BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Stop telling me Baton Rouge isn't a basketball town. Stop telling me LSU isn't a basketball school. Stop feeding me the cop outs. Because I know LSU basketball can be magical. I know it can be exhilarating. And, we shouldn't be told it can't be again.
Indeed, it's hard to believe, but there was a time 66,000 fans bought tickets for a single game of LSU hoops. The date was January 28, 1988 and the place was the Louisiana Superdome. It is an occasion true Tiger fans can recall as easily as breathing. Brent Musberger's pulsating call to a national television audience on CBS still echoes in my brain after all those years, "The shot...SHORT, up to Blanton...and he hits it with one second left! LSU wins it! LSU wins it!" That, of course, would be Ricky Blanton. His rebound and hoop to shock No. 2 Georgetown at the gun had that dome "crunk" long before the Saints were making a run to the Super Bowl.
LSU basketball mattered.
Stromile and Jabari. Alley-oops from the rafters. Crushing No. 5 Arizona 86-60. John Brady cutting down the nets. Crazy fans storming the floor. LSU basketball mattered.
Tyrus Thomas soaring. "Big Baby" spinning, scoring and laughing. Darrel Mitchell's miracle answered versus Texas A&M. Garrett Temple handcuffing Duke. The 2006 Final Four. LSU basketball mattered.
Shots from different zip codes by Marcus Thornton. Beating Butler in the NCAA Tournament. Standing toe-to-toe with eventual national champion North Carolina. LSU basketball mattered.
But, it hasn't mattered enough. Since the 1992-93 season, LSU has only reached the NCAA Tournament five times. And, even though the capacity of the Assembly Center is actually smaller than it was when the arena was first opened in 1972, they still can't fill it. Even LSU's largest home crowd of the year last season was a disappointment. Powerful, tradition-rich, No. 1 Kentucky was in town on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, with nothing else going on and still the game fell roughly 1,600 short of a sell-out. Students should've been camping out for their spots and fans should've been wrapped around the building fighting to get in.
In Trent Johnson's four years with the program, only one TRUE home sell-out comes to mind. The 13,839 listed for LSU's 80-70 loss to No. 15 Xavier on January 24, 2009. LSU AVERAGED 13,708 fans during the 1980-81 season and 13,681 for the 1989-90 campaign. Apathy is defeating a once-proud tradition.
These days when you hit a local restaurant or bar, it's not unusual to get a puzzled look when asking why the LSU basketball game isn't on the big screen. It's off the radar and likewise vanished from people's consciousness. A new generation has been largely raised believing Fightin' Tiger basketball simply isn't cool. Have you seen the student section at home games? The media works at tables just feet away, with no noise problems. And, that is a problem.
It's time for that to change.
LSU football indeed will always be king. Even bad Tiger football in the early 90s trumped everything else when it came to fan interest. But, the months of December, January and early February should mean more than just counting down the days to LSU's BCS bowl game, losing sleep over Les Miles' recruiting class not having enough 5-stars and itching for the first pitch of "Baseball at The Box." All of those things are fine, but basketball needs to post up and secure its rightful spot.
And, that's the challenge of LSU's new basketball coach. He must make hoops a priority to the community again. He needs to be on billboards, he needs to throw out the first pitch at baseball games, he needs to speak at rotary clubs, he needs to visit with fans for 10 minutes before and then 10 minutes after his weekly radio show. He needs to smile, shake hands, be engaging and a few funny jokes wouldn't hurt either.
In the end, Joe Alleva's hire will ultimately be judged on wins and losses. We all know that. The new coach certainly needs to put an end to all the countless, irrelevant "Selection Sundays" and likewise the NCAA Tournament brackets void of LSU's name. But, he still must aggressively, immediately attack those cop outs we started this whole rant with.
Just as LSU football fans learned winning big home games in the daytime wasn't like passing a camel through a needle's eye...the new coach can likewise defeat some myopic thinking force-fed down our throats for years.
Yes, Baton Rouge can be a basketball town. Yes, LSU can ALSO be known as a basketball school.
And yes, ultimately, LSU basketball can matter.