Goodbye Cincinnati Gardens. Just typing those three words crushes my heart. This week I said my final farewell to the Cincinnati Gardens. The demolition of the famed arena started 3 days ago and local Cincinnati websites were flooded with videos of a wrecking ball destroying the 69 year old arena. For the last 2 decades the old building just sat idle in Bond Hill. The place was a shell of its former self, but inside those walls stored lifetime memories for thousands of people like myself. From minor league hockey, to Xavier basketball, and even a 1964 Beatles concert, the Cincinnati Gardens was like giant hole in the wall bar for 10,000 people.
I’ll never forget my first time entering the Cincinnati Gardens. The year was 1989 and I went to watch Xavier play Detroit Mercy (now known as Detroit). It was also my first Xavier game and I was excited because XU was my dad’s alma mater and the team was stacked with 3 future NBA players. To this very day I can still remember the smell of the old brick building. It felt gross and the air was stale, but it was still friendly and inviting at the same time. The old concession stands still had graphics of Oscar Robertson and the Cincinnati Royals, even though the team had been absent from the city for more than 17 years. The arena was cold, dark, and smelled like a musty old bar, but even at 8 years old I felt the character of the building. The walls permeated with stories of legendary games, drunken fan fights, and an energy of real history. The entire arena was pitch dark, except for the court, which was lit by old long hanging lights. I remember feeling grimy as I got to my seat with dad and uncle. The ground was dirty and so many spots were sticky and uncleaned, but it still felt like a great place to watch a basketball game.
For the next 11 years I went to countless Xavier games at The Gardens. And each time I went I learned to appreciate it more and more. My friends who rooted for University of Cincinnati would mock The Gardens and brag about their brand new on campus arena called the Shoemaker Center. They would talk down about how old and gross The Cincinnati Gardens was. And how Xavier played in a dumpy outdated barn that also housed a minor league hockey team no one cared about. But it didn’t bother me because unlike UC’s new polished arena The Gardens had a mystique that the common fan could relate to. But most importantly I got to appreciate Cincinnati Gardens with my dad. He would tell me stories of watching Oscar Robertson during his days for the Cincinnati Royals, Or watching fan fist fights during the Cincinnati vs Xavier Crosstown Shootout. And I was also getting to share my own memories with him watching Xavier players like Tyrone Hill, Jamal Walker, Brian Grant, David West, and James Posey.
The Cincinnati Gardens was the perfect place for a father and son to bond. The place where a dad would let his 8 year old son scream “bullshit” chants with the drunk adults when the ref made a bad call. When I think of the Cincinnati Gardens I think of all these memories. I also think of Xavier’s last regular season game at The Gardens. I was a Senior in high school and they were playing St. Joseph’s. I went to the game with my dad and best friend Chad. Xavier blew them out, but it wasn’t the game that I’ll remember. It was the video montage afterwards that I’ll never forget. The entire arena stayed in their seats and watched as the screen showed highlights from past Xavier basketball at arena. It was a bitter sweet moment. Xavier was opening their brand new on campus arena the next year and moving out. So as the montage played thousands of men tipped their drinks and embraced each other with hugs. Because they knew it was their last time seeing Xavier in the legendary Gardens.
When I think about my love of Xavier basketball I always think about the Cincinnati Gardens. I think about how a cold winter night in 1989 changed my life forever. Since that day I’ve been a die hard Xavier Musketeer fan. It didn’t matter that I went to Saint Louis University or that I moved across the country because Xavier was and will always be my team. And I can’t think about Xavier without thinking about the Cincinnati Gardens and the amazing memories it gave me. The building was so unique in an age of overpriced arenas featuring expensive drinks, high end food and six figure luxury suites. But I’ll never forget the Cincinnati Gardens, because no one forgets their first love.