Jacksonville, Louisville, San Antonio and...Boiling Springs, North Carolina? These four cities would seem to have very little in common, but they all hold a special place in basketball history. Naismith Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore played in each of these cities as a collegian or professional. Gilmore's legendary ABA and NBA career got its start in this Tarheel State town of fewer than 5,000 residents, as a student and player at what was then Gardner-Webb Junior College from 1967-69.
Flip the calendar forward almost 45 years, and Gardner-Webb is now a member of the Big South Conference and full-fledged Division I institution. The Runnin' Bulldogs program now calls Paul Porter Arena its home. Built in 1982, this facility hosts basketball games, volleyball and wrestling matches, convocations, graduations and just about any other major event that may take place on the university's campus. The multiple uses for the arena provide for an interesting and unique layout, helping make Paul Porter Arena a fun place to watch a game.
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".
There are no real culinary wonders inside Paul Porter Arena, but there are a couple of "entree" options. Pizza ($1.50 per slice) and nachos ($2) are the main dishes, along with the standard popcorn ($2) , chips ($1) and Cracker Jacks ($1). While you can technically make a dinner out of the items at the stand - a hot dog or hamburger would help in this regard -- this is not where the true grade is earned at a Gardner-Webb game.
The two-dollar price tag for fairly sizeable portions of popcorn and nachos - along with Pepsi products - constitutes the most you will pay for anything at the concession stand at Paul Porter Arena. This ensures that anything you buy will be a great value, even if it is not chef-inspired. Combine this value with the variety offered, and you get a nice result. Along with the previously mentioned items, there are a number of candy items, crackers, fruit snacks, oatmeal cream pies, Rice Krispies treats and other options to keep you full at a low price.
Paul Porter Arena is, as we mentioned, a multi-purpose facility. This provides some unusual features as you walk around the concourse. Fans enter on a concourse above the arena floor, with a level of chair-back seats below the concourse toward the floor and a level of chair-back seats above the concourse. Bleachers make up the final section of seating, above the upper-level of chair-back seats. Even with the concourse dividing the seating bowl, there is not a great disconnect from the action on the floor in any seat in the house. There is also no center-court scoreboard to hinder the view from any seat. There is a wall-mounted scoreboard in each end zone. The arena seats 3,500 fans for basketball, and the concourse is not too far from any of those seats.
The proximity of the concourse is a great thing for fans, but it can also pose some problems. The concession stand is just inside the main arena entrance along the inner concourse, meaning the only time you will miss any of the action is if you need to step outside to use the restroom. Be advised, however, that the line can get a bit long during halftime. There is no real place for the line to go other than to stretch onto the concourse behind the basket. As fans walk outside to use the restroom or mingle in the lobby, they have to cut through the line of patrons waiting for concessions to get back to their seats. A defined area to allow fans to line up while still allowing some traffic flow may be a beneficial addition.
Gardner-Webb offers a quite talented pep band, which takes up the seating area across the floor from the home team's bench. The band plays the fight song as the team leaves the floor for halftime and after the game, as well as during certain breaks in the action. Compared to other arenas, though, the band feels a bit like an afterthought at times. The team takes the floor to Metallica's "Enter Sandman", instead of the fight song, while a number of promotions - some of which we will discuss later - occupy a lot of the game breaks. The band does not play during these breaks, in many cases. Pep bands are a huge part of the atmosphere at college basketball games, so it would be nice to see them utilized more often.
Like many towns its size, Boiling Springs is not blessed with a number of entertainment and dining options, but there are plenty of places to grab a meal before or after a game. There is a Hardee's at the main entrance to the campus, with a McDonald's and KFC/Taco Bell just across Main Street. A number of choices are available a short distance away on Main or College Streets, including the Snack Shop, Italian Garden, Georgio's and Papa's Pizza. Italian Garden offers Italian and Greek food, which is a combination not commonly found in small-town dining. Broad River Coffee Company is at the corner of Main and College, across from the campus. This is a nice place to pick up a cup of coffee, surf the web or listen to live music. Taking a picnic lunch to the Broad River Greenway is also a scenic option for just $5 per car.
If you want to venture outside of Boiling Springs, a number of options are available to you, assuming you have a car. The North Carolina town of Shelby is just minutes away, offering a mall, big box stores and dining options. Shelby is also the annual home of the American Legion World Series, bringing amateur baseball teams from around the country to compete for a championship. Gaffney, South Carolina is approximately 15 minutes south of the campus, with many of the same options Shelby offers, as well as an outlet mall for those who want - or need - to pick up some items.
The Gardner-Webb campus is also a great place to simply spend a day. With a friendly small-town atmosphere, Division I athletic facilities and a beautiful campus, you may find that you want to go see another Runnin' Bulldog athletic team or simply take a walk before or after a game.
