BY GREG LAWSON
Owensboro is the host city for this year’s inaugural 2 A Championships. The city of Owensboro has been a spectacular host for the tournament and the historic Sportscenter is a great venue for most any event. The Sportscenter is celebrating its 70th year drawing fans of all types to western Kentucky. The venue seats 5,500, many of them chair back. Even these seats give a visual representation of the history that is a part of the Sportscenter. There is the modern blue, plastic seats that surround the lower sections of the arena. As you move up to the mezzanine, there are wooden chair back seats with metal frames harken to the first days of the Sportscenter. They are the original 1949 chairs. The top section features wood bleacher seating. Well over 75% of the seating is original to the building.
The nostalgia of the Sportscenter permeates the air. The smell of popcorn wafting through the building while imagining in years gone by all of the fans that had the same sensation when they were watch Adolf Rupp’s University of Kentucky Wildcats or E.A. Diddle’s WKU Hilltoppers host opponents at the Sportscenter. “Did Rupp sit here?” “Did Diddle use this sink or give a pre-game speech in this locker room?” These are real possibilities at the Sportscenter. UK and WKU both hosted home games in the 1950’s at the Sportscenter.
The Sportscenter was the home of the Owensboro Senior High Red Devils boys and girls’ basketball until the 2010-11 season. It continues to be the home of both the Aces and Lady Aces of Owensboro Catholic. In addition, Kentucky Wesleyan College plays their men’s and women’s home at the Sportscenter, where the Panther Men’s teams have eight national championships (1966, 68, 69, 73, 87, 90, 99, and 2001). There is also a semi-pro team, the Owensboro Thoroughbreds (of the TBL) that call the Sportscenter home. The 10th District Tournament (Owensboro, Daviess Co, Apollo, Owensboro Catholic) and the 3rd region tournament are annual staples here.
As I compose these words, I sit on a stage that countless graduates have walked across. Over the decades, area high schools and colleges have used this venue to recognize the outstanding leaders and learners that have matriculated through their institutions. Countless comedians, musical artists, and others continue to perform at the Sportscenter. Nationally-known comedian Bill Engvall will be saying, “Here’s your sign.” On this stage February 15. Comedians have been bringing laughs to Owensboro since the early days of the Sportscenter. Bob Hope performed here in the 1950’s. Country-Western stars Gene Autry (who would later own MLB’s California Angels) and Roy Rogers have made appearances at the Sportscenter. Musical artists from Louis Armstrong to KISS have graced the Sportscenter stage (and yes, the building did catch on fire the night KISS performed). Aaron Lewis, former front man for the band “Staind”, will be giving a concert at the Sportscenter March 15.
Jessica Wilson Beckmann, Director of the Sportscenter, was brought on six months ago to oversee the Sportscenter’s operations. She shared that there are typically 90-100 events a year at the Sportscenter. Many that often last over multiple days. “We see a lot of potential for what we can bring into the facility, renovate it, but keep the historic aspect.” Jared Bratcher of “Visit Owensboro” shared that the economic impact of the Sportscenter for Owensboro and the region easily reaches into the millions of dollars per year. It is estimated that the 2 A Championships alone will bring in around $600,000.00 to the local economy. Mrs. Beckmann also has a lot of personal history with the Sportscenter. She was born and raised in Owensboro and played basketball for Kentucky Wesleyan in the Sportscenter, “My grandfather was the coach at KY Wesleyan (Robert R. Wilson) when they started playing here and he is a
Kentucky Wesleyan Hall of Famer. And when Ray Harper was at (KY) Wesleyan and Bruce Pearl at USI (Southern Indiana) there were 5,000 people here and it was rocking.”
Mr. Bratcher added at the end of our discussion, “This place is a historic landmark in Owensboro. It’s an old venue but it a great venue for basketball. About 10 years ago there was talk about getting rid of the Sportscenter and building a new facility. At the end of the day, we did not want to get away from the history of the place.” It’s good to know that Owensboro knows how important it is to smell the popcorn, see the original seats, and feel the history of the Sportscenter.