All those Ws in the desert are no mirage

The Wildcats' "ZonaZoo" student section chants relentlessly, in unison, to distract opponents. Chris Morrison/US Presswire

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TUCSON, Ariz. -- Few college basketball venues in the American West can claim they've hosted the NCAA men's tournament in five decades. Arizona's hoops cathedral, the McKale Memorial Center, is one of them.

Tucked on the eastern edge of the University of Arizona campus, the 14,545-capacity Tucson institution is an old-school, unique and tightly-packed venue that will host its 12th version of NCAA March Madness when second- and third-round games of the men's tournament play here today and Saturday.

Its remarkable run of being chosen as an NCAA site began in 1974, when it hosted the West Regional, just one year after the facility's christening. And it's no wonder why.

Tucson is the quintessential college hoops town, with a nearly 40-year track record to prove it.

Since the start of the 1987-88 campaign, Arizona has played to 99 percent capacity. Season tickets have been sold out for 23 consecutive seasons.

The Wildcats' home court, named after late athletic director and coach J.F. "Pop" McKale, opened late in their 1972-73 campaign. Arizona proceeded to win 67 of its first 70 games in the building and that consistency -- spawning 13 Sweet 16 appearances and, at 25, the second-most consecutive NCAA appearances (from 1985-2009) -- has remained as constant as the hoops passion of its rabid sea-of-red fan base.

The Wildcats' large student section, known as the "ZonaZoo," relentlessly chants a variety of musings in perfect harmony to distract opponents. But make no mistake, this is a diverse fan base from the very young to the very old, all with one commonality: Arizona basketball is in their blood.

To the first-time visitor, this unbridled passion is instantly understood as all fans -- not merely the student section -- frequently stand for several minutes more often than sit, especially when the Wildcats are on a run. It's also a joint where fans universally groan to express their displeasure when the home team sputters.

And it's a sight to see when the concourses and concession lines are literally bare to the bone during play as all eyes are fixated on the court. In short, Tucsonans live and breathe for their Wildcats.

"There are elderly folks that can barely walk and they'll stand when U of A goes on a run," quipped Michelle Mejia, a McKale Center usher whose day job is at the local courthouse. Mejia took the usher gig because it was the only way she could think of to see all the home games. "At work the next day, [the Wildcats] are all people talk about."

Like many Arizona fans, Mejia is a native Tucsonan with familial ties to Wildcats basketball. Her late father, Ernie, a former police officer, first took her to the McKale Center as a child. And it's the youthlike enthusiasm of the crowd that should be evident to visitors. During timeouts, the arena production crew picks one fan, from a young boy to an elderly woman, to dance like crazy on the video board, much to the crowd's delight.

That isn't the only dancing going on, however.

When Arizona was trailing in the second half of a January tilt against UCLA, Joe Calaveri, known as the "Ooh Aah Man," took to center court during a timeout to inspire the crowd and Wildcats in his signature red and white socks that go up to his knees.

Calaveri dropped the cane he uses to get around because of Parkinson's Disease and proceeded to spell out "A-R-I-Z-O-N-A!" with his body and chanted "U of A," pointing to each of the four sides of the McKale Center for a response. Often he'll shed a red shirt or blue pants to reveal another shirt and a pair of shorts emblazoned with "Arizona" or "Wildcats."

If you think Calaveri is just a tad overzealous, he's got plenty of company. Seating in the ZonaZoo is on a first-come, first-served basis and most of the student crazies are situated snuggly right behind the north basket ... and within prime heckling territory of the visiting team bench and locker room entrance. Lyric Barkley and Jordan Ronstadt, native Tucsonans and U of A seniors, are packed among them, always seated since freshman year together in Section 22, a few rows up behind the north end of the court.

"I've never missed a game," Barkley said. "We come four hours early so we always have the same seats."

Barkley and Ronstadt have been bleeding Wildcats red practically since birth. Barkley said one of her first memories as a child was Arizona winning the 1997 national championship under legendary coach Lute Olson. And like other members of the ZonaZoo, Barkley and Ronstadt stand for the entire game ... and never shut up.

A first miss of two attempts at the free throw line by the opponent elicits a "nice shot, buddy!" from the ZonaZoo while each visitor's bounce of the ball during the beginning of play in both halves is accompanied by a well-choreographed, "Boing! Boing! Boing!"

This band of diehards never stops evolving. This season, the ZonaZoo added mammoth cutout head posters of the starting lineup to showcase their loyalty. They'll sing "Happy Birthday" to players on their special day. Earlier this season, during a win against Washington, the McKale Center was a sea of white, with 14,000 fanatics donned in white shirts.

Yet most opponents see red in the stands and often depart dizzy, scratching their heads and ears a-buzzing, as the McKale Center rocks the decibels. And foes certainly have had a difficult time leaving Tucson with a W. The Wildcats are the only school in NCAA Division I history to have two home-court consecutive winning streaks rank among the top 10. Arizona's 81-game streak in Bear Down Gym from 1945-51 ranks fifth on the list, while its 71-game streak in McKale Center from 1987-92 ranks 10th.

Expectations of winning can't be higher here, either. The venue's address is 1 National Championship Drive and fans enter the McKale Center to find a 10,000-square-foot museum, showcasing the history of Arizona's winning tradition.

Those who can't score a ticket but who want to enjoy the hoops on television with fellow Wildcats and March Madness fanatics typically mingle at a trio of unique establishments adjacent to campus on University Avenue, all within a mile of the McKale Center.

No Anchovies serves up generous portions of thin New York-style pizza with a variety of toppings except, well, you guessed it, and offers plenty of cold beer along with patio seating. Next door is The Frog & Firkin, which also boasts lots of pizza, beer and a cool patio. Both are old school houses converted into hip watering holes. Nearby, Gentle Ben's has its own brewery with a plethora of unique frosties on tap.

"Everyone cultivates out on the patio at No Anchovies and The Frog to watch games. They have flat screen TVs out there, and they're big ones, too," Ronstadt said. "Gentle Ben's is more like a restaurant but is another great place to watch games. These three places are really popular and right near each other."

And like the McKale Center, these hot spots are quintessential hangouts in this great college hoops town nestled in the Southwestern desert.

Joe Connor is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Reach him at mrsportstravel@mrsportstravel.com.