Best of the rest

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Rose Garden, Portland, Ore.Probably because the Trail Blazers teams that played inside were -- at least until lately -- so sensationally unlikable, the Rose Garden has never gotten its full due. The joint is now more than a decade old, middle aged in the dog years of sports venues, and a lot of the trappings that seemed cool at first -- huge locker rooms festooned with flat-screen televisions!, a micropub on the premises! -- are now almost passé. Still, the Rose Garden is what all arenas should aspire to be: It's spacious but retains charm. The sightlines are great. It's close to downtown, accessible by public transportation. It's filled with quirks, including an apartment above the court. At a time when sibling arenas have sold their names to airlines and banks and brokerage firms, and in the case of the Utah Jazz, a nuclear waste disposal outfit, The Rose Garden has retained its nominal dignity. Perhaps above all, the arena was financed by the team's wealthy owner and not by extorted taxpayers.Sure, management made a few blunders along the way. After afflicting the local citizenry with the "Jail Blazers," and falling on hard economic times, ownership tried to put the Rose Garden in bankruptcy. But that got settled. And now that Portland's only pro team is an endearing (and winning) outfit again, the Rose Garden is selling out, feeling like the closest thing the NBA has to Lambeau Field. By next season, the Rose Garden might yield to economic temptation and become known as Arena, or some such. Of course by then, it will also be the only place in the Pacific Northwest to watch an NBA game. -- Jon Wertheim

Roman Arena in Arles, Provence, south of France:You want old school? The Roman Arena in Arles was completed in about 1 B.C. It hosted gladiator battles, real ones, to the death, and without Hulk Hogan. In later times, the arena held more than 100 houses and a couple of churches within its perimeter -- an inner city of sorts. You think a LeRoy Nieman portrait means you've arrived? A scene at the Arles arena was painted by Van Gogh.These days, it's the site of some of the most fanciful bloodless bullfighting you'll see. You sit among thousands of spectators on the ancient stone benches in the terraced amphitheater as the evening sun gelds the arena's upper archways. Before you, some mildly courageous, infinitely foolhardy and, yes, well-trained young men try to pluck a ribbon from between an angry bull's horns. The event unfolds like a dance, the tension deepening (who'll get the ribbon? who'll get snared by a horn?) as the men and the mighty bull begin to tire. The crowd shouts a lot in French. Now and then something truly wild happens such as the bull jumping over the fence that surrounds the performance space and running through the crowd. People scatter, people yelp, people howl in frenzied laughter. An impromptu running of the bulls.

I was there in the early 1990s and the same recalcitrant bull kept getting rounded back into the center, then jumping into the crowd again and again. How thrilled we all were, how genuinely surprised. In the end the men gave up. The bull won. We were delighted and the Arles arena -- I can still smell the stony dust underfoot and the trace of sweat on the leathery old man beside me -- had won a place in my pantheon. -- Kostya Kennedy

Chicago StadiumIt is my all-time favorite venue and not just because two friezes from the old building, demolished in 1995, now adorn part of the gym at my alma mater, St. Ignatius, a couple miles away.

No, the reason I loved the old Chicago Stadium was because it had a history and feel like no other arena. Built in 1929 for the then princely sum of $9.5 million, it was at the time the largest indoor arena in the world. It would go on to host Democratic and Republican conventions, the NBA Finals, The Stanley Cup, NBA and NHL All-Star Games, even Led Zeppelin and Pearl Jam.

But what really set the stadium apart was its atmosphere; the boxy design, with three tiers that went straight up to a wooden roof, and put fans right over the action. There were the blood red seats with black railings that matched the colors of the Bulls and Blackhawks.

And there was "Remember the Roar." That was the fitting motto the Bulls and Blackhawks used in '94, the final year of the Stadium. No sports arena ever rocked like the Madhouse on Madison. Former Blazers star Maurice Lucas told me recently that during a Bulls-Blazers playoff game in '77, it was so loud he literally could not hear the ball bouncing on the floor. I believe him. I was in the SRO crowd of 18,000 that night, an 11-year-old kid dangling my legs over a railing in the second balcony, gazing in wonder through the miasma of cigar smoke at the magical figures below. Remember the roar? How can we forget when our ears are still ringing? --Marty Burns

U.S. Cellular Field, ChicagoLike deep-dish pizza and imitation pilsner, U.S. Cellular Field is an acquired taste. An upper-deck ticket not only buys entry into the Midwestern version of gastronomic paradise -- with most finding nirvana in a single bite of funnel cake -- but panoramic views of one of the country's most breathtaking urban vistas. Thanks to 2003 renovations that took the edge off sightlines so steep that watching pitchers often felt like staring into the Grand Canyon, tracking the action on the field no longer leaves you feeling as if a stiff wind might send you tumbling onto the backstop netting. What the place lacks in sunburned lushes and watering holes, it more than makes up for in quality baseball (kiss the ring, Cub fans) and a colorful manager, Ozzie Guillen, who's always game for going 12 rounds with the umps. If you're the kind of fan who goes to the ballpark as much for shelled peanuts as shelled pitchers (the visitors, of course), then I'll see you at The Cell. If your not, Yuppie Disneyland is four more miles up the highway in Wrigleyville. -- Andrew Lawrence

