Dawn of Knight

The Register-Guard – January 4, 2011 – By Ron Bellamy –

The Ducks arrive at the doorstep of a new era with their move to gleaming Matthew Knight Arena.

Many challenges, over many years, faced the University of Oregon in its quest to build a new basketball arena.

Cost. Financing. Site location. Criticism on all those fronts from within the university and from the surrounding neighborhood.

But ultimately the greatest challenge in designing and constructing what has become the Matthew Knight Arena was simply this:

A community truly loves the 84-year-old building that it will replace, McArthur Court. The noisy, passionate atmosphere for basketball that “The Pit” has inspired, and all the memories therein, are part of the fabric and history of Eugene.

“What separates that building from all the rest is what it feels like when you’re watching a game,” said Erik Judson, principal of San Diego-based JMI Sports, which managed the construction of the new arena — a $200 million building, with an additional $27 million in land purchases — for the university.

“That was the heartbeat of this project. How could we make sure that during events that this would be a great place to be a fan, and that it would be an intimidating place for other teams to come and play?

“The first time I walked into Mac Court, I almost fell over because it’s so awesome. I was intimidated that the (project) team had to follow this with a new building. It’s like replacing Wrigley Field. It’s like replacing other iconic buildings that people have so many fond memories from.

“That was daunting.”

A community that embraced Mac Court for decades will decide for itself, through hotly contested basketball games — and major concerts and other cultural events — whether it can embrace what some are calling Matt Court with the same fervor.

When it opens on Jan. 13, with the Oregon men’s basketball team hosting the University of Southern California, Matthew Knight Arena will represent the hopes, dreams, hard work and investments, both financial and emotional, of scores of people, from major donors such as Phil and Penny Knight and Pat Kilkenny, to the leadership of the University of Oregon and its department of athletics, to architects, builders and the 1,890 workers who toiled on the project in some way.

“When I walk out there on game night, it’s going to be emotional,” said Jim Bartko, the executive senior associate athletics director who was the university’s primary liaison to the project.

“I hope people have a sense of pride in what they helped build. I hope we got it right. I hope people are proud to be in here. I hope that when the visiting teams come in that we can build stories around those games.

“Because it’s a fine line. We needed to replace Mac Court, but not the stories that went into Mac Court.”

‘Anthem to the Fan’

Throughout this thoroughly modern structure, a building for this century that is distinguished by the use of glass and white oak, are numerous homages to Oregon basketball history, overt and subtle.

There are references to the Tall Firs, the Oregon team that won the first NCAA basketball championship in 1939, led by Urgel “Slim” Wintermute and by the player who became The Admiral, John Dick. References to the Kamikaze Kids of Ronnie Lee and Mike “Bulldog” Drummond, and to the passion in The Pit when Oregon fans were called “deranged idiots” by a UCLA coach.

The three-level building covers 405,000 square feet. It can seat 12,364 for basketball games, and up to 12,784 for concerts, depending on the location of the stage. The basketball floor — Pat Kilkenny Floor, with its unique depiction of an old-growth forest and the slogan “Deep in the Woods” — can be removed to create ice for skating shows, or a dirt base for tractor pulls.

The cornerstones of the collaborative effort were the Kansas City, Mo.-based architectural firm of Ellerbe Becket, an AECOM Company, which has designed numerous sports arenas and was the executive architect responsible the overall project and specifically for the seating bowl, locker rooms and other operational aspects of the building; the Portland firm of TVA Architects, which designed the outer “skin” of the building and the concourses and planned its placement on the site; Hoffman Construction of Portland, the chief building contractor, and JMI Sports, the project manager.

And, of course, Knight, the Nike co-founder who, along with his wife, Penny, donated $100 million to create the Legacy Fund that became the financial safety net for the project, and Kilkenny, whose financial support kept the project alive when it seemed dead, and who secured the Legacy Fund commitment from the Knights during his two-year tenure as director of athletics.

In designing the outer layers of Matthew Knight Arena, design principal Robert Thompson of TVA envisioned creating an experience and sense of anticipation that begins long before fans take their seats. And he knew that the building at the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Villard Street offered the long-discussed opportunity to give the Oregon campus a dramatic “front door.”

Approaching at night, fans will be drawn by lights atop the building and look through the glass walls — only 33 percent of the building but seeming like more — to see a lit interior shroud of white oak that separates the main interior pedestrian concourses from concession stands and other amenities, including two Duck Shops, behind which is the inner seating bowl itself.

At once, the building is elegant and simple, formal and informal.

The west entrance, most likely to be used by on-campus students, aligns with the northeast entrance to Hayward Field, separated by the grassy, mounded open space known to students for years as “Humpy  Lumpy Lawn,” and by a new landscaped plaza that covers an underground parking garage large enough to accommodate team buses and big rigs.

