A week earlier, when I first set foot in the Eagles Community Arena, it was a vast sports hall. When it opened for business, it had been transformed into an intimate and atmospheric venue.
In the 21st century it takes a depressingly long time to get on the property ladder but after more than two decades, Newcastle Eagles at last have somewhere to call their own. Right from the off it felt like a proper basketball arena.
Fab Flournoy’s tearful pre-match address to the hospitality guests underlined what a big deal this was. He has been setting the Eagles’ standards for 18 years, and for more of it than not, they have been hankering after a place to call their own.
Not everything went right on the opening night, but the atmosphere was electric.
In community mode, the Arena has a three-court playing surface, littered with a hotch-potch of markings for different sports. In Eagles mode, the black-and-white seating is pulled down from the walls until it hems in the court.
It’s 2,800 capacity is realistic rather than vain, with even the furthest seat close to the action.
The Marketing team will want to change that, but the absence of sponsors logos on the court laid over the floor gave it a pleasingly clean feel.
Between 2005 and 2015, when the Eagles were renting at Newcastle Arena, then Sport Central, opponents like Plymouth Raiders would have been swatted away, but the greater fallibility of this generation served up a thrilling match – just not a win. Inevitably, there were teething problems.
The queues to get in were massive long before tip-off, the reception area chaotic. It is why new sports stadia usually have test events, but the Eagles were so up against it to make a twice-put-back opening night they had dreamt of for over a decade, there was no time for that.
With effectively one road in and out, driving – and for those without reserved spots in the big but nowhere big enough car park, parking – did not look a pleasant experience. The Scotswood Road venue is a long walk from the city centre – probably just what some needed after the excesses of Christmas and New Year, but perhaps not for some of the littler legs. £7m does not get you very close to the heart of a city like Newcastle.
The food apparently ran out very early. Some of the speakers blew, though from where I sat, it seemed to make hearing the announcer easier.
During the third quarter, one supporter missed a step and fell badly behind the visitors bench. First aiders were very quickly on the scene, but the game stopped for what felt like ten minutes before he was wheeled away, mercifully OK. Cheerleaders and Mexican waves were deployed as diversionary tactics.
Fittingly, the Eagles’ longest-serving player on the court, Darius Defoe, scored the first point, and finished with 22.
Newcastle lost Victor Moses to injury after eight minutes, and it told in the end, Plymouth winning 91-86.
At half-time, with the hosts leading 50-49, you did not need to be a basketball expert to know a tight game was brewing. It was, though, a crowd of Eagles and British Basketball League fans.
They cheered in all the right places, and the volume cranked up as the game went on. Each roar, groan, ooh and aah reflected the number of points the Eagles landed or missed, the skill level and balance of the game.
The surroundings added to the drama, the backboard lighting up like a Christmas tree when Rahmon Fletcher found the net from the opening quarter’s final play.
When the referee blew his whistle with less than five minutes remaining to consult the technical bench, it was like the volume was switched off while supporters awaited the verdict.
The scourge of the modern sports event was still there when the second half began with most of the posh seats empty, but in fairness there was no indication to those around the hospitality tables that the game had restarted.
The closing stages became increasingly fraught after Kyle Williams brilliantly closed Newcastle’s deficit to 71-72.
Stalking the sideline, injured 45-year-old player-coach Flournoy went apoplectic when Williams paused to look for support, urging him down the line, from where he won two free throws. He hit the rim, then landed the second.
Williams levelled at 78-78 with 2.35 minutes to play.
The furious waving and whistling to put Nicholas Donte off his free throw and the cheer when he missed were anything but Corinthian, but showed the passion the Arena could generate. He sunk his next attempt, and the lead was never again surrendered.
Donte picking up six late free throws as the Eagles got increasingly desperate. By the end, Flournoy was wandering up and down the line, arms disconsolately folded.
Once it was over, the dismantling began, converting to community mode for 600 or so more Arena debuts in Saturday’s junior league matches. It had been a proper night’s basketball at a proper basketball arena.
Source : Chroniclelive