Cameron Indoor StadiumAsk Georgia Tech's Luke Schenscher about the Ronald McDonald references, or North Carolina coach Roy Williams about his Wizard of Oz greeting. And definitely ask former Tar Heel Sean May about the Big Mac boxes dangling from fishing poles. The hostility of the Cameron Crazies make Duke's gyms perhaps the toughest place to play. No other college basketball venue is as feared by its opponents. With about 9,300 seats and a sell-out streak of 274 games, dating back to Nov. 16, 1990, Cameron remains one of the smallest college arenas in the nation, resulting in a mass of tent parties appearing prior to game days. While a student journalist at rival North Carolina, I came to appreciate the sweat and drool of rabid Crazies dripping all over me while I worked.

Nowhere are college fans as dedicated or enthused about their team, and considering Duke's .831 win percentage at home since 1940, few arenas are as influential. -- Nicki JhabvalaTiger StadiumI had taken a position to cover LSU for the Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, La., a few months earlier despite not knowing a soul in the state, or in a several-state radius for that matter. It was my second journalism job after a brief stint covering high school sports for a small paper in Manassas, Va. Such is the itinerant lot of a wannabe sportswriter. I witnessed my first game at LSU's Tiger Stadium on Sept. 6, 1997. The structure itself was frankly unremarkable -- a large, aging, dull-gray edifice. Fill it with 80,000 (now 92,000) fired-up Cajuns on a Saturday night, however, and it was a different story altogether. By the time LSU beat then No. 1 Florida five weeks later, I was hooked. For someone who attended a small Division-III school, the pageantry and passion was something I had never before experienced. I was glad my friends had witnessed it with me, so they could tell my peers that my decision to leave a previous career in investment banking wasn't solely a case of foolhardy financial suicide. LSU finished 10-10 at Tiger Stadium during the three seasons I covered the team, among the worst three-year stretches in program history. Still, I couldn't help but pull hard for the Tigers when I saw them win this year's BCS title game in person in New Orleans. The only thing that would have made it sweeter was if the game had been held in that shambling cauldron of noise down the road in Baton Rouge.-- Pete McEntegart

Camden YardsTo know what makes Camden Yards great, I recommend going back to your days as a student. Pick a Friday night in May, round up some friends, and take the shuttle down from various Park-and-Rides throughout the Baltimore metro area. Pick up some $5 student tickets, grab some barbeque from Boogs, and get an autograph from the legendary owner himself: Former O's star Boog Powell occasionally mans the kitchen. Then settle into the cheap seats, grab the local brew (Natty Boh is best), and look around the ballpark that's the pride of "Bawlmor."

Camden Yards was the first modern park with a traditional feel and its style has been emulated more than a dozen times. It's the place where Cal Ripken Jr. broke the consecutive-games record and where locals know (pray?) greatness will return to one day. Most likely the O's will lose, but, hey, at least you only paid $5 for the tickets. The priceless part is experiencing what Baltimore is all about. -- Nina Mandell

Ohio StadiumIt sits on the banks of the Olentangy River, with a gray facade that matches the color of the helmets of its inhabitants, and the Midwestern skies that hang above late-season Big Ten clashes. Ohio Stadium is my favorite venue because when you grow up in Bellefontaine, Ohio, 50 miles west of Columbus, the home of the Buckeyes is Mecca, Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame Cathedral all rolled into one. It's an analogy only strengthened when you consider "the Horseshoe" has served as the venue for the weddings of plenty of Buckeye fans.There's a palpable energy in the stadium before the game as fans take their seats: Imagine 102,000 people erupting in unison as the band emerges from beyond the north end zone. The drum major marches out, bends backward, and the red turkey feather on his white Busby hat barely touches the turf before the band breaks into Across The Field.

My earliest memory of Ohio Stadium is sitting on upper deck bench seats so small and uncomfortable that I felt like a sardine in a can. But the grass below was so green, and the scarlet block O at midfield represented a beacon of everything that was good and great in the world, at least as far as my grade-school eyes were concerned. The 'Shoe is my favorite venue, not because it's a great place to watch a game (though it is), but because it stands as a symbol of who I am and where I come from. -- Cory McCartney.

