UM arena starts to look good

May 16, 2002

Luis Llamas, clad in blue scrubs after a day of examining baby teeth at his Coral Gables pediatric dental office, pointed to the unfinished concrete ledge that will house his seats for next season’s University of Miami basketball games.

”Those are the ones we want!” he said this week to his two friends during a private tour of UM’s partially constructed arena and convocation center.

“Great view! We’ll be behind the UM bench.”

Llamas and his friends are among the fans trying to secure prime seats when the arena, formerly called the Ryder Center but now awaiting a new title sponsor, opens next season.

”Our goal is to play a basketball game there Jan. 4, the day we’re scheduled to play North Carolina,” athletic director Paul Dee said. “It’s gorgeous — really coming along nicely.”

The 7,000-seat arena, which will have 1,000 seats reserved for students, is yet to be renamed. Ryder System announced last month the university can seek another corporate sponsor for the naming rights because the company is shifting its sponsorship focus toward business- or transportation-related education programs.

But Ryder said it will honor its commitment, made in 1994, to pay the university $9 million. Of that, a bit more than $7 million will go toward the Ryder Center, Dee said. The rest will go to other university causes, Dee said, adding happily, “they’re making more gifts.”

As for the new title sponsor, Dee said possibilities already exist.

”We’re talking to a couple of companies and an individual right now, and we seem to have interest among each of them,” he said. “We want one title. We have to see what they can do, what it would be worth to them in this market. It’s a one-time [contribution], but it would be paid over time.”

By Miami Herald’s John Dorschner

The arena’s construction is substantial enough to give visitors, complete with hard hats, a feeling of being inside. The roof-decking needs to be finished, as well as the walls and painting and installation of the plastic seats. You can stand on various seating levels and look down on the future court, a relatively close view.

The 25 suites are 101 feet from the floor. The 15th row is 51 feet away.

”I’ve been going by it since Day 1,” said women’s basketball coach Ferne Labati, who has coached at UM since 1988 and led last season’s team to a 19-12 record. “They must have thought I was a stalker at first. It’s just something we need desperately. We have a tremendous university, a beautiful one, and this will put us in the position to be competitive with the other teams in the nation.

“Being able to take recruits in there is so exciting.”

Men’s coach Perry Clark, whose team finished 24-8 and lost to Missouri in the first round of the NCAA tournament, said the arena will, at the least, draw more fans. Men’s basketball attendance averaged 4,371 in 15 games at Miami Arena last season.

”The new arena will definitely have a positive effect on our program,” Clark said. “We feel that having an on-campus facility will give our students a better opportunity to attend games.”

Dee said the impact of the arena, which will also be used for concerts, graduation ceremonies and meetings, ”is going to be more than any of us can imagine,” even beyond home-court advantage. ”I think we all have visions,” he said, “but this place will exceed them.”

By Miami Herald’s John Dorschner