Every facility's name tells a story. Some get their names from corporations purchasing naming rights. Others honor important figures in a university's athletic or academic history. Even politicians get their turn on the marquee from time to time.
South Carolina State University's arena honors the lives of Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton. Smith, Hammond and Middleton lost their lives on February 8, 1968 while trying to encourage the racial integration of a local bowling alley, the All-Star Bowling Lanes. Their pictures hang in the lobby of the arena, with a plaque inscribed, “Dedicated to the memory of Henry E. Smith, Samuel Hammond, Jr. and Delano B. Middleton, who gave their lives in the pursuit of human dignity, February 8, 1968” hanging just below the photos.
The Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center opened the year of the students' passing, and though it shows its age a bit, a game in the arena is a special experience. Despite its imperfections, the arena provides a unique feel that is tough to duplicate.
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The so-called "basics" are available at a South Carolina State game, including a few "entree" options. Jumbo hot dogs ($1.50), chili cheese dogs ($2), nachos ($3) and nachos supreme ($4) are available for a light meal. A box of popcorn ($1), chips ($1), candy ($1) and lollipops ($.75) are the snack choices. Coca-Cola is the bottler for the campus, with bottled sodas and water priced at $3.
Though the choices are likely enough to satisfy, the process of obtaining concessions is not the most optimal process you will find. I attended a game on a Monday night, and the women and men both played on the night. There are only two concession areas in the arena, though, and only one was open. This made for extremely long lines during high traffic periods, and this caused two problems. First, the concession area is on the concourse, which is shielded from view of the court. Second, the concourse is extremely narrow - more on this in the Access section - which causes a traffic jam around the stand. If you need concessions, plan accordingly.
There are two soda machines on the main level of the arena, and drinks are available from these machines for half the price being charged at the stand. It is quite easy to access the machines, and this may be a more preferable option.
I had never witnessed a game at South Carolina State (or any of their MEAC counterparts, to be fair) before this visit, and I have no problem admitting that I have missed out. The best way to describe a game at Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center is to imagine a basketball game with a party going on around it. We'll get into more detail about this in a minute.
Once you get through the concourse and into the seating area, there is really not a bad seat in the house - unless, of course, you try to use one of the seats marked with a sign stating that it is broken, and not to sit there. The balcony-level seating is all chair-back seats, though quite a few seats are marked with the aforementioned signs. The seats appear to have some age on them, so some upgrades - or even repairs of the broken seats - would be nice to see. There is also bleacher seating at the floor level, which puts you just feet from the action.
There is no video scoreboard inside the arena, but the proximity of the seats means that it is not a requirement. A four-sided scoreboard hangs above center court, displaying the essential game information. There is no issue with visibility from any seat in the arena, so it is quite easy to keep up with the score, time remaining and foul situation.
We mentioned the bleacher seating earlier, and part of the bleacher seating is occupied by South Carolina State's Marching 101 Band. It should first be noted that the band is LOUD. I have never heard a band this loud in the numerous facilities I have visited, and this really helps the party atmosphere in the arena. The band is not just loud, though - they are also the absolute best band I can recall hearing. The students love them, the administration loves them, and I certainly came away impressed.
The cheerleaders are also a big part of attending a game at South Carolina State, as they add individual dance routines to the normal cheers one would expect to see at a game. Some of these dances take place while the band plays, and the interaction between the cheerleaders, band and students - even to the point of a "call and respond"-type cheer -- is different than most places. There is also a bulldog mascot who wanders around the floor and stands, though I saw much more of him during the game the women played earlier in the evening than in the nightcap.
Along the lines of interaction, the public address announcer is a large part of a Bulldog contest. He does considerably more than just announcing the lineup and substitutions, including calls such as "too many steps!" when an opponent travels, or "Bulldog Nation, the ball belongs to SC...", with the crowd yelling "State!" as the Bulldogs inbound a ball after a stoppage in play. Combined with the playing of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" as the opponents take the floor, the feel of a game in Smith-Hammond-Middleton Memorial Center is arguably unlike anything you will find in any other facility.
Orangeburg is an extremely small town (13,964 residents as of the most recent census), and there is accordingly not a lot from which to choose in the area surrounding the university. The main option near the university is the Chestnut Grill, which features appetizers, steaks, salads, sandwiches and a number of additional choices. Prices are essentially on par with what you may expect to find in a larger city. There are also a number of barbecue restaurants (not surprisingly, as Orangeburg is in the center of South Carolina) and chain selections near the university. Claflin University is also just down the street, in case you want to walk around the campus or see another game.
As the options in Orangeburg are not endless, it may be preferable for you to travel outside the city and venture around the Palmetto State. South Carolina's capital city, Columbia, lies 35 miles or so to the northwest along South Carolina Interstate 26, while Charleston is approximately one hour southeast, also along Interstate 26. Either city is loaded with history, nightlife, and beaches (in Charleston's case, anyway).