The north entrance, facing Franklin Boulevard, is landscaped to capture and filter rainwater running off the roof. The east entrance faces Villard and an area of future growth for the university.

“We’ve always used the term that it’s really a theater for basketball,” Thompson said.

“As much as it is a collegiate athletic venue, for us it was as much a cross between a performing arts and entertainment venue. … We see this as the primary living room, if you will, for the city of Eugene, that’s here to provide the ability to accommodate major cultural events.”

When fans enter from the west side, they immediately see an artwork — the state mandates that 1 percent of such projects be spent on art — of black LED panels that capture movement of fans, and later the action on the court, as points of light.

When fans enter from Franklin, they are engaged by the building’s “storytelling,” wall graphics on the main concourse that trace the history of Oregon basketball, and by the “Anthem to the Fan,” written by the Portland graphics design firm Downstream to honor the spirit of Matthew Knight, Phil and Penny’s late son, the ardent Oregon fan for whom the arena is named.

The text, highlighted by a beam of light, reads in part:

We are the Tall Firs

We are the Daisy Ducks

We are the Pit Crew and Deranged Idiots

We are Slim, the Lone Ranger and the Bulldog …

This is our house
This is where Ducks fly …

And then the spectators walk into the seating bowl itself.

Heart of the arena

Those who worked on the new arena knew that beyond its cultural benefits and modern amenities it would be judged by how the simple experience of watching a basketball game compared with that at Mac Court.

And so Bartko kept asking the bowl’s architect, Jon Niemuth, the principal of Ellerbe Becket, to make it steeper, so the fans were closer to the action. And so there is a balcony, and “The Pit” crew remains on the floor, the length of the court, with bleachers and room to stand. And so while other modern arenas have luxury boxes with views of the court, Oregon passed, because those would have pushed the upper seats farther from the floor.

“The heartbeat of the project was always the seating bowl,” Judson said. “That’s where we had to get it right first, and without exception.

“Where the players’ locker rooms were located, and what their square footage was, and operationally how the building worked, all that would come into play, and the feel of the exterior of the building would come with great vision — but with the understanding that it has to fit within the budget after we have a great seating bowl.”

Niemuth, involved with the project since 2002, noted that “it was challenging in the respect that there were really two different camps. There were folks who were done with Mac Court, who were ready to look for something newer, different, better. And then there were the folks who still thought Mac Court was the place to stay.

“The fundamental challenge was how do you create something that both audiences would find attractive and say this is the right direction.”

Niemuth’s firm has designed 60-some arenas, but he found that some of his constituencies in this case, including key figures at Nike, didn’t much care about other arenas.

“There was a lot of healthy, creative tension about trying not to do what has been done before, because if you do what’s been done before, you’re going to get a result that’s been done before,” Niemuth said.

“And there was a very clear charge from the university and all the major donors to say we don’t want what’s been done before.”

But there was also a clear charge, voiced passionately and repeatedly by Bartko, that the seating bowl must capture the spirit of Mac Court, albeit with more comfortable seats, and with access to all the modern amenities that Mac Court doesn’t have.

“If you talk to Bartko, he’ll say ‘It’s got to be as loud as Mac Court, it’s got to feel as tight as Mac Court, it’s got to have all the intangibles Mac Court has,” Niemuth said with a chuckle. “‘It’s just got to be better.’”

The seating bowl is pitched at 36 degrees in the end zone student section and the upper level, steepest allowable without rails in front of each row, and the steepest in any new arena that Niemuth has designed; in the Pac-10, the pitch will be second only to the arena at Cal, a renovation of the old Harmon Gym.

Is it successful?

“At the end of the day, people will know when they get there,” Niemuth said. “It’s like a new pair of shoes; you’ve got to break it in before you know how comfortable they really are.

“But as we’ve seen the bowl get filled out with seats and the scoreboard, it feels right. It feels really intimidating, it feels really close; it’s much bigger (than Mac Court), but it’s a much bigger building, period — the entire building of Mac Court would fit inside the seating bowl.”

At the same time, Matthew Knight Arena is essentially a modern, first-class sports venue, as found in NBA cities.

The center-hung four-sided main high-def scoreboard and video board is 20 feet by 12 feet, with room for LED advertising at the bottom. With the neon yellow “O” at the bottom and stainless steel framing, it is as much a dramatic piece of art as a scoreboard.

There are “Hustle Boards,” readers that depict individual rebounds, assists, steals, etc.

There are LED strips around the perimeter of the bowl, which can be used to convey advertising or score updates.

A “house reduction” curtain can be pulled to cover seats on the upper concourse, creating a more intimate 7,500-seat environment for events such as volleyball.

