Basketball: Wanted: Neutral courts


By Phil Anastasia

This might be the best week on the scholastic sports calendar.

And the NJSIAA is denying hundreds, if not thousands, of fans the opportunity to watch championship basketball games.

What sense does that make?

Here's an organization dedicated to the student athletes but also to providing the stage for folks to watch these kids in action -- and there's no better action than basketball in March.

But there will be people who can't get into tonight's Gloucester at Haddon Township girls' game for the South Jersey Group 1 championship.

There will be people -- a lot of people -- who can't get into Medford Tech's tiny gym to see the the Jaguars host Sterling in tonight's SJ 2 title game in boys' basketball.

There will be people -- a lot of people -- who can't get into Paulsboro's little gym to see the Red Raiders host Pitman in the SJ 1 title game on Tuesday night?

That's just wrong.

It's weird, too -- because that's a lot of money the NJSIAA is leaving on the table and the organization has been complaining about its money woes for the last three or four years.

There's two issues here. One is competitive balance. These are sectional championship games -- just like they play in football.

Those football championship games were recently moved to a neutral site in Rowan University. And that change was a good one (after the fiasco of the Pennsauken-vs.-Millville, oops-we're-out-of-quarters situation because of the $5.50 admission charge in December, 2011).

Good site, plenty of room for the fans, lots of atmosphere -- and a level playing field for the teams.

But basketball teams aren't playing on a level court in sectional finals. The home team, the higher seed, has the edge.

"Two years ago I thought it was a good idea," said Pitman coach Kevin Crawford, whose team hosted Paulsboro in the SJ 1 title game in March 2011. "Now . . . "

Crawford wasn't complaining. He noted -- like Gene Hackman's character when his Hickey High team walks in the big gym before the title game in "Hoosiers" -- that the baskets are 10 feet high in every gym.

And an argument can be made that the higher seed deserves the home court as a reward for the better regular-season performance (at least up until the cutoff date).

I'd agree with that for the first three games. Hey, the No. 2 seed gets the same edge.

But title games should be on neutral courts. It adds to the magnitude of the event. It underscores the importance of the game.

And if the No. 1 seed is the better team -- or plays better that night -- then it will win on a neutral court. It won't need the added advantage of playing at home.

But there's another issue, and that's the fans. You know, the people who support these players, coaches and teams.

It's just flat-out wrong that people who want to watch these games will be denied admission because the gyms can't accomodate the demand.

But NJSIAA officials don't deserve all the blame. The real onus falls on the schools and the school officials -- ADs, principals, superintendents.

The NJSIAA changed this setup -- these games used to be played on neutral courts for years and years -- because the organization was scrambling every year to find schools willing to serve as neutral sites.

Too many school officials didn't want to deal with the situation -- security concerns, administrative headaches, logistical complications.

I'll be the first to say I don't know everything that's involved in hosting one of those events.

But it has to be a money-maker for the booster clubs that run the snack stands, right? In these budget-conscious times, that would seem to be quite the incentive.

Apparently not because the NJSIAA basically threw up its hands a couple years ago and decided that sectional finals in boys and girls basketball would be played on the court of the higher seed.

(Sectional finals in Non-Public are played on neutral sites because they are regarded as state semifinals).

So there are going to be fans who can't watch Gloucester and Haddon Township renew their rivalry in girls' basketball.

There are going to be fans who can't watch Sterling and Medford Tech battle as surprise sectional finalists in boys' basketball.

There are going to be fans who can't watch Pitman and Paulsboro clash in a long-anticipated battle of Gloucester County rivals in boys' basketball.

It's happening all over the state.

March Madness?

Sounds about right.

-- Contact Phil Anastasia at Follow @PhilAnastasia on Twitter.

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