The most important thing to mention when speaking of the fans at South Carolina State is the Junkyard. The Junkyard is the South Carolina State student section, and they are involved from the beginning to the end of the game. No matter the score or the Bulldogs' record, they are there to support their school and their team. South Carolina State did not win on the night I attended, but the students hung around until the end of the game. Sure, Orangeburg is a small town and there are not a ton of entertainment options around, but it is obvious that the Junkyard loves their school.
Along with the great support from the students, there is a faithful group of locals who also come out to South Carolina State games. There were a number of kids in attendance on the night I visited, and though I visited on a Monday, the crowd that attended put on a decent showing throughout. The pep band plays a huge role in this, as well, helping to lead chants and keep everyone else involved. It is just a shame that there were not more fans in attendance, but this will hopefully change as SCSU rebuilds their winning reputation.
It should also be noted that the fans have choreographed dances to some of the songs performed by the band and played over the sound system. Though this is not reflective on their knowledge of the game in any way, it is another touch that helps add to the party atmosphere at a Bulldog game. A basketball game at South Carolina State is fun from beginning to end, and the fans play a large part in the excitement.
As was somewhat mentioned earlier, Orangeburg is in a bit of a tough location for air travel. The nearest major airport is in Columbia (CAE), which is about a 45-50 minute drive to the campus. Charleston is also an option, with Southwest Airlines and several additional national carriers providing a bit more fare and flight availability. The campus is served by South Carolina Interstate 26, as well as US Highways 21, 178, 301 and 601. South Carolina Highway 33 also passes within a short distance of the campus.
Parking is free and plentiful on either side of the SHM Center, and getting to your car and back out along any of these surface streets takes just a matter of minutes. It should be noted, however, that there is a guard house along either campus entrance. You may need to display your driver's license when passing through either entrance as a visitor. This should not dissuade you from attending a game, by any means, as it demonstrates the university's admirable commitment to student safety. The officers at each guard house are extremely nice and are simply there to protect the students, not hassle visitors.
Once inside the arena, the concourse is a bit narrow and dark, causing bottlenecks at times. This is likely due to the age of the building. There are bathrooms at either end of the concourse, and they are certainly clean and adequate enough to serve their intended purpose. Also, as you enter the building, prepare to have any bags open for inspection. You may also receive a brief pass with a metal-detecting wand. This is also for the safety of the students, and provides nothing more objectionable than a few seconds of your time.
Much like many of the mid-major schools in the Palmetto State, an evening out at a South Carolina State game is a reasonably-priced affair. Plan to buy your tickets at the gate, as there is currently no functioning method of online ticketing through the university. If you bring a $20 bill for each person of your party, this should handle your seat and any snacks or beverages you wish to purchase. Considering you get a game and a party for your ticket price, this is certainly worth your entertainment dollar.
South Carolina State certainly knows how to pay homage to their past athletic successes. Banners hang from the rafters and seem to circle the entire facility. These banners commemorate Bulldog appearances in the NCAA tournament, as well as past championships earned by the university. I had a reasonable level of knowledge of SCSU's basketball success before attending a game, but these banners are certainly educational to whomever may attend a game in the facility.
There is only one retired number in the SHM Center, and that number belongs to Roberta Williams. Williams played on the Lady Bulldogs' 1979 Division II national championship squad, and her number 11 hangs from the rafters just above press row and the home bench.
SCSU's nods to their athletic past are met with a tribute to the present in the arena lobby. Photos of the current Bulldog and Lady Bulldog squads hang prominently on the walls as you climb the small set of stairs to the arena foyer. There are not many schools that have pictures of the current year's team on display in their arena, so this was a nice touch.
One thing you will definitely notice at South Carolina State is an abundance of friendly people. From the ticket window staff to the security at the guard houses and arena entrance and everyone else in between, you will be greeted with a smile and a friendly attitude. The staff and students love their university and community, and this becomes quite evident when paying a visit to the campus.
The school also does a tremendous job in their tribute to Henry Smith, Samuel Hammond and Delano Middleton. As we mentioned in the beginning of the piece, they are honored with the display of their photos in the lobby, along with a memorial plaque and proclamation letter. The tribute is classy and understated, and visitors to the arena are certainly encouraged to learn more about the lives of these three men and what they meant - and continue to mean - to the university and community at large.
South Carolina State is a place unlike virtually any other. This university has a deep and storied history in Orangeburg, and that history is on display through every inch of their 160-acre campus. Though South Carolina State basketball is not enjoying the success to which they were accustomed (five NCAA tournament appearances between 1989-2003), a return to greatness never feels all that far away. Just like the home in which they play, South Carolina State basketball just needs a few touches here and there to reveal its true potential.
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