CHAMPAIGN – Do you remember the first time you saw the Assembly Hall?
Chances are you do, because of all the buildings in Central Illinois, it’s hard to name one that has a more enduring curb appeal that the flying saucer arena that sets on the edge of the University of Illinois campus.
There will be a dialog about the history of the building this week because on Saturday, at the Illinois-Nebraska men’s basketball game, they will celebrate the 50th anniversary of a structure that still packs plenty of “Wow!” factor.
In preparation for the occasion, I’m asking you: What’s your favorite Assembly Hall memory?
Because it is a multi-purpose building, the answer could be Eddie Johnson’s jump shot that cut down Magic Johnson and No. 1-ranked Michigan State in a basketball game played in 1979. Or it could be Tyler Griffey’s last-instant layup that did the same thing to No. 1-ranked Indiana just three weeks ago.
It could also be a state championship basketball game during the period from 1963-95 when the Illinois High School Association staged its boys state tournament there, or from 1978-90 when the girls did the same.
If you’re a wrestler, it could the moment of a lifetime during the IHSA’s state tournament, which continues there to this day.
Or it may have nothing whatsoever to do with sports.
It could be one of the blockbuster concerts the Assembly Hall has hosted.
Elvis played there. So did Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones, to say nothing of U2, Bob Hope, Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen.
Bill Cosby cracked jokes there.
The Ice Capades, the circus, monster trucks and pro wrestling have performed inside the building. Before something called pay-per-view, championship boxing matches were shown there on closed circuit television.
Even presidents have graced the Assembly Hall.
President Bill Clinton came to the Assembly Hall to speak in 1998 but is better remembered for what happened after the appearance when Air Force One got stuck in the mud at Willard Airport.
They brought in a “backup” Air Force One, which turned out to be the same plane that 35 years earlier had transported John F. Kennedy to Dallas.
I was still a 15-year-old high school sophomore when I had my first experience at the Assembly Hall.
I’d ridden a school bus to Champaign so I could see my high school boys basketball team, Evanston Township, compete in the IHSA state finals.
Walking in, I remember being overwhelmed and thinking, “This is the coolest building I’ve ever seen.” I was there for Evanston’s victories over Peoria in the quarterfinals, Chicago Crane in the semifinals and Galesburg in the finals.
I had no idea I would go on to cover more than 600 basketball games in the building as a sports writer.
Among my favorite moments are some of those games with memorable endings, including Andy Kaufmann’s bomb to beat Iowa and the absolute wipeout of No. 1-ranked Wake Forest early in the 2004-05 season, a night I wondered if we might have a Final Four team on our hands.
Perhaps the most emotional moment was the last dance by Chief Illiniwek – Feb. 21, 2007. If you were there, you’ve probably not forgotten how the Chief began his traditional exit from the floor, then pivoted and marched back to center court, where he offered his own goodbye with a salute to each quadrant of the Assembly Hall.
There were tears and camera flashes everywhere as people captured the last dance by a beloved but controversial symbol many will never forget.
I saw Deon Thomas’ long-awaited first game there and Lou Henson’s last.
I saw Bill Self and John Groce introduced as new head coaches there and I saw Michael Jordan as a player (during a Bulls’ exhibition game) and as a father (on hand to watch his son, Jeff Jordan).
I saw Shaquille O’Neal play there (in college, for LSU) and I was witness to the first “Paint the Hall Orange,” promotion, which led to today’s sea of orange we now take for granted.
I saw Kenny Battle soar, Dee Brown shine, Lucas Johnson entertain and Nick Smith pout.
The Assembly Hall is where Aerosmith rocked, where Cats meowed and where I saw the Moody Blues sound otherworldly while performing with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra.
During Saturday’s Illinois-Nebraska game, they’ll be showing a video that brings to life the proposed renovation of the building that is due to begin in March of 2014 and be completed in time for the start of the 2016-17 season.
In almost any other circumstance, a 50-year-old building would be bulldozed to make way for a brand new structure. Many support that move today.
But because the Assembly Hall is so structurally sound, renovation (including the long-overdue addition of air conditioning) is the path the university will pursue.
So I ask you: What’s your favorite Assembly Hall memory?
Let me know at email@example.com and at some point I’ll share your thoughts with our readers.
After 50 years, there’s a lot to choose from.
Mark Tupper covers University of Illinois sports for Lee News Service.