On the surface of Pat Kilkenny Floor, with the controversial design by Nike’s Tinker Hatfield and Todd Van Horne, there is the Matthew Knight Arena logo, inspired by Matthew Knight’s grin and by the developmental stages of his father’s company in Japan. And not a single swoosh.

Exclusive areas

On the event level, behind the bowl, are two club areas directly accessible via the underground parking garage. The club areas have flat screen TVs, bar tables and concession areas, and fans who make major contributions can gather before and after games and at halftime.

The first is called the McArthur Club, (minimum donation, $25,000 for two entry passes, payable over five years) with room for up to 1,250. It’s an unabashed tribute to Mac Court, with every Mac Court logo over time depicted on the floor, and a panoramic photo of the old arena, and replicas of the bead board used on the inside of the old building, and a table that is a replica of the Mac Court floor.

Beyond that is the more-exclusive Founders Club (minimum donation $500,000 over five years as part of a $1 million commitment to the project) with a capacity for 250.

Off the Founders Club are four relatively spartan “bunker suites” — consisting of a flat screen TV, a wet bar and comfortable chairs — that require a $2.5 million investment in the project. There’s one for the use of University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere; two others are being used by the Knights and Kilkenny, another by donors who did not wish to be publicly identified.

The Founders Club intersects with the hallway from the Oregon locker room in a circle called the “O Hub,” where players will pass directly by the donors en route to the floor.

For the basketball and volleyball teams, the event level also contains lounges, locker rooms and shower areas — the shower heads are eight feet high in the men’s locker — plus coaches lockers and showers and meeting rooms, plus two locker rooms for officials. There are also two visitors’ locker rooms that can be divided into four for use in tournament situations.

Other elements at arena level: A training room, weight room, and treatment center with a hydrotherapy pool, hot tub and cold-water tank, and a state of the art video control room to run the scoreboard replay screen and hustle boards.

History, and timing

Thompson, an Oregon graduate who has designed buildings for Phil Knight since 1987, including the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, recalls drawing up a basketball arena for Knight personally, on the current site, as early as 2000.

By 2003, with the UO officially seeking to build a new arena and the bakery site then unattainable, the UO turned its attention to Howe Field, and Thompson designed versions of the arena for that site. (In all, he figures he’s done eight renditions of an Oregon basketball arena.)

“I don’t think anybody was ever emotionally connected to that site,” Thompson said, because it was the bakery site that would enable Oregon to create a more formal “front door.”

The Howe Field project was axed, and by the time the arena project got going again, the bakery site had been purchased as the preferred location.

“We were elated,” Thompson said, “because it allowed this building to be so much more than just a collegiate athletic facility. It became wholistically a community building, a university building, an athletics building, a cultural building, and it enabled us to restructure the front door coming into campus.”

In designing the exterior for his first sports arena, Thompson visited other arenas and was inspired, too, by one close at hand — Portland’a glass-shrouded Memorial Coliseum.

But it was never a simple matter.

“These things don’t happen by accident,” Judson said. “I think there are many opportunities to achieve greatness, but just as many opportunities to have another average building.”

“This is as difficult project as you could be involved in, to achieve a great design solution, both the exterior building and a great seating environment, under the time and cost constraints that we had.

“The challenges were significant here. There were numerous designs that we couldn’t afford. We kept going back to the drawing board. There were times we locked ourselves in the room to evolve the design into a more affordable configuration.”

The project benefited from a struggling economy, which meant that bids for equipment and materials were less than when the building was designed, and that sub-contractors and suppliers were aggressive in seeking contracts.

For example, said Adam Bonner, the on-site project manager for Hoffman Construction, a tower crane that rented for $33,000 a month for a Portland project over two years ago was rented for $15,000 a month for the arena project, and there were other savings on equipment and materials.

As a result, Bonner said, the white oak shroud, originally on a wish list as an “add-alternate,” was included on the interior ($1 million), and the two practice courts ($5 million) were constructed, and the building got eight elevators instead of six, and the hydro-therapy pool for athletes ($250,000) made the cut list.

“It is clearly a significant investment,” Judson said of the $200 million price tag. “But I think we’ll look at it as being one of the best values because it is such a tremendous building and we got a good price.”

The project provided prevailing-wage jobs for 1,890, officials said.

“That’s something people will forget about,” Bonner said, “but it meant a lot to people feeding their families in this economy.”

Before initially starting work, craftsmen and laborers watched a video seeking to promote quality workmanship on the project. Through the video, they heard from Bartko and from Knight himself. They were asked to remember that they were working on the replacement for a building that has been beloved, and creating a building so anticipated that every aspect of it would be closely scrutinized.

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