You would have to be hiding under a rock not to have heard some of the backlash Barton Coliseum took in the last few days. The 61-year-old facility hosted the 2013 Arkansas Activities Association state basketball championships.
Between Thursday and Saturday, there were 14 state title games (seven boys, seven girls) played there, and according to the Arkansas Activities Association, 83,000 fans attended those 14 games.
So what is it about Barton that has everyone riled up?
To begin with, the facility lacks the brightness of both Summit Arena in Hot Springs — where most of the state title games have been held in recent years — or that of Verizon Arena (formerly Alltel Arena). Shoot, even the dingy Pine Bluff Convention Center had better lighting than Barton Coliseum.
(Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I’m not on a mission to bash the Arkansas Activities Association. The AAA is in a no-win situation when it comes to pleasing everybody. I get that.)
That said, my first impression of Barton was positive. There was ample parking and the guy who directed me to my spot actually said “thank you” as I was pulling way. That never happens in Hot Springs. Barton ushers and the concessions people were polite and very friendly as well.
When I reached the pass gate at Barton Coliseum, only to find my name wasn’t anywhere to be found on the AAA media list — meaning I didn’t have a press pass because the mailman didn’t deliver them to the office until after I was on the road to Little Rock — the man with the passes didn’t go crazy. Had that happened in Hot Springs, getting a pass would have been like draining a drop of blood from a turnip seed. I would have spent half an hour pleading with some uninterested worker that I really needed to get a pass to cover a game.
Instead, the man with the passes used common sense. He gave the man holding a briefcase with credentials a working pass. Simple, right?
With a pass in hand, I headed for the media table. This is where things went from pretty good to difficult. The first restroom I went to didn’t have a working toilet. The second one lacked toilet paper.
No one from the AAA greeted me at the scorers table — no signs where to sit, no programs, no one seemed to be in charge.
There appeared to have been a secret Internet wifi signal for media members to use. I found it but couldn’t get online. Instead, I relied on my personal hotspot which worked flawlessly as usual.
Then things got really weird.
Turns out, the postgame media room also doubled for the hospitality room. So, while I spoke to Northside coach Rickey Smith about the emotional game his team had just won, some guy to our immediate left was dipping chips into a bowl of chili and cheese, leaning on our every word. No kidding.
It was the same awkward setting when the media director brought the Alma and Jacksonville players to the media room two hours later.
It was as if I was talking to Alma’s Gage Jensen in the back of a Tex-Mex joint in south Texas. The only smell the place lacked was the odor of liquor. And, judging by the number of concerts held at Barton throughout the years (Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” was recorded live there in 1973), you could probably find an old liquor stain or two if you looked hard enough.
According to what I’ve read about Barton, the old girl is still used for a number events, such as the circus and the state fair and rodeo. Believe it or not, Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie played there back in the fall.
Barton might have been really cool in the 1960s and ’70s. But today’s players and fans don’t care about retro arenas that lack life’s simple pleasures, such as toilet paper.
Covering high school sports for 30 years, I’ve seen it all and done all. Is Barton worthy of hosting the state championship basketball games? Not in my opinion.
Kevin Taylor is a sports writer with Fort Smith’s Times Record. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_TimesRec.