Riley Wallace knows better than most what it was like to play in the Neal S. Blaisdell Center.
Granted, the winningest coach in Hawaii hoops history wasn’t around during the nightly sellouts of the Fab Five days of the early 1970s. He had to build the crowds up gradually, taking over a moribund program when Frank Arnold left after the 1986-87 season.
UH went 4-25 in Wallace’s first of 20 seasons at the helm.
“My first year, we only drew about 1,200, 1,300,” Wallace said Thursday from Las Vegas, where he is rehabbing from a minor stroke. “But I called them our nucleus. They were the loyal fans. And they came whether you won or lost.”
Friday night, UH makes its first appearance at the 7,500-seat Blaisdell since the Special Events Arena (later the Stan Sheriff Center) was completed in 1994. The Rainbow Warriors have the unusual distinction of being the “road” team when they take on Chaminade at 7 p.m., after a 4:30 game between Hawaii Pacific and Montana State-Billings. There is no TV or streaming coverage, so if you want to see it, you’ll have to be there like the good old days.
“I would hope that they come back and fill it up again,” Wallace said of UH fans. “It was a fun place to play. And when you had a good crowd in there, it was definitely a home court advantage.”
Wallace, 73, suffered the stroke on Maui the morning of UH’s game against Pittsburgh on Nov. 21. He spent eight days in hospital care on Maui, and said his legs in particular still need recovery work.
But he remembers well winning two NIT games at the Blaisdell in 1990, and his 25-win team getting clearance from the NIT to host a quarterfinal game. But a Blaisdell scheduling conflict meant UH was sent away to New Mexico, where the Rainbow Warriors lost by 22.
“That helped get the new (Special Events) arena,” he said.
Other times, he recalled his team couldn’t always practice in the Blaisdell in advance of its games there.
“They tried to help us as much as they could but they always had other events that would interfere with practice … it was a home court advantage kind of lost sometimes, because you couldn’t always practice where you played.”
Ultimately, though, Wallace remembers it fondly.
“I liked it. It was fun to coach and play in there. It had a feel about it.”
Over its roughly three decades at the Blaisdell, UH went 285-203, a .584 winning percentage.