ELON — The last time North Carolina traveled to Elon, Dean Smith was a freshman at the University of Kansas. UNC’s basketball team was known as the White Phantoms, and the team hadn’t won a title in the 11-year history of the NCAA Tournament.
The date was Dec. 2, 1950, and Elon was dedicating its brand-new basketball home, Alumni Gym. That building would house the program for one month shy of 68 years.
Last Friday, Elon basketball officially opened its new home, and North Carolina again made the trip west to help christen the building.
Just as the Tar Heels’ program has grown in status to dwarf the 1950 edition, Elon’s new arena far surpasses the one the team left behind.
Covering 20 acres, the Schar Center’s basketball facility is the centerpiece of the new convocation center. It’s a 160,000-square-foot building that seats 5,100 for basketball — nearly 5,300 packed the building for the opener against the Tar Heels.
Visitors enter the building through a grand atrium and have an immediate view of the court below. The open floor plan is a departure from the normal concourse/seating bowl layout of most sports arenas and is intended to foster the community feeling the school wanted when it began planning the new building.
While a giant bronze bird statue greets visitors in front of the main entrance, the Phoenix logo used by the school’s sports teams is rarely seen around the building. Instead, the school’s monogram E is used to emphasize the fact that this is a school building with uses far beyond hosting home games in men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball.
That community spirit was evident in the opening game.
“Alumni was definitely a special place,” said senior guard Steven Santa Ana, “but playing in here is a totally different atmosphere. The support tonight was great. We loved seeing all the students and the people from the community. It was a lot of fun.”
“We hit some shots early, and the roof was ready to blow off the student section,” said Elon coach Matt Matheny. “It was alive. I can’t say enough about not only how beautiful this building is, but how conducive it is for a great basketball environment.”
Schar also offers plenty of benefits that aren’t immediately visible upon entering the building. Behind the scenes are large men’s and women’s locker rooms, training rooms, a weight room and hydrotherapy room, as well as lounges for coaches, players and visitors.
“This facility surprises me every day,” Matheny said. “I underestimated what it would be like living in it. I underestimated just how great it would be to be in the locker room, practice gym, weight room, the proximity of everything. I walked out today, and to see it full, I thought, ‘It’s gonna be great,’ but it’s better. It continues to surprise me and amaze me.”
The practice facility, which includes two full-size courts, side-by-side, is part of the building as well and visible through a large window on the far side of the court. Fans can look down on the practice courts, which, on Friday night, hosted the postgame press conferences.
The practice facility is named after Maurice Koury, a familiar name to anyone who has been on UNC’s campus. The founder of Carolina Hosiery Mills, Koury was a Burlington resident and UNC alumnus.
Koury led the fundraising drive that financed the construction of the Smith Center — home to the Tar Heels. He and other members of his family have their names on five campus buildings, including the Koury Natorium — home to UNC’s swim team and connected to the Smith Center.
“Walking in here and seeing Maurice Koury’s name on the practice facility is something that’s important to me,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
The Hall of Fame coach’s presence in the building, with his team, was a key factor in making opening night a community celebration. A top-10 team like UNC can afford to pick and choose its games, and most tend to avoid raucous new arenas, especially on significant nights like the building’s first game.
It was a choice that Elon players, coaches and administration appreciated, even if the Heels put a damper on the celebration by winning, 116-67.
“He did not have to play this game,” said Matheny. “He’s pretty special, to make the decision to do that.”
“It was a nice night for us,” Williams said. “Nice night, I hope, for Elon, with the exception of the score. A beautiful facility. … Hopefully their fans got comfortable new seats, and they’ll come back and give them this kind of support every game.”