We told you earlier that there is no seat too far from the floor in Paul Porter Arena, and one of the first places you will notice this is the behavior of the fans. Gardner-Webb fell behind early on the day I visited, and though the crowd was muted a bit, they never gave up on the Runnin' Bulldogs. As the team mounted a comeback in the second half -- eventually taking the lead -- the crowd volume continued to rise, at times reaching a level that rivals that of much larger facilities. The layout of the building and the seats' proximity to the floor makes this a great home-court advantage.
There is a student section across from the Gardner-Webb bench called the Dawg Pound. This group playfully - but respectfully - heckles the opposing team, participates in promotions, dons funny outfits and, most importantly, truly supports their home team. The group sits next to the band, making for a pretty boisterous corner of the arena.
Former head coach Chris Holtmann's arrival at Gardner-Webb in 2010 started the process of taking the program to the next level, and as the Runnin' Bulldogs continue to build a successful program, one would hope that the arena will fill up on a regular basis. This is the logical next step in the program's success. I attended a game on a Saturday night, and there were some open seats in the upper level. Once these fill up, the volume in the arena will keep climbing.
As we noted in our review of Gardner-Webb's football facility, Spangler Stadium, Boiling Springs does not offer a number of direct routes. Fans flying to visit the campus have the option of flying into Charlotte-Douglas International or Greenville-Spartanburg International (both about an hour away) or Asheville (approximately two hours). There is also only one hotel in town, so staying in Shelby or Gaffney may present a better option. The university is located on North Carolina Highway 150, with US Highway 74 minutes away in Shelby, and South Carolina Interstate 85 in Gaffney.
Parking is free and plentiful at Paul Porter Arena. The lot is just steps away from the arena's entrance, and contains more than enough spaces for even the largest crowd. There are also several nearby lots, should this lot be full. The route to and from the university is mostly free of traffic delays, and you should be able to be on your way to your destination without much concern.
You are aware by now that the main concourse serving the seating bowl is inside the arena. The only real traffic problem is near the concession stand, with plenty of room available to walk elsewhere. Even if a traffic problem does occur, you are still able to see the floor. The restrooms are just outside the entrance to the arena, and are clean and capable of serving the intended purpose.
It also bears noting that Gardner-Webb does not offer online ticketing. Tickets may be purchased over the phone or in person at the school's ticket office, but an online ticketing option would be a great touch to bring the school in line with many of its Big South Conference counterparts.
Gardner-Webb, like many schools in its conference, offers a great value to fans attending a game at Paul Porter Arena. Adult tickets are $10 for each game, with non-GWU student tickets priced at $5. The Big South Conference offers a quality level of Division I basketball, and the price to see a game is more than fair.
When you factor in these ticket prices with the low concession charges and free parking, Gardner-Webb basketball is a great entertainment option for families. A family of four can go to a game, park their car and buy a slice of pizza and drink each for under $60. In an age where dollars are stretched to the limit, this is a rather minimal punch to your wallet .
Gardner-Webb may not have centuries of athletic history, but they certainly do honor the school's past athletic successes. Championship banners for the sports that share Paul Porter Arena hang throughout the building, along with retired numbers of Runnin' Bulldog greats. Artis Gilmore's number 53 is among those hanging in the arena. Gilmore shares a spot with George Adams, John Drew and Eddie Lee Wilkins in the group of former GWU stars to play in the NBA.
The Gardner-Webb Athletics Hall of Fame is honored on the lobby wall just outside the main entrance to the arena. This is a great place for arena visitors to learn about the greats to have graced the courts and fields in Boiling Springs. There is also a commemorative wall for Gardner-Webb All-Americans, allowing the history lesson to continue.
We mentioned the promotions that take place during the breaks, and there is no shortage of promotions at Paul Porter Arena. There are foul shot contests, pizza screams, t-shirt tosses and a number of other fun diversions to pass the time during timeouts. There is also an amusing "Dress Like a Bulldog" contest, where little kids have to race to different areas to put on a Gardner-Webb basketball uniform and compete to see who finishes the course first. There are two bulldog mascots in costumes -- a male and female -- who help with many of these promotions and interact with fans throughout the game.
Legendary Voice of the Runnin' Bulldogs Fabian Fuentes is on the radio call for Gardner-Webb basketball. Each game can be heard on WGWG-FM (88.3) in Boiling Springs and worldwide via the station's website. Fuentes is quite excitable, and if you ever happen upon any Runnin' Bulldog highlights on YouTube, chances are it is his voice you will hear calling the action.
Last, and certainly not least, you will find some of the nicest people around if you visit a Gardner-Webb game. The phrase "southern hospitality" is a bit overused, but it certainly applies to the staff employed by the school. Everyone you see will greet you with a smile and make you feel appreciated. Service goes a long way, and Gardner-Webb certainly grasps this concept.
Most fans will freely admit that their bucket list of basketball arenas would likely not include Paul Porter Arena. This is no knock on the facility, by any means, but the bigger arenas get a lot more love from sports fans. If you want to see a good game surrounded by loud fans in an intimate atmosphere, though, the trip to Boiling Springs is absolutely worth your time. Sure, go visit North Carolina and Duke, but plan an extra day to see this hidden gem.
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