Pontiac SilverdomeWhether viewed from Google Earth or from the stadium's North parking lot, the Pontiac Silverdome had the outward appearance of a typical charmless sports complex hatched in the 1970s. But this domed wonder, built on an expansive tract of land (read: middle of nowhere) in the northern Detroit suburb of Pontiac, was more than just the home for the NFL's Lions (1975-2001), the USFL's Michigan Panthers (1983-84), the NBA's Pistons (1978-88), Monster truck rallies and home-improvement fairs. In its heyday, the Silverdome, my favorite sporting venue, was the Madison Square Garden of the Midwest. Originally called Pontiac Metropolitan Stadium in 1975 (or the "PonMet," for short), the Dome hosted musical icons (Elvis Presley, Elton John, Billy Joel, Genesis, U2, Led Zeppelin andThe Who), basketball royalty (the 1979 NBA All-Star Game, two NCAA tournament regionals), pro-wrestling history (an indoor record 93,173 fans attended WrestleMania III, featuring Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant), World Cup soccer and Super Bowl XVI, where the Niners defeated the Bengals 26-21. Pope John Paul II presided over a Mass at the Silverdome in 1987, a service that was broadcast throughout the world. In fact, the Pope probably dressed in the same backstage area that Keith Moon (the late drummer for The Who) trashed following a post-concert bender in the mid-70s. How many stadiums can say that? Take that, Tacoma Dome! -- Jay Clemons

Memorial GymThe last thing you notice when you first walk into Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym is the benches. Sure, that's what gets the pub -- the fact that they are on the baseline instead of the sideline -- but it is the basketball stage, the raised floor, and the collective intensity that initially gets your attention. The players play above the first six rows on the sidelines, and there is plenty of extra space on both sides so the participants do not go careening down into the fans. When you view the court baseline to baseline, a drama is being played out free of coaches, press tables and advertisements. There is a passion not only from the student section, but the Nashville community, which embraces Vanderbilt basketball after the inevitable disappointing football season.The stage-like setting comes from architect Edwin Keeble, who designed the facility to be a combination gymnasium and concert hall in 1952. Balconies were added after the highly successful teams of the mid-1960s, and today there are three levels of seating on the sidelines and two on the baselines. The cinder block walls redirect the noise to the center of the action; good for a musician but bad for a visiting coach.I've seen Nolan Richardson, Dale Brown and even Rick Pitino tossed from the visitors' baseline and take a long, humbling walk the length of the court to the showers.

I've experienced the gym on every level. As a student, I was usually in the front row, with the playing surface at my waist. As a reporter, I covered games from both the press box high above the court and the newer press area next to the student section. I've sat in the balconies, on the floor and on the wooden bleacher benches behind the students. The place has charm, history, character and a one-of-a-kind set up. What more could you ask for? -- Bill Trocchi

Billie Jean King National Tennis CenterSure, there's too much noise, too much traffic, and too many Wall Street types wearing casual Oxfords. Yes, the food costs more than a two-bedroom apartment in Des Moines and the weather can be as unpredictable as Hugo Chavez. The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is, however, the best place to watch tennis in the United States, especially during the first week of the U.S. Open fortnight when a grounds pass offers 19 different singles matches and nearly two dozen doubles matches on a given day. I tend to bypass Arthur Ashe Stadium (really, how much fun is it to watch Justine Henin rout Ekaterina Makarova in 30 minutes) and head to the egalitarian Grandstand court (which is all open seating) or the tight quarters of Court 11 or Court 13. It's in these intimate settings where five-set thrillers often emerge between players just on the cusp of stardom, or dangerous floaters fighting and clawing merely for an opportunity to play on a show court. More than any other tennis tournament in the world, the U.S. Open is about survival, which pretty much sums up New York itself. -- Richard Deitsch

Rucker Park, HarlemBy the southeast corner of West 155th Street and Frederick Douglas Blvd. in Harlem, just a long toss across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, two signs hang from a makeshift parking lot's barbed-wired fence.

The first one reads: Parking, $20, Yankee Games.

The second one reads: Parking, $20, Rucker Tournaments.

That the lot charges equal fare for spaces near a baseball cathedral and a public park would not surprise native New Yorkers. If heaven is a playground, as author Rick Telander once opined, then the Holcombe Rucker Basketball Courts may be its celestial home court. The court is striking in its simplicity. Here, on asphalt painted over with a green coating, white lining and red post area, unknowns earn reputations, professionals return to their roots and street legends remain frozen in time. From Lew Alcindor to Connie Hawkins to Earl "The Goat" Manigault, the best ballers have come through Rucker. Though a sign warns that the park closes at dusk, crowds begin to flock when the four sets of fluorescent lights come on after sunset. Onlookers climb trees and gawk down from the overhanging Macomb's Dam Bridge.

Glowing in the distance are the bright blue letters of Yankee Stadium, but while the boys of summer are in their dog days, the hoop heads bark loudest. Sweat soaked, laying down slippery crossovers, Rucker's participants drive past defenders and end plays with emphatic dunks. From their point of view, the real deal is on their side of the river. -- Kevin Armstrong