The much-anticipated Pavilion at Ole Miss opened on Jan. 7 after 18 months of excited construction. Hill Drive is no longer blocked off by hard hats and barricades. The collected complex of the Vaught, Manning Center, the track facility and Starnes makes a neat campus-scape, incorporating the colonnaded neoclassical aesthetic of University, Miss. into a slick, imposing mammoth.
The difficulty in describing the full effect of The Pavilion's opening on the experience of Ole Miss basketball arises from a kind of brooding nostalgia for the Tad Pad. That leaky bucket of history was certainly out of date, like much of Mississippi, and in that anachronism rested a certain bit of affection. It was a hot mess, but it was our hot mess, dammit.
Still, that Ross Bjork managed to wrestle nearly $200 million out of Rebel donors in support of this endeavor speaks to his progressive vision for Rebel sports. The Pavilion can well be called "the house that Bjork built" as much as it belongs to the coaches and players who have shown up and done the work on the sticks.
What makes The Pavilion especially endearing is that basketball feels different in Oxford now. The opening weekend festivities played host to a packed house both nights, a familial togetherness not felt about Rebel hoops in perhaps ever. There was Shepard Smith, leading the student section in cheers. There was Marshall Henderson on the big board, screaming "ARE YOU READY?" There was Hugh Freeze, kicking back and basking the glory of a Sugar Bowl stomping. And there were 9,500 rowdy fans, blasting all of their energy directly into Avery Johnson's face.
It's safe to enfold this fresh verve and ebullience about basketball into the new normal of Ole Miss athletics. The track and cross country teams have quietly become national powerhouses of late. Rebel football draws the ire of so many across the country precisely because of Freeze's on-field and recruiting success and we just can't handle it, man.
You can sense the turn in Andy Kennedy's demeanor. The normally morose coach had himself a hell of a time on opening weekend, telling reporters after the Georgia game that "we're a basketball school now." Word?
"I was here first," and thus own your own piece of Rebel history. A history being written by Matt Insell, Andy Kennedy and Ross Bjork. By Stefan Moody and Shandricka Sessom. Visiting teams no longer enter a rickety water hazard. Fans no longer do without in-game Steak 'n Shake. Ole Miss hoops has culture now. From AK donning the Randy wig and doing the whip to Bjork's punchy Twitter presence, Ole Miss has rendered sports something that people too often lose sight of: they're fun again.
Nor is Rebel basketball's reinvention merely architectural. New cheers and new traditions for improved camaraderie. An endearing cellphone moment in the second half. A robust and loud student section that understands the intimacy and immediacy of a basketball court; that their proximity to an opposing player might just get into his head and disrupt accuracy when it counts.
It's a testament to the athletics department's public relations armature that all of this works so well. Of course the t-shirt cannon must be called THE PAVILIONATOR. Of course Rebel the bear must fire the thing off into the crowd. Of course Andy Kennedy's daughter must sing the National Anthem on opening night. These facts all seem so foregone, so obvious, and yet they still give rise to a grin when thinking back on them, and hopefully they always will.
It takes work and real care to create this fan experience, and people like the Emmy-winning video department deserve mountains of credit for their documentarian efforts.
Or sit with this for a minute:
Strong hustle there, and not just from Moody. The small army of men and women who keep Rebel sports ticking make all of this possible. Countless donors and the efforts of Ross Bjork and his staff made all this possible. The Pavilion is open for business, and Rebel hoops steps boldly into its future.
(Photos courtesy of Joshua McCoy - Ole Miss Athletics)