Basketball is a five-on-five game, but during the heyday of the sport at UCSB, it was a 6,005-on-five game. Crowds packed the 6,000-seat Thunderdome with an enthusiasm that gave it national notoriety, thanks to frequent ESPN broadcasts. It was an indoor Isla Vista Halloween without the arrests. It was the sonic equivalent of a rocket launch at Vandenberg.
The fans had a performance-enhancing effect on the Gauchos, spurring them to heights like the 78-70 victory in 1990 over UNLV, the same Runnin’ Rebel team that destroyed Duke by 30 points in the national championship game. There have been 38 official sell-outs at the Thunderdome, and 36 of them occurred in a 10-year period (1986-95) during which Jerry Pimm was coach of the Gauchos. “When Jerry had it rolling with those great teams,” said Bob Williams, who succeeded Pimm in 1998, “it was a nightmare to play here.”
Williams is about to embark on his 14th season as coach of the UCSB men, and he would like nothing better than to see highly spirited crowds filling the Thunderdome again. The Gauchos show tremendous promise, with a group of seniors coming off back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament: Orlando Johnson, James Nunnally, Jaime Serna, and Greg Somogyi. New to the team is junior point guard Nate Garth, a transfer from New Mexico, where he played for a 30-win team two years ago.
“We really need the student body and fans to help create the environment,” Williams said at UCSB’s basketball preview luncheon last week. “They need to be there game-in and game-out to help get you that edge. I have a hard time believing that if Duke were to lose back-to-back games at home that nobody would show up the next night. When you’re big fans of a team, you get a kick out of supporting them. You understand you have a role with that team being successful. … If you don’t win at home, maybe the fans weren’t quite rowdy enough for that game to help get you over the hump.”
The Gauchos play seven home games this month, beginning Saturday, November 5, with an exhibition against San Francisco State. Visiting teams will include San Diego State (Nov. 26) and UNLV (Nov. 30). At the latter game, Jerry Pimm will become a “Legend of the Dome,” an honor previously bequeathed to three of his outstanding players, Brian Shaw, Carrick DeHart, and Eric McArthur.
Pimm said his most memorable game at the Thunderdome occurred in his first season, when a near-capacity crowd of 5,921 showed up to watch the Gauchos play Houston’s celebrated “Phi Slama Jama” in 1983. “[Houston coach] Guy Lewis thought this was a sleepy little town,” Pimm said, “but that night we filled the building for the first time.” Pimm instructed his most solid player, Scott Fisher, to get physical with Houston star Hakeem Olajuwon. “I told Scott, after you knock him down, pick him up and tell him, ‘I’m sorry I did that, but my coach told me you’re a bad free thrower, and I have to do it,’” Pimm said. “Hakeem goes, ‘Say what?’” After the third or fourth foul, Olajuwon slapped Fisher and got ejected. “Problem was, the guy who came in for him made the free throws,” Pimm said. Nevertheless, the Gauchos took the Cougars down to the wire, and Pimm was assured that Santa Barbara could support big-time basketball. “That was the first time I thought, ‘Wow, we can get it done here,’” Pimm said. “It was a monumental game.”
Ten of the subsequent sell-outs involved UNLV, then a member of the Big West Conference, but the Thunderdome also was packed to the rafters for Long Beach State, Utah State, San Jose State, Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine, Fresno State, and New Mexico State. Only two visiting teams — Stanford in 1999 and North Carolina in 2008 — have filled the gym during Williams’s tenure. The largest attendance last year was 4,701 for Cal Poly.
“The Big West was a major conference when we had Las Vegas,” Pimm said. But the retired coach said UCSB “has a chance to get that feeling back again. If the students like this team, and they fill their side [of the Thunderdome], the people on the other side are going to come. Hopefully they won’t have any injuries, and this will be a good year for them.”
GAMES OF THE WEEK: Westmont College opens its men’s basketball season at home tonight (Thu., Nov. 3) against Alaska Anchorage and Saturday, November 5, at 4 p.m. against UC Merced … Harder Stadium should have a big crowd Friday night when the Gaucho soccer team hosts Cal Poly in a momentous Big West game. UCSB will celebrate the fifth anniversary of its 2006 national championship … A CIF football playoff berth might be at stake when Dos Pueblos plays at Santa Barbara High on Friday night.