Fans give renovated Diddle thumbs-up

Jay Lively and Olga Cronin

Twenty-six hours before its unveiling, Athletics Director Wood Selig waited anxiously for the signature that would allow people into Diddle Arena Saturday to watch the women’s and men’s basketball games.

State building inspectors signed a temporary occupancy permit Friday afternoon. When the Lady Toppers tipped off Saturday, the beginnings of what would be a capacity crowd had trickled in to cheer them on.

Fans hadn’t been inside Diddle since the arena closed in April for renovations.

If there had been a glitch, both games would have been played in front of an empty house. Western had no backup plan in the event inspectors declared Diddle unfit for occupancy.

Construction Manager Shane Butler said numerous construction workers were busy preparing for Saturday night.

“We did what we had to do to get our temporary occupancy permit,” Butler said. “Friday, at 2:30, we finally got the signature from the inspectors. It was sort of scary.”

The fans in the seats would have been disappointed if Diddle hadn’t opened, but a corporation paying $27,500 a year to lease one of the 16 new luxury suites had more to lose than missing the games.

Many of the leasors entertained potential business clients while Western’s teams took care of business on the floor.

National City Bank president Rick Seadler said he was impressed with his company’s suite and that the evening was a success.

“What an entertainment experience for us,” Seadler said.”What (Selig) has done to renovate this Diddle Arena is amazing. We have a suite at Freedom Hall, Papa John’s Stadium, Rupp Arena. . This rivals all those other markets.”

The suites at Diddle boast a wet bar, refrigerator, two TVs, a couple of Lay-Z-Boys and 16 chair-back seats.

Families, friends and colleagues mingled Saturday in the spacious, carpeted rooms. Children played with their toys while some of the adults checked sport scores on TV.

Franklin Bank employee Steve Marcun said he enjoyed the intimacy that the open-air design permits.

“It still allows you to react with the crowd,” Marcun said. “You’re still in on the action. And it’s a great view from up here.”

There were no sounds of hammers or bulldozers at Diddle Saturday – just cheers. Fans watched as the Lady Toppers won easily and the men’s team fell to the Globetrotters.

Despite the construction still underway, the arena provided fans with a suitable venue.

To help people find their way around, maps of the arena were handed to fans as they entered Diddle. Ushers stood at every entrance and seating gateway to provide help. Signs pointed to restrooms, first aid points and concessions.

Glasgow freshman April Best was an usher for the opening game.

“We were told to keep the aisles clean and to help people if they look lost,” Best said.

Best and the other ushers welcomed fans into a brighter Diddle.

The hallways on each floor sported newly painted walls and more lighting. Inside the arena, two parallel lines of lights lit up the basketball court.

The scoreboard that previously hung in the center of the arena was replaced by two large video screens in opposite corners of Diddle’s upper concourse.

Louisville sophomore Annie Henning watched the game from the student seating next to the court. She liked the feeling of more space.

“It’s more open and brighter,” Henning said.

Henning, who is disabled, said the renovations made it easier for her to access places in the arena using her wheelchair.

“It’s better,” Henning said. “You can get around easier and the concessions are downstairs.”

James McCoy, assistant supervisor for Facilities Management, said he was happy with what he saw.

“So far, things are looking great,” McCoy said. “From game-to-game, people are going to see the change. It will keep progressing.”

McCoy said the clean-up effort for Saturday’s games began two weeks ago. Workers had to deal with thick dust that had built up over the past six months.

“Two weeks ago there was a half an inch thick of dust on the floor,” McCoy said. “The housekeepers worked extremely hard to keep the place clean. I think they’ve done an excellent job, considering.”

Selig said the event was a success despite the ongoing renovation.

“Very rarely would you invite 8,000 people into a construction site that was only 25 percent complete,” he said. “There was nothing but positive reactions.”

Because the ball game sold-out, Selig said between 300 and 500 fans were turned away.

Reach Jay Lively and Olga Cronin at [email protected]