Ailene Voisin

NCAA Tournament brought a buzz to Sacramento that bodes well for city’s future

What’s that phrase in the Kings’ catchy, sing-song television commercial? Something about, “We could do this all night?”

The NCAA Tournament won’t occupy gorgeous Golden 1 Center every night, nor every year, but Sacramento better catch up on its sleep. This weekend’s first- and second-round games will not be joining college basketball’s expanding list of one-and-dones.

The games will be back. The first round, the second round and, given the overwhelmingly favorable first impressions, perhaps a regional final. After snubbing the area for a decade because creaky old Arco/Sleep Train Arena had outlived its usefulness – and let’s face it, was routinely getting crushed by the competition – NCAA officials gave Sacramento another chance and on Sunday started dropping hints about more to come.

“It’s a brand new toy, right?” said L.J. Wright, NCAA director of men’s basketball. “And now that we’ve been here, seen and experienced it, we’ve received nothing but positive feedback from the teams. That’s what we want to hear. It’s a great opportunity to expose our student-athletes to a state-of-the-art building, everything from the locker rooms, to the technology, to the guest services. The atmosphere has been incredible, and the food in the arena, with so much of it coming from within 150 miles, is very unique. All of that is going to enhance Sacramento’s opportunities to host other (tournaments) for sure.”

In Northern California – all of Northern California, as a matter of fact (see Oakland) – basketball is never all about the building. Think of this as a place where Hoosier pioneers helped settle a long, long, long time ago to escape those frigid Midwestern winters, and because of the milder climate, embraced hoops as an indoor/outdoor sport.

“Everybody here is tracking the tournament,” Wright noted. “Some of the towns we go to, not everybody is engaged. But Sacramento is definitely engaged.”

So tell us something new. Very few communities successfully rally and rescue their NBA franchise not once, but several times during a decades-long relocation battle. College, NBA and civic-minded fans alike, including one stubborn former commissioner (David Stern) and his equally persistent former All-Star (Mayor Kevin Johnson) alike, crossed the aisle, assembled an ownership group headed by Vivek Ranadive and conducted a successful downtown campaign for shining moments such as these.

The NCAA Tournament. Back in town. Downtown buzzing. All of the games sold out.

While Golden 1 these past few months has rocked with Paul McCartney, Stevie Nicks, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani and Kanye West (albeit, briefly), among others, coaxing the NCAA into a return appearance was the first major coup for the Kings new ownership group and city officials. In fact, long before Sir Paul or any of the other artists signed on, the NCAA scheduled the 2017 first and second rounds in the nation’s newest 17,000-plus venue.

That pesky problem pertaining to the inadequate number of hotel rooms to accommodate teams, fans, media crowds for larger events, say, an All-Star Game or Final Four, only mildly dampened the enthusiasm, at least temporarily.

“An event like this brings another level of excitement and attention to Sacramento,” Kings President Chris Granger said. “When we open the Sawyer (250 hotel rooms next to G1C under construction), hopefully that helps. Now that people can see and feel March Madness, the broader point is people can see what it does for the community. We have to be more forceful in getting hotels built downtown. We have to bully a little bit.”

While watching Rhode Island’s near-upset of favored Oregon, Atlantic 10 Conference Commissioner Bernadette McGlade heartily endorsed the building and the atmosphere, and envisioned both men’s and women’s tournaments being held here.

“The city obviously is a basketball town, a sports town,” she said, “and this arena is beautiful. I walked around the suites, and there isn’t a bad sight line in the place. And then the downtown streets are all hopping.”

That was the plan all along, remember? The G1C as a gathering spot, the anchor for a vibrant downtown, with people in the arena, in the pubs and restaurants, and in the mood for a good time? Though there was no local team or Rob Lowe seated in the stands, wearing a UC Davis baseball cap while the overmatched Aggies were routed by top-seeded Kansas – that all happened Friday in Tulsa, Okla. – there was plenty of local and out-of-town color these past few days.

The restaurants near the arena were jammed to capacity. Throngs of visitors in the familiar UCLA blue and Oregon yellow walked along the K Street Mall, much of which is in various stages of construction. Bands dueled outside the arena, then went back at it while in their baseline seats. Dozens of NBA scouts were in attendance, many fixating on UCLA’s Lonzo Ball.

“I love this arena,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said after the Ducks’ edged Rhode Island. “I think it’s a great facility. The locker rooms, especially behind the arena is first-class. The crowd was great today. We had a lot of Duck fans here, so that was great. But the city of Sacramento, the people here at the arena, we could not have been treated better.”

Again, it appears there will more to come. Bids to host tournament events through 2022 already have been submitted.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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