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The day the coliseum stood quiet
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The day the coliseum stood quiet

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GREENSBORO

The first game tips off at 1:30 p.m. today.

Three more NCAA tournament games will follow on the same court, including one with No. 1 seed North Carolina and then one featuring Duke.

The last game between South Carolina and Marquette won’t end until long after dark, a dizzying day of college basketball.

In Greenville, S.C.

Instead of Greensboro.

The NCAA moved the host site for first- and second-round games of its signature event out of the Greensboro Coliseum in September as part of its championship boycott of North Carolina while House Bill 2 remains the law of the land in this state.

The law, passed last March, requires transgender people to use public restrooms and locker rooms that correspond to the gender on their birth certificates. It also prevents local governments from enacting their own anti-discrimination rules that include lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

And so there’s an eerie quiet in our city this weekend where there should be a bustle of activity.

While eight teams practiced Thursday in Greenville, where their fans bought meals at restaurants and slept in hotel beds, the only noise along Gate City Boulevard came from the jackhammers of road crews and a cluster of HB 2 protesters in front of the ACC Hall of Champions.

“There’s no question it’s painful,” said Matt Brown, the coliseum’s managing director. “You look at how much we respect and regard the value of top NCAA basketball. And we would have the ACC relationship with Duke and Carolina. This kind of basketball is what Greensboro lives and breathes. We all take it personal. It means a great deal to us. It’s in the fabric of our community.”

Home and away

This year that fabric is torn. In the past 20 years, a North Carolina city has hosted first- and second-round basketball games in the Division I men’s NCAA tournament 17 times. Greensboro hosted in 1998, 2001, 2006, 2009 and 2012.

Greensboro was supposed to host this year. Charlotte is scheduled to host next year, but that won’t happen if HB 2 remains law.

And that irks the Hall of Fame coaches in Greenville this weekend.

Games in Greensboro are de facto home games for North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.

“I’m conscious of it being here (in Greenville) because I’m afraid what’s going to happen in the next few years,” said Williams, an outspoken critic of HB 2. “I hope to coach a little bit longer. I hope this is not my last hoorah kind of thing. I’m very sad, very disappointed about the whole thing, what apparently is something that’s really, really hard to change. ... It bothers me.”

Williams called the situation “sad.”

“The people in the state of North Carolina,” Williams said, “and the kids in the state of North Carolina aren’t getting the opportunities that we’ve had in the past. And I think that’s the biggest thing with me right there. It’s not the way I’d like for it to be.”

Krzyzewski said he didn’t want to talk politics. But he did, anyway.

“Look, it’s a stupid thing,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s my political statement. If I was president or governor I’d get rid of it. And I’d back up my promises, as unusual as that might seem. Anyway, I don’t want to get too political.”

But playing in Greenville instead of Greensboro is a big deal for Duke, which faces a possible second-round game against South Carolina in the Gamecocks’ backyard.

“This is a great town,” Krzyzewski said. “... It would be nice if our state got as smart and also would host not just basketball tournaments but concerts and other NCAA events. But maybe we’ll get there in the next century, I don’t know. We’ll see.”

Loss and gain

Greensboro’s loss is Greenville’s gain.

Greensboro will miss out on an event with an estimated economic impact of $14.5 million, said Henri Fourrier, president of the Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“There’s no way to replace that sort of loss,” Fourrier said. “There’s an intangible, too, when you talk about the national television exposure that we’ll lose. And that’s residual, goes beyond just the weekend, as teams move on in the bracket there are replays of when they were in Greensboro. The talk of it all, the buzz it generates — I don’t begin to know how to quantify all that.”

Fourrier’s counterpart in Greenville, Chris Stone, said his city estimates the NCAA games require 6,000 hotel room nights.

And Stone understands Greensboro’s trouble. The NCAA held no neutral-site championships in South Carolina while the Confederate battle flag flew on the statehouse grounds. The flag came down in July 2015.

“It’s been 15 years since we’ve had the opportunity to hold one of these NCAA tournaments,” Stone said. “Any organization like mine — and it’s the same in Greensboro — you just want the chance to compete. You don’t want to see that opportunity taken away for any particular reason. For us, this was a chance to get back in the game.”

The value of the games goes beyond the economics.

“You can’t put a number on the prestige,” Stone said. “You put that in two different camps. One is the exposure you get on TV and people from all over seeing ‘Greenville’ on the sideline. Two, and maybe more important, is what it does within the community. To be selected to have one of sport’s premium events says it all. It’s a stamp of approval, a real booster for a community that already feels good about itself.”

And what is Greensboro feeling? Loss of the games. And loss of the prestige Stone talked about.

“You see the excitement created, and you imagine what we could do in the coliseum,” Brown said. “It’s hard to not feel a tremendous sense of loss. ... We want to host these major events. Now it’s relocated to South Carolina. I think of the pain they paid for many years with their own controversial issue. And now we lower ourselves because of a challenging political issue that unfortunately leads to a decision to remove the games from us. ...

“You don’t want a break from the notoriety of hosting. You don’t want to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind.”

Local impact

So what’s left? With the NCAA games out of town, what’s going on at the coliseum complex this weekend?

The big event is a four-day swim meet, the Eastern Section Southern Zone Age-Group Championships, that opened Thursday evening at the Greensboro Aquatic Center. More than 1,100 swimmers ages 14 and younger are expected to compete.

There are also two NBA D-League home games for the Greensboro Swarm at the Fieldhouse. The Special Events Center hosts a three-day jewelry and accessories expo, right next door to the N.C. Rabbit Breeders Association convention.

“Our life goes on,” Brown said.

But the main arena sits idle, no hardwood basketball court atop the concrete floor.

And that hurts the surrounding businesses.

Across the street at Stamey’s Barbecue, the lunchtime business is steady, the restaurant better than half full.

But general manager Wan Pao has worked there for 10 years, and he has experienced the surge of NCAA tournament business.

“The line would be out the door and stretch all the way to the sidewalk out there (along Gate City Boulevard),” Pao said, waving a hand toward the coliseum. “The drive-through would be busy and there would be a line there, too. It’s a really, really busy time for us when there’s basketball across the street. But not this year.”

Pao said the last crowds like that came earlier this basketball season, when North Carolina moved its home game against Notre Dame to Greensboro because of a water emergency in Chapel Hill.

“That was just one game, and it was crazy busy,” Pao said. “... Times change, and we’ve got to adapt. We would like the NCAA tournament to come back. You see a lot of people protesting that HB 2 law because it hurts everybody. It hurts business. It hurts the city. It hurts the whole state of North Carolina.”

Contact Jeff Mills at (336) 373-7024, and follow @JeffMillsNR on Twitter.

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