NEW ORLEANS — Bernard Griffith played at Xavier so long ago, the Barn was still used for storing hay.
Well, that’s not quite true.
The school’s former basketball facility got its nickname not for its function but its design — a wooden exterior and cavernous interior that didn’t have the balcony, which changed its agrarian look when Griffith was a senior in 1971, 34 years after what was officially called the Xavier University Gymnasium opened.
But now the Barn sits empty, eventually to be razed as part of Xavier’s remarkable expansion since Hurricane Katrina.
Across Washington Avenue, Griffith will visit his alma mater’s showcase Convocation Center for the first time as a participant Saturday when he brings in his Dillard Bleu Devils for the Crosstown Classic. Tipoff is set for 5 p.m., following the women’s game.
“I miss the Barn because it was always so much fun to play there,” said Griffith, who has coached in venues ranging from Madison Square Garden to Gregory Junior High during a 39-year career that includes a stint at Xavier in the late 1970s. “But what they’ve done at Xavier is a giant step into the future. Inside and outside, it’s what a big-time college basketball arena is supposed to look like.”
While seating only about 3,500, the $25 million Convocation Center — FEMA gets credit for much of the funding — with its black-and-gold chairback seats, has the layout and feel of a facility that belongs at a major school, not one in the NAIA.
When Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart was recruiting in New Orleans last fall, he told his friend, Xavier coach Dannton Jackson, that he’d like to take the Convocation Center’s scoreboard home with him because it was much better than the one at VCU. And that’s just the arena part.
The Barn’s intimate atmosphere (capacity 1,200) did have its charms. The area behind the stands featured a warped floor that caused many an unsuspecting visitor to stumble, there were bathroom-sized coaches offices, and the locker rooms when Griffith played had no lockers — just hooks.
Now Jackson, women’s coach Bo Browder and their players have all of the amenities.
“Sometimes I shake my head and say, ‘Wow,’ ” said Jackson, who like Griffith is a former Xavier player whose parents, Joseph and Maxine Jackson, met when they were XU students. “When I was playing here, our coach, Denny Alexander, always told recruits that one day we would get a new gym. I don’t think he knew how long it would take.”
The teams’ new digs have served them well.
The men are 11-3 at home, 23-6 overall, and ranked No. 16 nationally. With a victory Saturday, they will claim at least a share of their second straight Gulf Coast Athletic Conference championship. The women are 14-2 at home, 23-4 overall, and ranked No. 10. They already have wrapped up their third straight league title. Both are cinches for the NAIA tournament.
Dillard is still trying to rebuild its athletic programs after Katrina resulted in a 65 percent enrollment drop — now back to more than 50 percent of the pre-Katrina figure.
The Dillard women are 6-20, and the men are 3-19. When the schools met in January in the Bleu Devil Classic — how many rivalries are deemed “classics” at both venues? — Xavier prevailed 64-54 and 54-34. Dillard hasn’t beaten Xavier since Feb. 28, 2009, when both the men and women prevailed.
“We play well in spots,” said Griffith, who’s in his second year at Dillard. “But then we become terrorists, launching Scud missiles from everywhere. I just have to keep remembering that freshmen do become sophomores.”
Nonetheless, Griffith is looking forward to Saturday. Several of his former Xavier teammates and players will be on hand for the alumni weekend game. Former Gold Rush great Bruce Seals is donating an autographed warmup top from his days with the Seattle SuperSonics to the trophy/memorabilia display in the Convocation Center foyer.
“I feel like I’ve pretty much come full circle,” Griffith said. “Dillard/Xavier has always been a great rivalry. Everybody should come out and experience it.”
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