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Official Review by Jack Harver, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Standing off to the side of Route 29, its roof rising above the treetops and nearby shops, John Paul Jones Arena has been south-bound Charlottesville visitors' first glimpse of the University of Virginia since its completion in 2006.
With neo-Jeffersonian pergolas stamped on its glass-fronted east end, it's an accurate depiction of the pains taken at Virginia's oldest public university to straddle over two centuries of history, paying aesthetic respect to Thomas Jefferson's vision while embracing modernity. That, and it's how Scott Stadium was designed""so that's institutional continuity, right?
The arena holds roughly twice as many seats as University Hall (its '60s-era precursor) and was warmly embraced by students and alumni at the start of the 2006-07 basketball season.
Game day at "JPJ" is an experience as polished as the hardwood floor that squeaks beneath the players' sneakers, and as smooth as the picture on the video scoreboard hanging above midcourt, but it's also a lesson in how "bigger" can sometimes mean "hollow."
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Where your stomach is concerned, it's equipped with all the prerequisite concession staples: burgers, wings, popcorn, nachos, supersized fizzy drinks, and the like. Expect to fork over around $10-12 for each fan in your party with an average appetite.
Offerings from Ben & Jerry's, Dippin' Dots, and Domino's Pizza punctuate the menu at the usual marked-up price over what you'd pay at a grocery store, mall stand, or delivery service. But, hey, you've gotta eat, right?
(More on that in a bit.)
It's tough to nitpick JPJ's big-time aspirations in at least one area: production value.
Virginia's men "" a team not quite treading water near the bottom of the ACC, hoping to finish the 2011 season above .500 and needing an improbable conference tournament showing to have a prayer of making the NIT "" are introduced before their games in a circus of flashing lights, pyrotechnics, and booming bass beats. Larger than life, they stare out imposingly from the video board after a montage of their highlights.
When they're good, like the '06-07 ACC regular season championship team featuring Sean Singletary, it's an awesome show. When they're not, that same song and dance feels awkward.
Fifteen minutes away on foot, the University's Grounds "" not "campus," mind you "" is the heart of America's only institute of higher education to be designated a World Heritage Site.
The Rotunda and Lawn, designed by Jefferson and renovated over the years, are the highlights, but the Special Collections Library's impressive hoard of original manuscripts and other treasures bears mentioning, as does the West Range exhibit in what was Edgar Allan Poe's dorm room.
Priceless historical experiences aside, there are also several options within reasonable walking distance to fill up on something better (and cheaper) than the in-game eats. Littlejohn's Deli and Bodo's Bagels are this writer's two preferred stops on the Corner (University Avenue) behind Grounds. The former serves up super sub sandwiches, including specials customized for the tastes of legendary student-athletes Ralph Sampson and Chris Long, while the latter packages its sandwiches in a variety of kettled New York-style bagels.
As always, the lesson is that it's just not necessary to eat concession food most places.
There's a decent chance that this score was adversely impacted both by JPJ's cavernous interior and the so-so turnout for a low-caliber match up against fellow ACC bottom-dweller North Carolina State.
Still, it's a setting that inspires the sort of great expectations that Virginia's alumni, students, and the Charlottesville locals in attendance just aren't equipped to meet. The overwhelming impression is that this building is meant for only the biggest of shows "" an opinion underscored by its critical acclaim as a top-class concert venue for headliners from Lady Gaga to John Mayer.
Since Singletary left, the basketball teams haven't been that kind of attraction. The students, to their credit, are consistently loud, opinionated, and intelligent, hurling biting criticisms at opposing players en masse: one hefty Wolfpack player was ridiculed by the entire section as a "FOOT-BALL RE-JECT!" (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap) after a clumsy foul. Digging up dirt on opponents via Facebook and Twitter is a long-standing practice in the best (and nastiest) tradition of school spirit.
Heading back north up Route 29 after the game? Probably so, considering that Charlottesville's airport, neighborhoods, and most of the area's hotels lie in that direction. Throw in pedestrians and two-lane roads all around, and you've got a recipe for a leisurely bumper-to-bumper tour of the surrounding square mile.
To steer clear of the quagmire that develops around JPJ, stow your car in one of the garages on Emmet Street or Ivy Road and leave the stop-and-go postgame experience to the season ticket holders.
If a Virginia basketball game lacks some of the substance of a night spent with one of the NCAA's more-storied programs (and it does), it also leaves substantially more money in your wallet.
An upper level seat that would go for $80 in UNC's Dean Smith Center costs just $13 at JPJ, and 18-game season tickets in the lower bowl go for $400. The arena might be too big for the Cavaliers' basketball britches at the moment, but it's not priced that way.
This building has seen Gaga, Singletary, and Michael Buffer, but it still feels too new to have quirks worth listing for extra credit. The ultra-modern stage is set, but substance takes time.
*Special thanks to Matt Riley for his generosity in allowing us to utilize the fantastic photographs found in this review.
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Charlottesville, VA 22903
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