Joe Davidson

Hometown Report: Loss of our NBA arena would dash young athletes' thrills

Published: Saturday, Mar. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3C
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 11:51 am

Roger Blake still has a lot of kid in him.

The graying, perpetually upbeat executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation can't resist the allure of the Sleep Train Arena floor this time of year.

He dribbled over the Kings logo to warm up early Friday morning. He didn't even stretch. He canned some jumpers and nearly jumped out of his skin several hours later when a baby-faced sophomore named Ethan Underwood from Horizon High School in San Diego hit an NBA-range three-pointer at the buzzer to win the Division V state title over St. Joseph's Notre Dame of Alameda, 47-46.

"It's the perfect dream, to make a shot like that in a place like this, and didn't we all grow up taking that shot in our front yard?" Blake said. "Wow! Too cool."

Such a moment is precisely why Blake hopes to extend what has been a grand marriage with Sleep Train Arena. But with change comes uncertainty, and the Kings are in the midst of ownership change, perhaps even relocation.

Will "too cool" transform to dejection for the CIF in the coming months? Will this mark the end of an era for the CIF that has trotted out an army of eventual NBA players since 1981? Sleep Train Arena – formerly Arco Arena and Power Balance Pavilion – has for the most part hosted the state tournament since 1992. NCAA Tournament stops at Arco Arena prompted the CIF to change venues, but not recently. The NCAA now considers the arena outdated, and the NBA has long deemed it inadequate. The only entity that finds no fault with the 25-year-old arena has been the high schools.

California is the only state that hosts section, region and state championship games at an NBA venue, and no one complains about the small dressing rooms, old seats and crammed concourses.

"I hope it's not the end here," Blake said. "This is the first of a new three-year deal we have here, so it's out of our control. We have to see how it all plays out. I remember running into (former Arco Arena director) Mike Duncan here once, in the tunnel. I asked him, 'You go to 42 Kings games, all those concerts, so why are you for high school games?' He said he loved to see the kids walk out there for the first time and to see their eyes light up. That's what it's about."

Blake said the CIF's partnership with Maloof Sports & Entertainment has been "phenomenal."

"As a community member, I really hope the Kings stay," Blake said. "What's sad to me is that for all the great things the Maloofs and their group here have done for the section and state basketball playoffs, for kids, gets buried under all the negative NBA stuff.

"I just know they've been great to us. The Maloofs have moved out of town. They don't have to still be nice to us, but their management team here is still great."

Blake recalled Horizon's earlier buzzer beater. Fantastic finishes have played out here a number of times through the years.

Memories of a lifetime, Blake said.

"These kids today may not fully grasp playing in an NBA building at 16, 17 and 18 years old, but they will later, and they'll talk about it forever – even the teams that lost," Blake said. "This is the ultimate wow experience."

Underwood will return to San Diego with a story he'll someday share with grandchildren. Receiving a pass on the fly, no timeout. Letting it fly from the top of the key. Swish. Being engulfed in a dog-pile celebration.

Underwood later took center stage at a news conference, microphone in hand, answering questions from statewide media.

"First of all," Underwood cracked, "(Teammate) Darren (Carrington) made the right pass there at the end so I could get it. Then I made sure I was a little behind the NBA three-point line. It was super nice. This is definitely special. I'll never forget this place."

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