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McKale Center filled with 50 years of memories

McKale Center turns 50
Posted: 2:26 PM, Jan 23, 2023
Updated: 2023-01-23 16:26:23-05
McKale Center

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — For 50 years, McKale Memorial Center has been home to Arizona Gymnastics, Volleyball and Men's and Women's Basketball.

When you step inside McKale, you can almost hear the echoes of the unforgettable past.

Tom Duddleston admits it's a bit awe-inspiring every time he walks into the arena. It's the same feeling he got working inside McKale for more than 30 years.

Tom Duddleston on press row at McKale Center

"It's nice to come in here sometime on a summer day where there's no one here," said Duddleston. "The lighting's obviously different because there's no team practicing on the floor. It's spooky-cool."

Before Duddleston worked in sports information at the U of A, he was a student here. His introduction to Arizona Basketball came at Bear Down Gym, the predecessor to McKale Center.

Opened in 1926, it held just 3,600 fans.

First game at Bear Down Gym

Students painted Bear Down on the roof in memory of John "Button" Salmon.

A quarterback on the U of A football team, Salmon was critically hurt in a car crash.

On his deathbed he said to his coach Pop McKale to "Tell them... Tell the team to bear down."

Bear Down Gym

For nearly 50 years Arizona played in Bear Down Gym.

By the early 1970s, construction began on a new $4.5 million arena.

McKale Center under construction

It would be named after legendary coach Pop McKale.

In February of 1973, McKale Memorial Center hosted its first game.

McKale Center opening night Feb. 1, 1973

"They went from there to here, and filled it up overnight," recalled Duddleston. "They had a game over there, and then they had a game here in February and it was full—13,0000 people. So that's a dramatic change."

That began a run of basketball success at Arizona that few schools could match.

In the 70s, the U of A made Fred Snowden the first black head basketball coach at a major university.

Fred Snowden with Bob Elliott

"Fred Snowden the coach had some up and down players, and some good ones," Duddleston said. "The WAC conference was [a] special, competitive league. It was just good."

Snowden led the Wildcats to an Elite Eight appearance in 1976—and led the move to the Pac-10 conference in 1978.

But the national success came with the surprise hiring of Lute Olson in 1983.

"They could tell right away that Lute was going to win and he said 'better buy tickets now, because we're going to bring it back for you'," explained Duddleston. "It came back right away."

Lute Olson elevated the Arizona program to national champion status—and elevated McKale Center into one of the toughest places to play in the country.

Lute Olson with National Championship trophy
** FILE ** In this March 31, 1997, file photo, Arizona coach Lute Olson holds the trophy surrounded by celebrating players after Arizona beat Kentucky 84-79 in overtime to win the NCAA college basketball national championship at the Final Four tournament in Indianapolis. Olson has retired after 24 years with Arizona. Athletic director Jim Livengood confirmed Olson's decision Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008, after hours of news reports speculating about the 74-year-old Hall of Famer's future. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)

Duddleston says the reason it has that reputation is because it's full. Arizona Men's Basketball has led the Pac-12 in attendance for 38-straight seasons.

"It's a big, loud crowd," Duddleston said. "That makes everybody go 'wow'."

In recent years, the Arizona women have also set attendance records, adding to the legacy of McKale.

Also adding to the legacy, the floor at McKale Center being named the "Lute and Bobbi Olson Court."

For much of the 50 years, McKale housed all of Arizona's athletic offices, including the coaches of every sport.

McKale Center in 1973

"Mike Candrea, the softball coach, he had a locker next to Lute, Dick Tomey," recalled Duddleston. "They just shared a lot of common coaching knowledge."

That also meant cramped quarters, and a need to find office space anywhere they could inside McKale Center.

They even created these "slanted suites" in the 80s under the slope of the arena stairs, still in use today.

Amid all of the winning, and the championship banners being hung, Mckale Center has been remodeled and reconfigured several times, including in 2014.

McKale Center banners

Duddleston thinks the old building is a lot like its namesake, Pop McKale.

"If he was a tough guy, which I believe he was, this is kind of like that," said Duddleston. "You know, you get by with what you have here."

Like McKale Center, that toughness is matched by the loyal Wildcat fans and by Tom Duddleston.

McKale Center Crowd

"To see the people's names to be hung up here, I got to see 'em all play, which is special for me and a whole lot of people," Duddleston said. "There are a lot of people in McKale Center's crowd that have been there the whole time. I certainly don't have a corner on that one."

He has had a front row seat for the "Absolutely Arizona" history inside McKale Center these past 50 years.

Pat Parris is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. He is a graduate of Sabino High School where he was the 1982 high school state track champion in the 800 meters. While in high school and college, he worked part-time in the KGUN 9 newsroom. Share your story ideas and important issues with Pat by emailing or by connecting on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.