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
"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
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
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
"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.
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