Fans, March Madness descend on Detroit

Leonard N. Fleming, and Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit – Any way you slice it, college hoops fans ate up their game experiences Friday at the freshly opened dough-rena.

Fans traveling to see their teams at the beginning of March Madness descended on Detroit on Friday, pleasantly surprised by the reinvigorated city and excited to be experiencing NCAA tournament games at Little Caesars Arena in its freshman season.

Friday night’s marquee match-up between Michigan State and Bucknell drew a diehard crowd of Spartan faithful determined to scream green for their team in white. Fans hardly left their seats to grab food and drinks while the team was on the court.

“It’s absolutely fire in there,” said MSU alumna Whitney McCowan, 35, of Brighton. “So high energy and just a bit crazier than in East Lansing.

A large crowd gathers at the southeast entrance to LCA on March 16, 2018.

“But it’s really cool to be at the LCA; we’ve basically turned our section into the chant starters.”

“Go Green! Go White!” and MSU’s fight song could be heard from the concourse during every timeout. Fans stayed on their feet as the Spartans dominated the Bison in the second half. Every point scored caused an uproar of fans to scream hysterically with joy.

College basketball and March Madness will dominate the downtown through the weekend as the second wave of games hit the hardwood in Detroit on Sunday.

In earlier action on Friday, Purdue took out Cal State Fullerton in the first game of the day, followed by a Butler upset over Arkansas. TCU took on Syracuse to close out the night.

David Rocchio and his wife, Sheila, traveled from Indiana for Friday’s Purdue game, said the rebuilt downtown with its new arena surprised him.

“It’s much nicer than I expected it to be,” said Rocchio, 55, as he and his wife sat in the lobby Friday morning at the Westin Book Cadillac hotel. “It’s nice. We like it here. We haven’t seen a lot of it. We just got here yesterday afternoon. Ford Field is nice. Comerica Park ... it’s great.”

Rocchio said he’s most impressed with Detroit because he grew up in an automotive union town, Kokomo, Indiana, and “a lot of them haven’t resurfaced like this one has.”

The Westfield, Indiana, resident, who graduated from Purdue in 1984, said his son is one of the team’s managers and gave his father a full report on the Pistons’ locker room at the LCA: “He said it’s really cool.”

Sheila Rocchio, 52, said she’s impressed with Detroit so far. “I thought it would be more rundown, not very many people around. It’s been nice so far,” she said.

Rocchio said coming to Detroit for the game was a no-brainer because his family has attended and graduated from Purdue since the mid-1950s.

Sean McGillen, 58, of Shelby Township, was on his way to the LCA with his sons Patrick, 19, a freshman at Purdue, and Daniel, 18. Friday’s game was his first time at the arena.

“The city has certainly changed for the better,” he said. “There’s just so much more to do and see. It’s really turning around. I’m real impressed with it.”

McGillen wore Purdue garb despite being a local and still “a fan of all things Detroit,” he said.

Reid and Cilissa Mellott, 35, traveled from Elkhart, Indiana, to Detroit with their two kids, Nolan, 12, and Gwen, 9, also to cheer on Purdue.

“We’ve attended the Final Four once in Indy, but this is our first tournament, and we are diehard Purdue fans,” said Reid Mellott, 42. “My wife and I are both alumni, so it’s special to take our kids, and they luckily had no school (Friday).”

They said they were impressed with the LCA, saying it looked modern and fresh.

“It’s so fun to have this area where it looks like you’re outside but are actually inside,” Cilissa Mellott said.

Heather Oxley, 32, bought tickets for her husband, Scott, for his 40th birthday after he was hinting the tournament could be hosted in Detroit months prior.

“We’re both Spartan alum, and I couldn’t think of a better birthday gift, this has been the best day. ... Let’s hope they make it to the finals,” said Heather Oxley, of Battle Creek.

It was their first time at LCA, and they were blown away by how spacious and organized it was.

“It’s way better than the Joe,” Scott Oxley said. “You felt like you were packed in there as tight as possible. It’s so clean and so many bathrooms here. ... I haven’t seen a line all day.”

Jeff Marshall, 60, of Greenville, also came all the way from the west side of Michigan to see his beloved Spartans. He planned on attending games into the weekend with friends and family to the tune of $600.

“I’ve had them for a year,” said Marshall, a 32-year season ticket holder for Michigan State basketball. “I’m like 16 rows up in the lower, and I couldn’t turn that offer down in May of last year.”

His experience with Detroit has been splendid.

“It’s real safe as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I’m from a small city, and we used to didn’t like coming down to Detroit. But it seems pretty safe. Everybody’s pretty friendly.”

Other fans who have arrived for the games were optimistic about their Detroit vacations.

Vince Binder, 67, of Greenwood, Indiana, and his wife, Linda, are longtime Purdue fans; he graduated from the university in 1973.

The last time he was in Detroit for a Purdue game, “it wasn’t much fun,” he said. “That was 30 years ago, and we played in the Silverdome, and we lost to Kansas State when we were a No. 1 seed. This is my first return to Detroit.”

Linda Hummel, 61, and Glenn Hummel, 63, drove in Thursday night from Valparaiso, Indiana, also to see their beloved Boilermakers. Their son, Robbie, played basketball for Purdue several years ago.

“He’s been out five years, but we are like pride and true Purdue,” said Linda Hummel. “Everyone’s been very nice so far.”

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