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Basketball A Driving Force In Bringing Traffic To Downtown Businesses


March 07, 2009

Twelve hours. That's how long it took the Murphys to drive from Saginaw, Mich., to Hartford in time for the start of the Big East Tournament Friday.

Brandon and Rozina Murphy have been following their daughter — a freshman on the St. John's University women's basketball team — to South Bend, Ind., Pittsburgh, New York City and other destinations to watch her play.

"Pittsburgh was beautiful, with all the hills," said Brandon Murphy, a police officer back in Michigan. "And New York? Oh, we loved New York. We spent a lot of time there."

Friday was Hartford's turn. They only stayed for six hours, but at a time when downtown Hartford is hungry for business, it was enough for the Murphys to form an impression.

Fleeting as it was, it was the kind of impression that Hartford hopes to make on thousands of other Big East fans this weekend.

The Murphys arrived downtown about 11:15 a.m. on an otherwise typical business day. Coming westbound on I-84 after a stopover at Brandon's brother's house in Rhode Island, they were impressed by the view of Hartford's skyline from the ridge at Buckland — their first glimpse of the city's high-rise buildings.

They arrived at the XL Center 45 minutes before game time. The streets were clear and few people, besides a couple passing out bumper stickers, were roaming the sidewalks. Instead of exploring downtown, the Murphys opted to watch their daughter, Britney, and her teammates warm up on the court.

Brandon Murphy said he wanted to study Britney's jump shot. St. John's won its game against Syracuse University 87-58.

After the game, the Murphys' 2-year-old son, Brandon Jr., spent some time jumping on the "BasketBounce" in the XL Center's entrance area, near a cash bar and a row of booths that will this weekend feature local businesses such as Morton's steak house.

It's all part of the center's attempt to address a popular complaint from Big East fans — that there isn't much to do around here.

"We don't want them to walk out of the games and have this place be somewhat of a ghost town for them," said Michael Kassa, XL Center vice president of sales.

The family took a walk down Trumbull Street, past a row of new but vacant storefronts, and across Church Street to the Hilton, where their daughter's team is staying.

Bundles of balloons promoting the tournament welcomed them. The hotel, booked up for both Friday and Saturday nights, had set up a dry-erase board in the lobby listing game times. A television was tuned to Big East coverage. The family waited by the hotel fireplace to congratulate Britney and talk to her coach.

While Brandon Jr. pulled around a string of balloons, his father pored over a map of Hartford. Places like the former Hartford Times building and Bushnell Park, now partially covered in snow, were labeled as landmarks.

Rozina asked Brandon if he knew where they were eating.

"I have no idea," he replied.

A couple recommended the hotel cafe, where a crowd of fans had lined up. But Brandon was determined to venture out. They chose Trumbull Kitchen, described on the list as "two blocks down to the left."

They crossed Trumbull, walking past signs directing them to Hartford Stage. The couple glanced at a woman blasting music from her car.

They made their first wrong turn at Pratt Street. Murphy said perhaps they'll find a better place to eat along the brick path. But after passing a barbershop and a shoe repair shop, the couple turned around and resumed their search for Trumbull Kitchen.

If they had walked a bit farther, the family would have come across Jojo's Coffee Roasting Co. — a quaint cafe that locals claim brews the best espresso in the state. Further on, they'd have found City Steam Brewery Café, Hartford's only beermaker in the landmark Richardson Building.

They might have opted for a ride on the free shuttle bus around the city, which added routes this weekend to West Hartford's Blue Back Square, Bloomfield's Thomas Hooker Brewery and other locales.

Instead, the couple continued on Trumbull Street. Sirens rang out from Main Street. "You hear the firetruck?" Murphy said, pulling his toddler into his arms.

They took their second wrong turn on Asylum Street. With the upscale Feng Asian bistro on the right and McKinnon's Irish pub on the left, Murphy declared that he was ready to ask a parking attendant for directions.

Downtown workers streamed into the bars for happy hour. McKinnon's owner Matthew McKinnon Corey said the Big East boosted his after-work business by 15 to 20 percent. On Sunday, when UConn plays, "it should be completely crazy here," he said.

If they had continued down Asylum, they would have run into the historic Old State House, the city's riverfront and the soon-to-open science center.

Staying on Trumbull, they arrived at their destination at around 5 p.m. Brandon and Rozina Murphy both had the Mongolian pork.

"The food was good," Brandon Murphy said on his drive back to Rhode Island. "Actually, everything was good. The city was nice. A lot of buildings. A lot of restaurants. Overall, we had a really good time."

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.
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