Ty Loftis: Though outdated and smelly, there's still nothing like playing at "The Big House"

By Ty Loftis

Photo of Jim Norick Arena by OKC Fairgrounds website

The likes of Keiton Page, Rotnei Clarke and Bryant “Big Country” Reeves have all had memories of playing at Oklahoma City’s Jim Norick Arena, otherwise known as “The Big House.”

Legendary coaches Eddie Lewis, Doug Schumpert and Joe Gilbert have all played for state championships on that floor, but why have the state’s best basketball teams been flocking to an outdated state fairgrounds arena that smells like a mix of funnel cake and cow manure in Oklahoma City for nearly 60 years and what makes the arena so special?

The arena, which was built in 1965 and is a multi-purpose venue, hosts not only state basketball and wrestling tournaments, but is a venue to host premier horse and livestock shows. The venue played host to both Elvis and The Grateful Dead in the 1970s, along with several other musical acts over the years.

Classes A and B hosted state tournaments two weekends ago, while Classes 2A-4A crowned champions there this past weekend.

The arena holds around 11,000 people and as a retired coach and former player who won titles in both capacities once said, it is something special to behold.

“It’s something you dream of,” former Cashion coach Carol Parker said. “Every small school wants to play here.

“When I first came here as a player, it was overwhelming. You walk in and you see all the people. I wanted my Cashion players to experience that. It’s something they will never forget.”

Oklahoma state basketball title games played in March 2023 at “The Big House”

Class B girls | Class B boys | Class A girls | Class A boys | Class 2A girls | Class 2A boys | Class 3A girls | Class 3A boys | Class 4A girls | Class 4A boys

I must say the thing I will never forget when I took the floor back in 2008 was the smell of cow manure, but anyway it did take awhile for Jim Norick Arena to be dubbed, “The Big House.”

In 1968, legendary football coach Joe Tunnel was an assistant for the Lindsay girls basketball team. After the team had qualified for the state tournament, he went to head coach Charlie Heatly and said, “Looks like you made it to ‘The Big House.’”

In the years following, Heatly would use those words as motivation to get back to the state tournament and when one of his friends with the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association asked for apparel suggestions regarding the state tournament, he suggested, “You’ve made it to ‘The Big House.’”

In 2019, the OSSAA signed a five-year contract extension with the Oklahoma City Fairgrounds to continue holding state basketball tournaments at the historic arena.

David Jackson, the executive director for the OSSAA, had this to say at the time.

“It was really important for us to remain at State Fair Park because we understand the history and tradition that goes with playing at ‘The Big House,’” Jackson said. “We still have people who come to our tournament today who came many, many years ago. That’s a connection between people of all ages.”

When that contract was signed, the City of Oklahoma City was proposing to build a $95 million facility that would replace “The Big House.” In late February, Oklahoma City leaders broke ground on a 216,164 square foot coliseum that will be complete in 2025, ending all major events at “The Big House.”

In all likelihood, next year’s state tournaments will be the final ones played at the historic and legendary arena.

“The (new) coliseum is designed to host the top equestrian and ag-related events in the world,” Oklahoma State Fair Inc. president and CEO Kirk Slaughter said. “The venue will be great for many sporting and entertainment events.”

Last week was the first time that I had been back to “The Big House” since my first-round exit as a Morris Eagle in 2008 and it hadn’t lost its charm.

Upon entry, you get that odd mixture running through your nostrils of cow manure and corn dogs, something you don’t get at any other gymnasium across the state, but I can see how that may be appealing to someone, somehow, on some days.

With that being said, there have been several teams, schools and fans that celebrate state championships at “The Big House.”

It is undetermined as to who will play in the final game at “The Big House,” but as always, I’m sure we will see some memorable moments leading up to that final game and I look forward to seeing, and smelling, each of them.

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