It only takes one great season to win the undying loyalty of Chicago sports fans – one season when their team did something nobody had ever done before, when their team stood atop the nation with a story worth remembering. That’s why the Super Bowl Shuffle will outlive every man, woman, and child who reads this review. That’s why real Cubs fans aren’t really joking when they joke about the 1906-08 championships. That’s how it works in Chicago.
For the Loyola Ramblers of Rogers Park, that season was 1963. Led by Jerry Harkness, the Ramblers upset the University of Cincinnati to win the NCAA championship – the first ever won by a team with as many as four black starters. Even more memorable than the title game, though, was the regional semifinal against all-white Mississippi State, played over the protests of that state’s governor and police, and in defiance of a court order that prohibited games against teams with black players. It was – and still is – the only NCAA championship won by an Illinois basketball program.
Today, Loyola University competes in the Horizon League of NCAA Division I. In 1996, the men’s basketball team moved from old Alumni Gym to Joseph J. Gentile Arena. The university recently completed a major renovation of “The Joe”, trading some of its school gymnasium charm for a higher level of professional function, but it continues to deliver a very good value for college basketball fans.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There are two food stands, offering the same undistinguished options. Big slices of cheese, pepperoni, or sausage pizza ($5.25) from local joint Pete's are probably the best choice. Hot dogs ($4.25) are from Vienna Beef, which is usually a sign of quality, but the one I received was lukewarm and mealy, and the condiment table was in dire condition (tubs of ketchup and mustard, two packets of gooey chopped onions, and no relish in sight). Skip the "Cheesy Dog" ($4.75), which is the same hot dog with the little plastic tub of cheese that also comes with the jumbo pretzels ($4.25) and nachos ($5.50). Pepsi products are $3.75 in 20 oz. bottles or fountain cups, and Rockstar energy drinks are also available.
As a nod to the many parents with hyperactive children in the crowd, boxes of candy are $2, and the big chocolate chip cookies ($2.25) will leave kids messy but satisfied.
Crowd vendors sell 20 oz. bottles of Pepsi products ($4) and boxes of popcorn ($3).
Being a Jesuit school, it's not surprising that Loyola doesn't put much of an emphasis on alcohol sales. Drinks are sold only in the south lobby, outside sections 108/109; plastic cups of beer (Miller & Coors) and wine (white & red) cost $6. However, the wait is short - during the first half, there were no lines at all, and at halftime, there were only three people standing in line while four others chatted with the guy who was handing out wristbands. Alcohol sales are cut off with 5:30 left in the game.
Ticket windows are in the Norville Center, which is connected to the south lobby of Gentile Arena. The official seating capacity is 4,486, though the attendance record is 5,513 (from 2000).
The scoreboard at center court shows basic stats - score, time left, fouls - while screens in two corners show game video and screens in the other two corners show player stats. It's an adequate setup, considering that none of the seats are too far from the action to begin with.
Lower level seats are theater-style, with no cushions, but there's enough legroom for a person of above average height. Armrests can be raised, which is a nice touch. No cup holders, though. Lower level seats along the sidelines offer an excellent view throughout the game, while the seats behind the baskets are very close to the action on that side of the court. The Loyola bench is in front of sections 107-08, while the visitors congregate in sections 109-11.
Upper level seats are bleacher-style, without backs. The nosebleed seats in the corners are partially obstructed by the backs of the corner screens. It's not bad, though, and since that's general admission seating, it's not like you're stuck there.
In most instances, the national anthem is sung by the great Wayne Messmer, formerly of the Chicago Blackhawks and basically every Chicago sports franchise of the last thirty years. The public address announcer also does good work, delivering updates in a warm tone and booming names only when warranted. Though the fans weren't extremely loud, the arena holds in noise very well.
Despite the presence of a Loyola student band, most of the music cues were pre-recorded, but they did show some creativity.
The renovation aside, Gentile Arena does retain some connection to its roots. Like any old school gym, if you wander around the rafters, you'll find random stuff: a few cornhole sets, some feral children, and a table of half-empty 2 liter soda bottles. A golf putt-putt fundraiser in a room off one of the hallways also added to the charm, though it was abandoned by halftime.
Though swaddled in construction at the moment, Loyola University has a gorgeous lakeside campus. If the weather is favorable, bring a picnic basket and a ball to play catch, and stake a claim to a patch of grass in front of the Halas Center for a few hours before the game. If you have kids, there's a good playground at Hartigan Park, at the end of Albion St., just north of the university.
Massive redevelopment is underway outside the university gates on Sheridan Road. What's left in the immediate area is mostly generic fast food, along with a limited bar scene that sends Loyola students flocking to Lakeview and Lincoln Park on the weekends. The one holdout is Bruno & Tim's (6562 N. Sheridan), which serves a mix of students and Rogers Park old-timers. It's a must-visit while you're in the area. Otherwise, there's the Pumping Company (6157 N. Broadway), an average-ish sports bar with burgers.
However, options improve dramatically if you head a few blocks south of the university. Ethiopian Diamond (6120 N. Broadway) serves delicious food and good African beer, with live jazz on weekends. Lickity Split (6056 N. Broadway) might have the best sweets in Chicago, from frozen custard and baked goods to a gigantic candy selection. You could also take the Red Line two stops south to Thorndale for Moody's Pub (5910 N. Broadway) for good burgers and a truly great beer garden.
Heading a few blocks west of the university on Devon will lead to a few sushi and Thai restaurants, suitable for a student budget, and the excellent Uncommon Ground (1401 W. Devon), which has cocktails, microbrews, live music, and great food.
