UALR celebrates new arena

Updated: November 23, 2005, 5:01 AM ET
Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK -- Jeremy Barbre is a part-time student at Arkansas-Little Rock. He began taking classes at the school in 2001, but until this year, he'd never been to a basketball game.

Now that the new Stephens Center has opened, Barbre expects to become a regular.

"I just never had any reason to come out and cheer," the 25-year-old Barbre said. "We got this facility built, and I was curious what it looked like inside. Now, I'm hooked."

UALR beat Navy 61-57 Tuesday night in the first regular-season game at the arena for its men's basketball team. Zack Wright led the Trojans with 17 points, and UALR's Elijah Muldrow made a layup for the building's first men's basketball points.

The Trojans used to play home games at 18,000-seat Alltel Arena in North Little Rock -- but that facility was too big. The UALR women were only drawing a few hundred fans, and the men between 3,000 and 6,000.

The Trojans' new on-campus home seats 5,600.

"It was a big advantage because, ... Alltel ... seats like 19,000. Although it might be 4,000 people there, it doesn't get really loud because it's so big of an area," UALR's Lekheythan Malone said after the game. "Being here, where it seats 5,000, and 4,000 people are here, it's a big difference. The crowd gets into the game a lot more and gives us energy."

Before the game, the crowd of 4,852 watched a video tribute to the late Jack Stephens, the former CEO of Stephens Inc. The Stephens family's donation of $22.4 million made the arena possible. He died earlier this year.

"We're going to benefit from years to come from the generosity of the Stephens family," UALR coach Steve Shields said. "Could not be more blessed."

Stephens attended the Naval Academy, and made a $10 million donation to the school in 2003. Some of his classmates from Navy were introduced during the game, and several Stephens family members watched from one of the luxury boxes high above the south sideline.

The $25 million arena hosted volleyball matches during the fall -- Barbre came to those, too -- but this was its first major event. The UALR women's team started the evening with a 73-48 win over Centenary, and by the time the men began warming up, about half of the seats were full.

Chair-back seats rise from each sideline toward the top of the building. Behind the baskets sit a few small sections of bleachers, below the spacious concourse level. The court can be seen from some of the concession stands, and alcohol was indeed served after a state panel authorized beer and wine sales at the school earlier in the day.

A wide scoreboard hovers high behind each basket, with a replay screen and updated stats for both teams.

On the concourse at one end, fans can look down through a glass window at the Derek Fisher Court, a practice gym named after the former UALR star who has gone on to play for the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors.

Rick Robinson of North Little Rock is one fan who has a longer trip to get to Trojans' games now that the team has moved. But Robinson, a UALR alum, isn't complaining.

"I'm pretty excited about it," the 54-year-old Robinson said. "I think it's a great thing. We're fortunate they had Stephens make the gift so they could put it in. The practice arena over there is pretty amazing."

Barbre had one complaint -- about the sideline seats. He says they're too close together for his 6-foot, 3-inch frame.

He's happy sticking to the bleachers.

"I think as students, I think we have to be in the cheap seats," he said.

The Trojans went 25-3 at home over the last two years, and Shields said his team has fond memories of Alltel. But UALR hopes the new building will provide an even greater home-court advantage and increase support for the school's athletic program.

Barbre says that's a possibility.

"I do believe it'll help," Barbre said. "One thing that UALR really lacks is school spirit -- and a sense of community. I know I've met several people from coming to the games with me. I think it will take a great step forward."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press

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