Oregon's basketball court is hard to win on, but also hard to understand

The UW Huskies and the WSU Cougars both fall on a floor whose paintings make for a strange setting. Next, a purple and gold football field? Thankfully, no.

The Matthew Knight Arena at the University of Oregon

The Matthew Knight Arena at the University of Oregon Tim Lauer/Flickr

The court at the University of Oregon is brightly colored with a design representing trees.

The court at the University of Oregon is brightly colored with a design representing trees. Coolhand12/Wikipedia

One difference between the University of Oregon’s basketball floor and the main attraction of the Sistine Chapel is that the latter is viewed by looking up. The surface of Oregon’s new Matthew Knight Arena would, were it feasible, be best eye-balled by hovering above and looking straight down in order to appreciate the meaning intended by Tinker Hatfield.

The latter, kind of a shoe-store clerk’s idea of Michelangelo, is a one-time Duck jock who became a widely hailed footwear designer for Phil Knight’s Nike, Inc., an ongoing major benefactor of quack-letics at UO.

The trees displayed around the basketball floor’s perimeter are a reference to the Oregon “Tall Firs” contingent that won the national college-basketball championship in 1939. For those who don’t know (and maybe even don’t care about) the reference, it must be an odd sight, accompanied as it is by the words: “deep in the woods” (with no apologies to Stephen Sondheim). It’s strange because, as many are aware, James Naismith actually designed basketball to be played indoors rather than in a sylvan clearing. Nor is it clear as to whether the tree idea really jibes with the lifestyle preferred by waterfowl such as ducks.

In any case, on Saturday (Feb. 11) the Washington State Cougars became the latest to lose (78-69) on a basketball surface (it’s called Kilkenny Floor to honor a past UO athletic director) that looks something like a surrounding stand of firs might if you were flat on your back in a forest.

Two nights earlier the Husky men had several other excuses besides the tree motif for losing 82-57 (though it looked much worse) in Duckburg. Players, who had been delayed by Interstate 5 traffic and thus were unable to engage in their typical pre-game routine, performed so poorly in every phase that night that they might as well have just dispensed with other alibis and conceded that they seemed to be “flat on our backs in a forest.”

Many have observed that the Ducks’ floor is the most audacious college-athletics design “innovation” since Boise State officials decided that deep-blue is better than grass-green as a football-field hue. It’s worth noting that the Boise State example has not, despite some early worries, caused other college athletic directors and boosters to prefer turf that is crimson-tinted (Alabama), yellow (Georgia Tech) or orange (Tennessee, Syracuse, et al). Likewise, by all accounts, the renovated Husky Stadium will have a field of green rather than purple, gold or both.

And, mercifully, now that the University of Hawaii football-team nickname is “Warriors” rather than “Rainbow Warriors,” it isn’t likely that the school’s gridiron surface will be multi-colored. Hawaii’s basketball teams, though, retain the spectrum reference, so perhaps the Oregon example will lead to a rainbow-motif arena floor worthy of a rhapsody by Kermit the Frog.

Questions have been asked about whether the evergreen embellishment at the Matthew Knight Arena (named for Nike boss Phil Knight’s son, who succumbed in an accident at age 34) violates NCAA rules. Evidently it doesn’t, perhaps leading some to wonder whether other schools will try to add artistic distinctions to their basketball facilities. If so, perhaps the race to try for the most distinguished (and distracting) floor painting would wind up at Stony Brook University in New York. Stony Brook is affiliated with a foundation tied to the life and work of the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

Who knows, then, whether the day would come when the Stony Brook Seawolves might be greeting visitors on a basketball floor done up like Jack the Dripper’s uber-abstract “Lavender Mist.” It might provide a great advantage to the ‘Wolves when you figure the Ducks’ 15-3 home-court record this season could be partly due to opponents distracted by the unconventional floor. Indeed, some Oregon foes have said that the conifer trompe l’oeil makes it harder to know whether they’re in the key or the tree.


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