This could be due to a limited sample size, but crowds seem to draw more from the Rogers Park community than the Loyola University student body. There were four distinct seating areas: a sparsely occupied Family Section behind one basket, a not-quite-full Student Section behind the other basket, jam-packed lower sections along both sidelines, and a mish-mash of attention levels in the upper bleachers.
The most recent game I attended in Feb, 2013 was a major rivalry game against the University of Illinois at Chicago, and early in the game, Loyola fans were on the verge of being run out of their own house. The UIC students packed into sections 210-11 dominated the noise war with a near-continuous stream of chants that had the Loyola student section on its heels. However, as the game on the court shifted further and further toward Loyola, the locals finally reclaimed their swagger.
To focus exclusively on the student section, however, is to miss the sublime fandom along the sidelines, where they shun heathen shouts in favor of dignified, rigorous applause for good plays. It seems like every other seat is occupied by a current or former youth league coach, his socks stretched high toward Heaven, coaching silently from his seat with agitated gestures until he can no longer refrain from a strangled outburst of incoherent noise at the sight of lapsed fundamentals.
In a sign of extraordinary hospitality, the opposing dance team was allowed to perform during one of the game breaks and received a respectful reception.
All things considered, Gentile Arena might be the most conveniently located major sports venue in Chicago. The CTA Red Line train (24 hours, 7 days a week) stops at Loyola, directly across Sheridan Road from the university. Just cross the street and head through the well-marked stone gates.
Coming from downtown, the 147 Outer Drive Express bus is an even better option - it runs along Michigan Avenue, goes express from downtown to Foster Avenue on the north side, and then follows Sheridan Road. Exit by Devon & Kenmore for access to Gentile Arena. (The ticket windows in the Norville Center run a CTA bus tracker after the game, so you can see when the next bus is coming and minimize the amount of time you spend waiting outside in the cold.)
By car, Loyola University is a short distance north of the north end of Lake Shore Drive (US-41). Turn right from Lake Shore Drive to Sheridan Road, going north to Devon & Kenmore for the parking garage. (Street parking is possible in the area, but watch out for permit-only side streets.) The parking garage is directly adjacent to Gentile Arena, with a $7 flat rate. You can scour the streets north and west of the university for free parking, but many blocks are permit-only, so take care.
Bikes are a great option for traveling to games. If coming from downtown, ride to the north end of the lakefront path at Ardmore, and then turn right on Kenmore, which has a bike lane and ends at the university. The parking garage has a covered bike corral.
Restrooms are more than adequate for the size of the arena; only at halftime was the men's room close to full.
Not all staff members seemed to be trained on how to assist patrons with disabilities, but they were attentive and tried to be helpful. Movement through the arena is easy, thanks to the wide concourses and direct access from the concourses to the court to the seats on the lower level. (There are elevators by sections 202 & 209 for access to the upper level.) I noticed one elderly patron with a walker who was uncomfortable in her seat, and the staff offered to move her to a better one. It might be worth calling ahead to let the staff know that you or someone in your group has a disability, but you should be able to expect a good experience here.
Prices rose with the renovation, but only by $2-$5 for most games. Loyola men's basketball is still a very good value for a Division I program, with general admission as low as $15 for most games (or $10 for kids).
This was a special game - not only was it televised regionally because of the crosstown rivalry against UIC, but members of the 1963 championship team were on hand for a 50th anniversary celebration - and the Loyola athletics department did a great job of making it feel like a special occasion. There were red plastic fire helmets everywhere, a clever reference to the opponents (the UIC Flames), and staff members were tossing free hot dogs into the crowd (wrapped in foil and presumably complete with buns, lest any vegetarians worry about being hit).
So while this was a premium game with higher than average ticket prices, fans definitely received an experience that justified the difference.
Gentile Arena is an efficient, modern stadium and a comfortable place to see a basketball game. The concourses are wide and easy to travel through, even after the game. In some respects, the arena seems to have been made for crowds that aren't quite here yet. Considering that it was a Saturday afternoon rivalry game, I was surprised by how many seats were empty in all but the lower-level sideline areas.
I'm awarding one bonus point for the family-friendly atmosphere. You couldn't ask for a better place to introduce a child of any age to live sports, and youth seats come at a substantial discount. The arena doesn't blast unnecessary noise and the seating area isn't tightly packed; when their focus wanders, there's plenty of room for them to burn off some energy in the concourses. Lou Wolf, the mascot, is readily available to pose for photos with fans, and I saw one of the players signing shirts for kids after the game as well.
The maroon and gold earn a second bonus point. Aside from looking great together, the university's colors dominate the view; in an era of anonymous multi-purpose arenas, this place is unambiguously built for Loyola sports. Despite the massive expense that must have been involved in the renovation, corporate logos are only a minor presence.
A final bonus point for the terrific display of Loyola athletics history in the Norville Center, between the entrance on Sheridan Road and the ticket windows. Covering all of the school's athletic programs, not just basketball, there's a timeline of major events and famous alumni on the wall, and display cases with plaques and trophies from more than a century of varsity sports.
Since 1996, the Loyola University Ramblers have played home games at the 5,200-seat Joseph J. Gentile Center. Located at the border of Chicago's Edgewater and Rogers Park neighborhoods, the arena is a good place to see inexpensive Division I Horizon League basketball on the city's North Side.
There's nothing spectacular about the Gentile Center, but it may be the best place in the city of Chicago to catch some Division I college basketball. Check the schedule and find an interesting match-up and you'll be sure to get your money's worth.
I'll second the recommendation for Uncommon Ground as a great pre-game spot for foodies. Make sure you get a glimpse of the Ramblers national championship trophy while you're at the game as well.
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