Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

Rising Star's Mixed Reviews

Big East Fans Descend On Hartford

March 6, 2005
By RITU KALRA, Courant Staff Writer

In a state renowned for frenetic fans who bring the "madness" to March, the women's Big East basketball tournament has been touted as an opportunity for downtown Hartford to dazzle out-of-towners.

Saturday's rollout showed them a tale of two cities.

Half an hour before the first of the basketball games was scheduled to begin at noon, a small crowd gathered outside Black-eyed Sally's on Asylum Street. The couple from Cheshire was hoping to eat brunch. The Syracuse fan from Albany was there to meet friends before driving to Storrs to watch the men play the University of Connecticut.

But the lights were out and the doors were locked. The blues and barbeque restaurant wouldn't open until after the first session let out at 4 p.m.

"Come on, the Big East championship is going on and you're a restaurant and you're not going to be open?" groused Kim Vincent, an infuriated Cheshire resident.

"That's why we don't hang out here," chimed in her husband, Patrick. "This silly little town has nothing open in the middle of the day."

One block closer to the Civic Center, however, restaurant doors were wide open, but customers were hard to find.

Restaurants such as Max Downtown, Mayor Mike's and McKinnon's Irish Pub were virtually deserted. The staff at newcomer Agave Grill on Allyn Street easily outnumbered the diners by a multiple of three.

"Maybe we got over-excited for the tournament," said Agave's owner Bernie Gorski.

"We just missed it last year," he said, explaining that the restaurant has been open only a few months. "Or," he said, pausing to gesture at the empty room, "maybe we didn't."

At midday, the sidewalks were empty and the restaurants dark - either because they were closed or because few people were eating in them. For fans hoping to catch a bite before the games, it was feast or famine.

The sleepy-town atmosphere was due in part to the way the tournament's tickets were sold - by session, spanning two games each, without the flexibility to come in and out between games. So if you went to Saturday's first game between Villanova and Providence at noon, you couldn't leave until the second game between St. John's and Seton Hall ended at about 4 p.m., unless you wanted to forfeit your right to return.

The Civic Center, in turn, became a little like the Hotel California. Ticket holders could enter the session any time they liked, but once in, couldn't leave.

"That definitely doesn't help downtown Hartford," said Debbie Lepri, general manager of Pasti's, the French American Bistro on Ann Street. She had learned from last year not to bother opening until 4:00 p.m., after the first session was over and before the second had begun.

Indeed, the city transformed when the magic hour struck.

As promised by city promoters, white balloons had been tied earlier in the day around parking meters in front of open restaurants, acting as welcome flags. And though almost no one had come across the visitors bureau's fliers describing where to go and what to eat, as soon as the first session was over, fans poured out of the basketball arena and found their own way.

By 4:15, the once-empty restaurants were packed.

Newcomers to Hartford, both from within and outside of Connecticut, expressed delight at the quality of restaurants to choose from, the clean streets, and the quiet feel of the city. Many had come not to cheer a specific team, but because they were longtime fans of women's basketball in general.

And though some griped about the lack of open shops, the pricey tournament tickets and the cost of parking - $10 at most lots for the day, though one was charging $15 - few were upset by the ubiquitous construction sites.

"It's good for the city long-term, even though in the short-term it means there's nothing to do," said New Britain resident Dawn Riedinger, who was rediscovering downtown with a friend before the evening session began.

For Big East participants, Hartford's in-between phase was even an attraction.

At the newly refurbished Hilton Hotel, Seton Hall band member Brian Peterson said he appreciated both the lush accommodations and the quiet.

"It's nice that it's not crazy," he said. "It feels calm."

Syracuse University assistant coaches Mandy Ronay and Amy Ruckner agreed that Hartford, which will host the Big East tournament at least through 2009, was an ideal host.

"This is a great basketball city. With UConn's history, they really appreciate the game no matter who's playing. It's a nice environment to be in and we were excited to come back," said Ronay while sharing a pizza for lunch at the Red Plate on Asylum Street.

"I prefer that there's not a ton to do for our players," Ruckner added. "It keeps them concentrated on the game."

To wit, UConn junior forward Barbara Turner: "This is the time for us to focus on basketball," she said while the Huskies checked into their hotel. "We can take care of having fun on Wednesday."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?