels in the corners, and wondered what was going on?” said Kills Crow, who just completed his fourth season as Haskell’s coach. “I remember it had the blue paint around the border with Kemper Arena and Kansas City.
“Me and my friends from Oklahoma, we were fascinated. This was the floor where Danny Manning and Stacey King and all those guys played that great game. We were in awe.”
Memories are a bit fuzzy, but Bill Gappy, an executive for Horner Sports Flooring, remembers meeting Tom Jernstedt, who ran the NCAA Tournament, at the 1986 NBA All-Star Game in Dallas.
Horner, based in Dollar Bay, Mich., had supplied floors for international basketball events and began its relationship with the NBA All-Star Game, which continues today, in 1985.
Horner wanted to expand its client base, and the NCAA Tournament was at a point in its evolution where a portable floor made sense.
The Final Four was transitioning from campus buildings and city arenas and into domes. The 1985 title, Villanova’s memorable upset of Georgetown, was claimed in Rupp Arena on Kentucky’s home floor, and while others marveled at the Wildcats’ achievement, Gappy couldn’t help but be struck by the floor.
“I told Tom one of the things that I noticed was Kentucky’s identity on the floor. It seemed odd to me that everything in the arena should be highlighting the Kentucky Wildcats for the NCAA’s tournament,” Gappy said.
In 1985, as well as the 1983 Final Four in The Pit on the New Mexico campus, the floor’s borders and logos were host school-themed. That’s what appeared on national broadcasts with soaring ratings as college basketball boomed in popularity.
“We’d put the NCAA logo in the middle, but the other markings on the court could be unattractive,” Jernstedt said. “Even our logo wasn’t much to look at.”
The NCAA had sympathy for hosts, especially schools that were putting in countless hours of labor to prepare for the event for little return.
“It wasn’t a money-maker to be a host, and the committee thought it was appropriate for all the work that it was doing to be able to leave the institutional decal or other markings on the floor,” Jernstedt said.
But the NCAA also realized it was losing out on branding opportunities.
“It was their tournament, and having their own floor advanced their brand,” Horner CEO Doug Hamar said. “That made sense.”
For the 1986 Final Four, Horner and NCAA went into the business, and the NCAA remained Horner’s client for two decades.
Floors constructed specifically for the Final Four created another issue. What to do with the court after the event? After all, the buildings already had their own floor.
Ah, but Horner also sold courts to universities, high schools and anybody else who needed a floor. The NCAA, which was paying around $60,000 for the Final Four floors in the 1980s, sold the floors through Horner to whoever needed one.
In 1989, Michigan outlasted Seton Hall for the title at the Kingdome in Seattle, and the floor was purchased by Pro Sports Club, a health club in Bellevue, Wash.
Everybody was happy. The NCAA, Horner, and the school or club that got a price break on a slightly used floor.
Jim Gardner, a real estate developer in Iowa and some buddies, had become Final Four regulars. They were attending the 1989 event when they saw a story in the Seattle newspaper about what becomes of Final Four floors, and what stuck with Gardner was the selling price, $55,000.
“So we’re having some beers and start talking about buying a floor, cutting it up and selling it,” Gardner said. “We thought we could make some money on this.”
The idea was to buy the floor, cut and dress up the pieces and sell them for souvenirs. Gardner, the front man, contacted Horner. Hamar said the company believed at the time the idea was for Gardner’s group to donate the floor to a high school.
But when advertisements started appearing in newspapers that covered the Final Four teams — Duke, Kansas, UNLV and North Carolina — plus in USA Today, the NCAA flipped out. Gardner even bought ad in the Final Four program that year. The NCAA pulled it, had to stop the presses, Gardner heard.
“I didn’t bring it up to them what I wanted to do with the floor because I was afraid the NCAA would step in,” Gardner said. “But our attorney included some language way in the back that basically said I could do whatever I damn please with it.”
Gardner’s pleasure was to make a buck. His group paid the price for the floor they saw in 1989 — $55,000 — and he recalled the plaques cost $2 a piece to produce.
At the Final Four in Indianapolis, Gardner hired eight female models to pass out glossy copies of the ads for the fans.
“Own history, your own piece of the Final Four floor.”
“I think we made history,” Gardner said. “Nobody ever tried to sell a piece of a floor before.”
The group had its favorite, North Carolina. But Kansas or UNLV would have been fine. Plenty of loyal fans in those states. Duke, a small, private school, was the one that worried them. Would there be enough buyers?
Naturally, the Blue Devils won, upsetting undefeated and top-ranked UNLV in the semifinals and beating Kansas — remember the long pass Grant Hill snatched in mid-air and slammed home? — for coach Mike Krzyzewski’s first national title.
The fans came through. Iowa Sports Marketing, the incorporated name of Gardner’s group, sold some 18,000 pieces at $24.95 a pop. The 7,000 or so that didn’t sell were donated to a YMCA in a Florida community, where they were glazed and reshaped into trophies for youth basketball.
He said the group cleared $100,000 on the deal and enjoyed the ride. The NCAA added a clause to the flooring contract to prohibit the resale of the floor for commercial endeavors.
For the next several years, Gardner and his friends danced over the purchase. Literally.
He kept the center court and had it laid as the dance floor in a bar he owned in Arnold’s Park, Iowa, The Ritz.
Today, pieces of Final Four floors hang in man caves, trophy rooms and anywhere else souvenirs are displayed, all with the blessing of the NCAA.
Most of the courts are purchased by the winning team, or by a souvenir company in association with the champion or NCAA.
The last two NCAA winners, Louisville and Kentucky, worked with Northwestern Mutual to buy the floors. The pieces are sold to fans and the proceeds have gone to charities that fund pediatric cancer research.
But the schools kept the center court piece. Kentucky’s from 2012 is part of the Wildcats’ locker room. Louisville’s 2013 floor with the logo hangs in the lobby of the KFC Yum! Center.
Two NCAA champions, Michigan State in 2000 and Florida in 2006, play on the floor on which they won the championship.
Courts that weren’t purchased by champions wound up in buildings scattered across the country. The 2004 floor from San Antonio, where Connecticut defeated Georgia Tech, was purchased by Texas A Christi. The Islanders played on the floor until 2012 before donating it to the Corpus Christi Department of Parks and Recreation.
The Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse floor from the 2003 championship in New Orleans went to the Gateway Arena in Sioux City, Iowa.
Duke’s 2001 title game floor from Minneapolis was purchased by the school and is now in the Emily K Center, a non-profit organization in Durham, N.C., that serves underprivileged kids and named for Krzyzewski’s mother.
The Blue Devils’ 1992 title game floor, also from Minneapolis, was purchased by the University of Delaware for the opening of the Bob Carpenter Center.
The oldest Final Four floor still in use? It might be the one from 1974, when North Carolina State and David Thompson defeated UCLA and Marquette for the title. The court is used by Greensboro Coliseum for high school, AAU and other amateur events.
“It’s essentially down to its last wood sanding,” said Scott Johnson, the coliseum’s deputy director. “But we do expect to use it a few more years.”