A farewell to Kimbel Arena: A high school gym looks at 40

I tend to get a bit sentimental about watching old sports facilities close for new state-of-the-art ones.

I miss the old Boston Garden over the new TD Garden, old Comisky Park over the new US Cellular Field and old Texas Stadium over the new Cowboys Stadium that Jerry built.

But Kimbel Arena, Coastal Carolina’s home for the men’s and women’s basketball teams for more than 40 years, is not one of them. When CCU fans say goodbye to the glorified gym on Saturday, I say good riddance.

Kimbel Gym, as it was known until about a decade ago, has served its purpose since 1972, but that purpose has long since past. The 1,000-seat cracker box was fine when the Chants first started playing, but the school and programs have long since outgrown the facility.

Some may have fond memories of the rat hole, like when the CCU men’s teams were winning big games and advancing to the NCAA Tournament back in 1991 and 1993. Of course, the price for that glory was NCAA sanctions that devastated the program for more than a decade.

But I moved here in 1995, and there was absolutely nothing to cheer about until Buzz Peterson and Cliff Ellis helped turn things around beginning five years ago. That 11-year span from 1995-2006 were dark days without a winning season or anything close to it.

There have been a few high points since then. The Coastal men have returned to relevance in the Big South, and knocked off SEC power LSU in “The Chicken Coop” earlier this season, and the atmosphere during last week’s win over UNC Asheville was off the hook.

That’s the spin the Chants have put on “The Roost” for decades; it’s “intimate” setting intimidates visitors. Translation: Opponents haven’t played in a gym this size since middle school so maybe they will have a bad game while the fans have to sit in each other’s laps.

The Lady Chants will play the final game at Kimbel on Saturday, closing the door on a gym that should have been leveled long ago. Failed plans to build a new arena forced the Chants to play in it (and the fans sit in it) long after they should have.

I remember the story of a top basketball recruit who came on an official visit and, upon being shown Kimbel, commented “So is this where we practice?” Then CCU coach Pete Strickland coyly paused and answered “… Yes, this is where we practice.” Of course, that one, like many blue-chippers who visited Kimbel, got away.

But there will be no more excuses after the Chants move into the new 4,000-seat Convocation Center next season. The school has finally made a new facility come true after decades of dreaming about it, and this could be the switch that helps CCU reach the next level.

If Ellis and the men’s program can do this as Kimbel, imagine what they can do in a new facility. And the women’s team, mired in mediocrity for decades, may finally be able to catch up with the Libertys of the League.

So goodbye, tiny Kimbel, and hello Convocation Center. It’s been a long time coming, and hopefully better days ahead.

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