ARLINGTON, Texas — Texas-Arlington has played basketball on center stage for more than 46 years. An actual stage.
Bleachers for about 600 fans behind the benches give Texas Hall the feel of a small gym. But on the other side of the court, where the front row is several feet below the court, are about 2,700 theater seats — half on the floor and the rest in a balcony.
"Practice was always interesting, having to get the balls off the court and stuff like that," Lady Mavericks sophomore Rosalyn Thorpe said. "Tried not to fall off the stage. It was something to adjust to."
But there were also plenty of times when the men's and women's basketball teams were kicked off the stage by plays that had nothing to do with pick-and-rolls or zone defenses. Maybe it was the annual December production of The Nutcracker, a concert, a lecture or dance competitions.
The Mavericks are exiting stage left and dropping the curtain on their days at Texas Hall, which has been one of the most unique settings in college basketball since opening in 1965.
They are leaving the drama behind and moving to the other side of campus into the 7,000-seat College Park Center. The new $78 million facility — with spacious locker rooms for each team, a state-of-the-art video room with plush leather seats and two practice courts — opens Wednesday night with a men's and women's doubleheader against UTSA.
Jim Baker, UT Arlington's new athletic director whose first official day on the job is Wednesday, said the new arena was absolutely a selling point for him to accept his new position. He oversaw $430 million in facilities upgrades while part of the University of Texas athletic administration for more than 20 years.
"I didn't know if I wanted to take this job or not, but once I walked through here and got done, I said, 'If they offer, I'm taking it,'" Baker said.
Women's basketball coach Samantha Morrow, sitting next to Baker when he made that comment, added: "That's what we want our recruits to feel, just like that."
Texas Hall was dubbed by Sports Illustrated in 1997 as the best place to watch college basketball. But there was never that same appeal to top recruits in trying to get them to play there.
Former men's coach Bob LeGrand used to have the door locked at Texas Hall as an excuse not to take recruits inside the building when they visited campus, which is halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth and now has more than 33,000 students.
Current coach Scott Cross, who took the team to its only NCAA tournament in 2008, has been on the Arlington campus since 1995. He was a three-year letterman playing for the Mavericks before being an assistant coach for eight seasons and then becoming their head coach.
After more than 16 seasons of home games at Texas Hall, Cross' last game there was a victory over Stephen F. Austin on Jan. 21.
"I wasn't too sentimental," Cross said. "There's been some great memories there, but you can't really be upset about burying Texas Hall when you're walking over here and see this facility. ... Our guys, you walk in here and you should feel like you need to be a top 50 program in the country."
The Mavericks (15-5, 7-0 Southland Conference) won their last four games at Texas Hall, part of their current school-record winning streak of 11 in a row. They will play their last four home games this season at College Park Center, where they also get to practice, go to study hall, lift weights and hang out in their own dressing room — all under one roof..
With Texas Hall, the teams were forced to practice in four or five different places each season. They'd watch film where they could find space, sometimes projected on a wall with players sitting on a floor. There was no real base for teammates to be together when they weren't at a game or practice.
"We'd have nowhere to go for camaraderie and the team concept," Morrow said. "(Texas Hall) has been a detriment to recruiting kids. Girls are all about pretty and frilly and all that. So when you bring them into this facility, that's why we were able to get a couple of the kids that are going to come in next year was because of this."
The multipurpose auditorium opened in October 1965 with a performance by trumpeter Louis Armstrong, nearly two months before the first basketball game there. Texas Hall has also hosted entertainers such as Neil Diamond, Kiss, Pat Boone and Jerry Seinfeld, and events like the Miss Texas Pageant.
Now that Texas Hall is out of the sports business but still hosting other events, school officials hope to renovate and restore it as a top-class performing arts center.
For the Mavericks, the move into College Park Center is a precursor to switching next season from the Southland Conference to the WAC. Cross said those transitions make them a "legit basketball program."
"I don't know if we could have gotten into the WAC with Texas Hall. This just showed that we're committed to basketball and that we're ready to step it up," Baker said. "We'll have the nicest arena in the WAC. ... For a 7,000-seat arena, I don't think there's going to be one that's going to be able to touch it in the country."
Just like there was no basketball court like the one on the stage at Texas Hall.