Sights & sounds inside the O’rena

ROCHESTER, Mich. — Two hands on the wheel, eyes ahead and a phone guiding the way.

Belly full from lunch at a franchise owned by a local philanthropist.

All is well … until.

Red brake lights as far as the eye can see approaching Detroit.

Did I make a wrong turn to Frankenmuth, where it is Christmas every day?

The 20-minute delay seemed more like an hour, but the entrance to the O’rena made the trip worth the wait.

My eyes saw an impressive atmosphere, reminding me slightly of Valparaiso’s venue. Welcome to Oakland University, home of the Golden Grizzlies. Bigger fan of this place than Valpo’s, but the last time I was there was 2001.

The unique dark brown-wooded floor with a large embossed face of a grizzly bear at center court makes the cozy, embedded playing surface one of a kind in the Horizon League. The bright LED lights scattered parallel to the 90-foot floor pop the dark playing surface.

Plastic bleachers are behind each basket and chairback seats are flanked on either side of the 90-foot long playing surface.

YSU’s starting lineup is then announced and the lights dim in the arena, darker than it is for Youngstown’s introductions at the Beeghly Center.

A gigantic wide screen lights up with a the Golden Grizzlies logo strewn across and the team’s hype video showing.

It’s that student section and band on the other side of the arena which is one of the reasons I made the four-plus hour pilgrimage to the Oakland University campus. The best student section in the league — and arguably the best in mid-major basketball — were into the game before the tip, turning their backs during the YSU introductions. It had a feel of a postseason high school tournament game, but with more glitz and glamour.

During free throws, the student section holds up their hands in the shape of an O as each of the Grizzlies players shoot free throws.

It’s the type of student section YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun envisions, saying the fans that have shown up to the Beeghly Center so far have been amazing.

I’d love to see that kind of turnout from the Penguins student body as I saw Wednesday in Oakland, making the Beeghly Center quite raucous — enhancing the ebb and flow of the game.

The Golden Grizzlies’ student section even sent off the YSU team with the traditional winning team-losing team chant and the obligatory warm up the bus after Wednesday’s 95-82 Oakland win.

Oakland coach Greg Kampe said his student section is unbelievable, praising their leadership.

This group also had a VIP program, tailgates and giveaways.

“They give us a real home-court advantage,” he said.

Then there was Kampe, who Calhoun called the godfather of the Horizon League. More than three decades on the job and still as fiery as ever, he even slammed the scorer’s table a couple of times. He kept barking at the officials and his team, even though Oakland was comfortably ahead. He expected better, and so should his players.

Love that passion. He’s the other reason I came up here.

During a December 2016 game, Kampe wore an ugly Christmas sweater with a stuffed reindeer’s head and antlers sticking out of his stomach area and the tail and hind legs out the back. So jealous of that sweater, one which would embarrass my wife and children. I must have one.

He told me it started on a whim as the team had ugly sweater night, and didn’t know how viral it would go. It is the Twitter age and that is interesting.

Sadly, that sweater is retired.

It was also interesting to see not as many people at Wednesday’s game.

Kampe addressed it after the game, thanking those who attended. He chastised those who didn’t show, saying there are more home games and his student-athletes need their presence.

I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to see arguably one of the better teams in this league with the three leading scorers?

This is a team which showed it was one of the best in the league by dominating YSU in every facet of the game, especially in the first 20 minutes Wednesday.

I understand the Golden Grizzlies started league play 1-3, but they have talent — especially Illinois transfer and Wednesday’s leading scorer, Kendrick Nunn. He’s the frontrunner for Horizon League Player of the Year. Those in Youngstown are going to see him later this season.

It’s a great place to watch a game. I’d pay to see a game here. If you’re from Youngstown, you should make the trip here next year. Not a bad seat in the O’rena, a 4,000-seat venue.

After I write my game story and make sure it’s sent, I’ll head back to my car with about 140,000 miles, praying it makes it back to Youngstown sometime early this morning.

You can only turn up the car stereo so loud when it makes noises.

At least there won’t be mass quantities of red lights on my way home.