Without A Venue Like Kingdome, Seattle Has Seen Last Final Four

SAN ANTONIO - Thousands of visitors, sun, salsa, the Riverwalk, tickets selling for as much as $4,500 a pair in the hulking Alamodome across the interstate - this is college basketball's Final Four.

The 1998 men's tournament has been sensational. Seventeen games have been decided by three points or less, including two played by the Washington Huskies.

As the field of 64 winnowed to four, two of the sport's storied programs - Kentucky and North Carolina - were still dancing, along with two proverbial Western wallflowers, Utah and Stanford.

I went to the NCAA semifinals and finals before they were called the Final Four. That was in 1960, when the 12,000-seat Cow Palace in San Francisco was good enough and big enough for an event that is now held only in stadiums the size of airplane hangars.

No city played a bigger part of the making of the modern Final Four than Seattle. The staging of the 1984 event at the Kingdome took on Super Bowl stature, with all the parties and presents promoter Bob Walsh could afford.

No city has held the event more in the modern era than Seattle - 1984, 1989 and 1995 - but our reign as a college basketball mecca ended as quickly as it began.

Next year the first and second-round games - eight teams playing six games - will be at KeyArena. Either the first or second seed in the West will be there. The Huskies, however, won't because the UW is the host and will be forced to play elsewhere should it be included in the field of 64.

The Final Four would have returned sometime in the early years of the next century - had there been a Kingdome. Right now, there is no other building in the West with the capacity to host the event, although it is possible the new baseball park in Phoenix might be configured for basketball.

Indeed, no Final Four has been held on the West Coast except in Seattle since the Los Angeles Sports Arena, of all places, housed it in 1972.

It does little good lamenting the passing of the Kingdome. The pity, however, is that the Kingdome didn't get one more Final Four before it was committed to dust.

The Kingdome will be knocked down in January 2000. The Seahawks will play at Husky Stadium as the new NFL stadium goes up where the Kingdome was.

Of course, there were ways to save the Kingdome. It is hard to believe we couldn't put that much covered space to good use, but once the professional tenants wanted to play elsewhere, the Kingdome was painted as a taxpayers' liability.

Had we known what we do now, the baseball park could have been built against the north side of the Kingdome and the NFL stadium built where the baseball stadium is being built.

We could have had everything in its proper order: baseball stadium closest to the city with all the obvious advantages, the Kingdome left where it is for use as a convention center, for home and boat shows, for state prep football and basketball championships and for an occasional Final Four.

But that didn't happen. What also didn't happen was one final Final Four in Seattle. The NCAA wanted to be here. It was so desperate for domed venues that it gave Indianapolis the Final Four in 1997 and 2000.

Seattle had been in the modern rotation with Indianapolis, New Orleans and Minneapolis until the NCAA became disenchanted with the Kingdome and tournament management during the 1991 West Regionals. The Kingdome was in need of repairs. Management of the basketball tournaments had shifted away from Walsh, who was deemed to have too much power.

The NCAA kept its commitment to Seattle for the 1995 tournament, won in grand style by UCLA, but dropped the city from future considerations.

It looked to newer domes - the Alamodome for 1998, Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg for 1999, and the Georgia Dome for 2002 - as well as two old standbys - Indianapolis for 2000 and Minneapolis for 2001.

In the long history of the NCAA, only three cities have had the Final Four more than Seattle - Kansas City with 10, New York with seven and Louisville with six.

Besides the three at the Kingdome, two earlier Final Fours were at Edmundson Pavilion on the Washington campus, in 1949 and 1952.

I still think back to that warm spring day in 1984, when Pioneer Square was flooded with Kentucky blue and Houston red, when the semifinal games were won by Georgetown and Houston, when the talk was about Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, when we were the center of the basketball universe.

Little did we know our time in the sun would be so short.

You can contact Blaine Newnham by voice mail at 206-464-2364.