Shocker summer: The night they turned out the lights in Levitt

06/23/2014 9:00 AM

06/24/2014 12:54 PM

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on Feb. 26, 2002, a day after Wichita State’s final home basketball game in Levitt Arena. An 18-month, $25-million renovation soon turned the 47-year-old building into Koch Arena.

Still nine minutes to go in the game, and they are packing up the arena. They are unplugging the computer monitors, taping the cables, wrapping the keyboards, shoving it all into boxes.

Most of Levitt Arena’s offices are in boxes – white boxes, with stickers on them: “Study hall.” “Business offices.” “Ticket offices.”

The staff will move out of the 47-year-old building this morning, but already Monday night, with Wichita State University leading Northern Iowa by nine points in the final game before the arena’s renovation, many of the memories have been stored.

Nostalgia is harder to find than relief.

“Quite a night, isn’t it?” says Karl Kandt, academic coordinator in the Shocker athletic department, who is trying to stuff a monitor into a box. He is almost bubbling with happiness.

“Exciting time. The future looks great,” he says.

Before the game has started, Charles and Dorothy Ash are standing in the old concourse gazing at a drawing of the new concourse. It is tiled, bright and airy. It looks vast.

The Ashes have had tickets to Shocker basketball since the team played at the tiny Forum downtown. They are asked what they will miss most about Levitt.

“Not a thing,” says Dorothy Ash, laughing.

“I can’t think of anything,” says her husband.

“I’m looking forward to the bathrooms on the first floor,” Dorothy says.

“ that work,” Charles says.

Roy Reed, 81, was raised on a farm in Oklahoma. He has survived the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and Levitt Arena.

He and his wife, Faye, have had seats since the mid-1960s.

“There’s a lot of sentiment,” Reed says, “but we do need a better facility.”

Reed is wearing a yellow WSU sweater and a gray cap, and he is leaning on a cane. He is talking about the days when coal oil was a nickel a gallon, gasoline 9 cents, and the dust was so thick that chickens roosted at noon.

But Reed sees the future of Shocker basketball.

“It’s kind of depressing to see the building go, “ he says, “but we’ve got to have a better facility to stay competitive. It definitely will have a big effect on the recruiting.”

The future is what Jim Strathe saw in 1955 when he was a member of the first Wichita State basketball team to run onto the floor of Levitt Arena.

Until then, the team had played at the Forum in downtown Wichita, a building that seated 4,000 people. Strathe still remembers the first time he ran out through the tunnel at the north end of Levitt to be greeted by more than twice that many people.

“That was a big shock, to come out on the court and see all the people in the stands, and see them sitting away from you and not crowded right on the floor like they were at the Forum, “ he says.

The Shockers lost to Utah that first night, Dec. 3, 1955. Strathe played in the game, doesn’t remember much about it.

Since 1960, Strathe has been keeping stats at Shocker games. Turnovers.

And he has been piling up memories of the arena like numbers.

“It makes me want to take a piece of it with me,” Strathe says, “but I can’t decide which piece it would be.”

Twenty minutes after Monday’s game, which is won by WSU 86-74 in front of 9,451 fans, Janet Newlin lingers high in the arena stands to take a photo of the court. She is with her husband, Terry, and sons, Jeremy, Chris and Jeff.

She and Terry had their first date in the arena, in 1976. WSU vs. Cincinnati.

Surely, she will miss the old barn.

“Probably,” she says, “but change can be good.”

WSU athletic director Jim Schaus and 10 of his senior staffers stand at the exits as the crowd leaves, shaking hands with fans and thanking them for their attendance.

This is the second year that Schaus and his staff have done this. This night, they add that they hope the fans continue to support the team next season when it plays at the Kansas Coliseum.

Jack Phipps, a fan since the mid-1950s, heads toward one of the exits and the freezing wind outside.

Before he gets there, Phipps catches the mood of the evening just right.

“We’re really looking forward to the new facility, “ he says, “but that doesn’t mean we won’t miss this one, the players, or the memories or the good times we’ve had.”

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