Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Kids to bring the noise at ODU matinee

It's probably Old Dominion's most unique women's basketball event of the season.

It'll certainly be the loudest. But that ringing in your ears is what you get when you invite 6,200 or so Norfolk elementary school students to the Constant Center to see the Lady Monarchs take on UMass-Lowell Wednesday at 11 a.m. for ODU's third annual Education Day promotion.

As a sporting event, the game may not be all that. UMass-Lowell is 0-7 in its first year as a Division I program and operates at the kind of uptempo pace that figures to play into the Lady Monarchs' strengths. The elements are in place for Old Dominion to win handily, and to look good doing so.

But as a spectacle, the event should be nothing short of electric from the time these kids file into the arena. Last year, the Lady Monarchs said they could feel the energy and hear the excitement from their locker room before they'd even come out for warm-ups. And that was with "only" 2,800 elementary school kids buzzing throughout the building.

Now, a lot of these kids won't know much about basketball. Some won't like sports at all. But of course, kids are always excited to get out of school early. More importantly, they think what's going on in front of them is a big deal. So they roar their approval at whatever unfolds.

Frankly, the familiar "Ice Cream and Cake" segment during a late-game timeout appears to have lost some of its sizzle among ODU fans. That won't be a problem Wednesday. These kids will go bananas when that song hits.

Fact is, they'll go crazy for everything. When they see themselves on the big screen. When public address announcer Jack Ankerson does the roll call of schools:

"Is Larchmont Elementary School in the house?"


And of course, when Old Dominion scores. But they'll also get a kick out of seeing UMass-Lowell score. After last year's game, N.C. Central's players said they too were energized by the elementary schoolers and felt as though they had their support as well. (This dual affection is a big reason why you don't want to schedule too aggressively when planning out one of these things. The three opponents on Maryland-Eastern Shore, N.C. Central and UMass-Lowell had a combined record of 14-53 in the seasons in which they appeared. And UMES actually won the game in 2011.)

But my favorite part of last year's affair - and the one which may have had the most lasting impact - was after the final buzzer when the Lady Monarchs went into the stands and traded high-fives with the kids. The youngsters were so excited you would have thought Justin Bieber was in the house (is he still popular?).

We've seen firsthand what even a brief interaction with a player can mean to a child. Several years ago, when apple-of-my-eye Jasmine White was an elementary schooler, she got an autograph from an Old Dominion player named Okeisha Howard. Now, Howard was a fine player, an all-conference guard on some really good Lady Monarchs teams. But you would have thought Jasmine had met Dwight Howard by the way she reacted to the encounter. Even a couple of years later, if you asked Jasmine who the best basketball player in the world was, her answer wouldn't have been Candace Parker or Diana Taurasi or even LeBron James. It would have been Okeisha Howard. To Jasmine, that personal connection made all the difference in the world.

On Wednesday, these Lady Monarchs may have a similar effect on some young girls - and boys - because to the kids, the players will seem like rock stars. And in the process, perhaps a few new women's basketball fans will be born.

Look, football and men's basketball teams don't do this type of thing - not to this extent, anyway - because for the most part, they don't have to. But in women's basketball, any outside-the-box idea that transforms an otherwise routine game into an event seems like just the ticket.

Maybe some of Wednesday's youngsters will want to come back for more, and maybe they won't.
But at the very least, the majority of these kids will leave the Constant Center feeling as though on this one day, they were part of something special. And that's a pretty cool takeaway from any sporting event.

So if you're in the Norfolk area Wednesday morning and want to see what all the fuss is about, stop by the Constant Center.

Just don't forget the earplugs.

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