There is a difference between an arena and a gym. If you have ever bounced a basketball in an empty gymnasium, shooting baskets in the dim glow as the lights slowly come on, then you can appreciate the nuance.
McDougald-McClendon Gymnasium, on the campus of North Carolina Central University is exactly what one might hope for in a gym. It is small, with seating close to the court. The capacity creeps just over 3,000 and when the gym is full, it can be a loud and entertaining environment for college basketball.
NCCU competes in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), of which the school was a founding member in 1970. The school opted to play at the Division II level from 1979-2007, but rejoined as a MEAC member before the 2010-2011 season. The Eagles are still looking for their first trip to the NCAA Tournament. The MEAC is typically a very competitive conference, and when the McDougald-McClendon Gym is full, you can be sure to get a high energy environment and a close game.
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There are two concession areas on either side of the concourse, although only one was open during my most recent visit to McDougald-McClendon Gymnasium in early, 2013. The smell of popcorn wafts through the hallway, tempting fans, especially considering the $2 price tag. Candy ($2) and Pepsi products ($3) are also available. Obviously, this limited menu leaves a lot to be desired, and with the numerous outstanding eateries in the area, fans will need to eat before or after the game, and just plan on grabbing a snack if necessary during an NCCU basketball game.
The gym is small and can get rather warm, especially when the arena is at or near capacity. Fans should be sure to wear some layers as they will likely need to peel one or two shirts off to be comfortable during the contest.
The majority of the seats are in the upper level and are gray wooden chairbacks. There is good legroom here, but no cup holders. Down below there are eight rows of bleacher seats where you will find the students as well as any family traveling with the away team or the home Eagles. The seating alignment is a horseshoe shape with no seats behind the basket nearest the home squad. Here you'll find the cheerleaders and Eagles mascot.
The cheerleaders, who seemed to all have the build of American Gladiators, were energetic and cheering throughout the contest. The Eagles mascot on the other hand just stood and is a complete non-factor to adding to the arena atmosphere.
As you go to find your seat, you will likely encounter ushers who are very strict about ensuring fans are seated in their ticket location along each sideline. This will lead to many fans sitting in the end of the arena.
The scoreboard is basic and center-hung with four sides displaying the score, time, period, and fouls. In the end of the arena near the opponent bench, you'll find a DJ, who spins during breaks in the game, rather than using the more expected piped in music. It's a nice change to the average arena.
Overall, while the atmosphere won't elicit any goose bumps from spectators, there is a lot of charm to this gym, and it's a pleasant place to see a game.
Within a five minute drive from McDougald-McClendon Gymnasium is a plethora of options for fantastic food. Head down near Durham Bulls Athletic Park, home of the AAA Durham Bulls, in the American Tobacco Historic District. Here you can find Tyler's Restaurant and Taproom. They have a wonderful beer selection with 50 brews on tap, including several local options. I tried the pork belly BBQ sandwich with a side of garlic fries, and ate up every morsel. In general, their menu is an interesting variety of burgers, sandwiches, and appetizers.
Head over to Main Street and you would be wise to visit The Federal. It's a small bar, that seems like a hole-in-the-wall sort of joint from the outside, but serves up an eclectic menu that is filled with creativity. They have several small plates and a selection of beers. They do have one of the smallest bathrooms I have ever seen, so you've been warned on that front. Otherwise, this is a great spot to spend some time.
If you would like some seafood, I can also recommend Fish Mongers Restaurant and Oyster Bar. This unpretentious establishment serves great fresh seafood at very affordable prices. Sit at the bar and have a few oysters or warm up with some clam chowder if it's a cold day. In either case, you'll be glad you made the stop.
The students take up residence in the lower bleachers facing the opponent's bench. They have been placed in a great location to have an effect on games, and return the favor by filling the section and remaining engaged throughout the contest. It is clear that a basketball game is both a social occasion for the students as well as an opportunity to cheer on their Eagles.
The fans in the upper section are rather hit or miss. They are there to see the game and will cheer on their team with mild enthusiasm, but also have the ability to turn up the volume when needed. This is a small venue, so it can get loud.
There is a parking garage across the street from the gym and parking is free. There are also several street parking spots available, but most of them are reserved for student or faculty permit parking, and towing is enforced, so read signs carefully. Fans would be best advised to grab a spot in the garage across the street. The concourse, which is really more like a hallway, has numerous displays and photos recognizing the outstanding athletes of NCCU in the past. Restrooms are adequate for the size of the facility and it is unlikely that you will have to wait in line, even during halftime.
If you live in or near Durham and enjoy small college athletics, then you may consider the $200 "all access card" that gets you into every home football and basketball game. For single tickets, as with many MEAC schools, you will likely have the opportunity to catch a doubleheader with the women's team for only $10. Senior citizens, non-NCCU students, NCCU faculty and staff, and children aged 5-12 are only $5 a seat. Children under age 5 get in for free. This is an unbelievable bargain for families and basketball fans alike.
Parking is free and concessions (although not bountiful) are fairly priced. It would be hard to find a better value in college basketball. Durham is of course a great basketball town, and intrepid travelers may find room in their schedule to see iconic Cameron Indoor Stadium or the Dean Smith Center, using McDougald-McClendon Gymnasium as a college basketball appetizer.
NCCU is a championship program. In 1989, the school won the Division II basketball championship, and you'll find a banner celebrating this accomplishment. A championship banner at any level is always worth an extra point.
One more point for the inherit charm involved in visiting a fine old gym like McDougald-McClendon Gymnasium.
Dress in layers, make sure you're well fed prior to the contest, and then just sit back and enjoy the MEAC basketball. It may not be the highest level of play in Division I basketball, but NCCU has an intimate charm to its arena experience that is difficult to find in this age of modern facilities.
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