Sunday, February 24, 2013

If anyone ever invites you... a basketball game at House of Hope on the South Side of Chicago, politely decline.

Why? It's not that the arena is hard to get to -- just the opposite. House of Hope is right off I-94, and I made it down there on a Saturday afternoon in a little over 45 minutes from my house in the northern suburbs. What's it like inside? Very nice, actually. The place is fairly new, completed in 2005. It's clean, the theatre-like seats are very comfortable and the people working there more than friendly. So was it a raucous crowd? No. In fact, there were times last night when you could practically hear a pin drop.

So what the heck was the problem?

According to its Web site, House of Hope is a "10,000 seat arena for family entertainment, sports and cultural events. The arena’s multipurpose use lends itself to hosting events of varying scales."

But House of Hope is really a mega-church, the home of Salem Baptist Church of Chicago. It has a Sunday morning worship service, and I wouldn't be surprised if they fill the place. And good for them! But what makes for a good worship atmosphere doesn't necessarily make for a good sports venue.

When I arrived in the building yesterday, after making it through the metal detector (which took me a couple of tries; apparently Altoids come in a tin box -- who knew?), I bought a program, a couple of hot dogs and a bag of Doritios (Saturday night dinner), and called my buddy inside.

"Where are you guys? Do I go up the stairs, or what?"

"No; walk straight ahead."

"But it looks like some kind of a church service is going on in there."

"No; that's the place."

So I strolled in -- careful not to disturb anyone -- and looked up and found my two friends in "the stands."

We shook hands, I sat down and noticed ... there was a game going on. (Proviso East was in the process of finishing off De La Salle in the first game of the 18th Annual McDonald's City-Suburban Showdown.) Huh? But it was so ... quiet.

Where were all the fans, the students, the trash talk? Where were the cheerleaders, the dance teams, the taunting home-made banners? As George Carlin once said in a bit, "Nowhere, mon frere."

No, everyone was sitting quietly, politely, almost ... reverently. It was as though they were sitting in ... a church.

In fact, my friends and I were practically afraid to speak. At one point -- we were laughing about something -- I half-expected someone to turn around, scowl, and scold us: "Indoor voices, please!"

So, if you want to go to House of Hope for a church service, have at it. But a high school basketball game? Try some crummy old gym instead.

As for the game itself (oh, yeah -- that), well, let's just say there must be a big drop-off after the first three or four teams in the state and the rest of the field. The marquee event, and the reason I went, was between Benet and Whitney Young. I had seen both teams before and thought that, even though Young would prevail, the Redwings should give them a good game.

Final score: Young 61, Benet 46.

Turns out that, while Benet is a really good suburban high school team, Young is a half-way decent college team, or at least that's how it looked to me last night.

To give you some idea, I can just imagine Benet's 6' 9" center, Sean O'Mara, working as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley in New York some day. At dinner with clients one night, someone asks him:

"Hey, Sean, how tall are you? Did you ever play basketball?"

"Yeah, I played in high school. I once went up against Jahlil Okafor."

"The guy on the LAKERS? Really?"

Whereas, if you ever ask Okafor if he remembers that Benet game at House of Hope in 2013, he'll likely reply:

"Bennett, you mean ... Transit?"

"No, no; not the hip hop artist. The basketball team."

"Oh. That was the game between the city championship and the state tournament, wasn't it? I wasn't feeling very good that night."

Lastly, there was the matter of the Ronald McDonald clown, or at least the guy dressed up as such. (It was sponsored by the fast-food chain, remember?) He really didn't look like the clown on TV, and when he opened his mouth, all I could think of was this scene from Seinfeld.

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