When Brown comes to the John J. Lee Amphitheater Friday night, the men’s basketball team will begin its defense of its Ivy League title, hoping to come away with a lone championship this time — not a shared one. Last season, the team went 11-3 in Ivy League play en route to a title split with the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton. On the way, the team brought more excitement to the cozy confines of the John J. Lee than it has seen in decades.
The defining moment of last year’s season was the weekend sweep of Penn and Princeton. Head coach James Jones said the atmosphere at the amphitheater that weekend rivaled that of any college gym in the country. Anyone in the crowd that night probably would agree. Though it lacks the glitz of major Division I schools’ arenas, the John J. Lee has a kind of historic charm few other facilities can boast. But what made the Penn and Princeton games amazing was the energy of the crowd. Official counts listed attendance at 3,100 — then the amphitheater’s full capacity. But with fans crowding the standing room-only areas and spilling into the aisles, the number was undoubtedly closer to four thousand than it was to three. The cheering throng certainly helped coax the team to two amazing victories.
When students return to the Lee Amphitheater for the Brown game, they will find some nice new features courtesy of the Athletics Department: brand new scoreboards; a new press row behind the scorer’s table, as well as the formal press post-game press conferences instituted last year; and a new reserved seating area for corporate sponsors and athletic boosters in a balcony behind one of the baskets. As Jones and the Bulldogs ascend the ladder of basketball legitimacy, the Athletics Department has done its part to have the Lee Amphitheater keep pace.
But these changes, while useful, fail to address the venue’s major shortcoming: space. After last year’s virtually unprecedented crowds, the New Haven fire marshal forced Yale to reduce the capacity of the amphitheater — with good reason — shrinking the maximum crowd size to 2,552, a loss of nearly 600 seats. Now, the new press row and VIP section mean even less seating for students and members of the community. Recognizing the crunch, the Athletics Department will make students pick up tickets at the Yale Bookstore prior to the game, rather than showing IDs at the door as they did in the past. The Department has said it expects to simulcast games in the Lanman Center for those who do not make it into Lee.
But in the end, nothing equals a live game with countless — or at least, many more than 2,552 — screaming Yale fans in the stands. Currently, much of the seating is in the form of antiquated bucket seats, which add to the amphitheater’s aesthetic appeal and subtract from its capacity. Though likely expensive, replacing these wider seats with economizing bleachers, for example, would help safely squeeze more students into the games. That way, all the fans who supported Yale basketball’s historic run last year could return again and cheer the team to another Ivy League championship.