Level Up

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Walking across the packed parking lot in front of Quinnipiac’s TD Bank Sports Center, the freezing cold air is filled with expectations and excitement. The arena compares to a regular multi-purpose arena. It looked familiar to arenas I’ve been to before, and I knew U.S. universities had professional sports venues. This state-of-the-art edifice is located on a hilltop, overlooking Hamden. I’m energized seeing it in front of me. A line at the box office is visible through the doors, although I’m still 200 yards away.

Tonight’s event is again a basketball game, college basketball to be precise. I know instantly that this is the next level. This is not a gym that is attached to a high school – this is more.

A woman, wearing a blue uniform, checks my ticket electronically. After the view is cleared, I realize something about this area that presents a surprise – it’s a two-in-one complex. There’s a basketball arena to the left and a hockey arena to the right. Both look identical, except the fact that to the left I can see a basketball court and to the right a hockey rink.

With a capacity of approximately 3,500 seats, the basketball arena is by no means large, but when I walk down the stairs, I feel remembered on some of the smaller and more modern soccer arenas that I’ve visited in Germany. It’s not that this arena would reach the size of those stadiums. It’s not that it looks similar to them. It’s just a feeling of similarity. A visit to one of those stadiums from last year came to mind when I followed my two classmates down the stairs.

The second division in German soccer, called 2. Bundesliga, is home to several teams from smaller towns and areas that have neither the use for nor the financial opportunities to build bigger stadiums that would meet the requirements for a World Cup.

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Favoring a team that takes a detour through this league once in a while has the side effect that one’s got the chance to visit some of those exotic places in person. Despite the differences between an arena and a stadium, many of them don’t stand a chance compared to the TD Bank Sports Center. They are run-down, feel antiquated, and come with an amateurish touch. This here feels professional from top to bottom.

Having the chance to observe my first encounter with the Bobcats right from the sideline came unexpected. With the regular spectators in the back and the players right under my nose, I begin smelling both similarities and differences.

The cheerleaders to my left wait in excitement for the start of the game, parents chat cheerfully with each other while their children use the space in-between the rows as playground. It’s a relaxed atmosphere that reminds me on the high school game. At the same time, it is clear that this is a much more professional setting.

The table in front of me is filled with countless sheets of paper. I skim trough them, find an informational brochure about Quinnipiac’s women’s basketball team, stats about the teams playing tonight (the Bobcats Men’s basketball team is playing the Siena Saints), and welcome sheets for the members of the press.

The lights go out, music fills the arena while a strong voice announces the players. This looks similar to how I remember the same procedure from the NBA game I saw a couple of years ago.

Of course, I hear the national anthem again. I have a feeling that if my education in American sports continues at this rate, I’ll soon know the American anthem better than the German. This time, however, it’s not a recording; it’s a live performance. Boomer, the Bobcats mascot, adds a nice touch to the performance by ending it with some encouraging dance moves.

The game begins. I feel dwarfed when the players appear in front of me, just across the table. The gameplay is fast, much faster than high school basketball. Looking into the players’ eyes, I see focus and determination. This is serious basketball.

The game feels much more physical. Players handle each other differently. It seems like the protecting layer high school provides is gone. While the high school game had surprisingly few fouls and free throws, things are heating up between the Bobcats and the Saints.

The coaches level up as well. While I was surprised how professional the high school coaches were, this here comes with the feel of professional league coaches. At one point, the referee feels the need to calm down the visitor’s coach.

“That coach is a mean old man!” I hear a female voice shouting from somewhere behind me. Other than this one outburst of emotion, there is a lot of conversation going on among the spectators of tonight’s game. It makes me feel at home.

In a soccer stadium, occasional conversations are quite common, even during the games. Over the years, I’ve been let in on all sorts of personal stuff going on in the life of this one woman that used to be seated right behind me.

Before the game, during halftime break, and even while the action was going on down on the pitch, scraps of conversations she had with her neighbor reached my ears; I had no chance to escape.

The same thing is going on tonight. People are engaged in friendly chats while the game fades to background noise when they talk about private stuff. Yet, they seem to keep an eye on the game because as soon as something noteworthy happens, say a controversial referee decision, the topic changes and the game is all they talk about.

The atmosphere gets more tensed towards the end of the game. The score is close, too close to call a winner. The cheering gets louder; people wait in excitement what happens in the final minutes and seconds of the game. It’s an interesting change to observe. Everyone is now focused on the court; the off-topic conversations have ceased. Time-outs interrupt the game now; two minutes feel like 10.

Dancing Boomer, chanting cheerleaders, and a focused crowd are, however, not enough tonight. The Bobcats loose 70-72. But the game had its effect.

College basketball fits nicely in-between high school and professional NBA. I am surprised how close it compares to the pro league, however. I have been to professional soccer matches in Germany that weren’t as professional. And what better way to get introduced to the world of college sports than with a game observed from the press row. A victory, obviously, would have been nice, but there’s still time for that…

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