Long Beach State returns to court for historic game

The Walter Pyramid at Long Beach State is a bizarre venue even in the best of circumstances. The shape, for one. It’s one of just three full pyramid structures in America, including the Luxor in Las Vegas and a basketball arena-turned-outdoorsman store in Memphis.

Long Beach’s Pyramid is 18 stories tall, with a roof so high that, during colder weather, condensation on the inside is a regular occurrence, which becomes a problem when it drips onto the floor. It’s so large that even when it’s full it can feel half-empty, with massive concourses and the pointed roof towering so far overhead.

Last Sunday, under anything but the best circumstances, the Pyramid was an even more bizarre scene as it played host to what was either a momentous sporting event in Long Beach’s history or a pretty entertaining nonconference mid-major basketball game, depending on your perspective.

With two of the three stands lifted into the air to allow for more social distancing, recorded crowd noise piped in and no fans in attendance, the Long Beach State men’s basketball team defeated Seattle U, 80-75, to move to 1-1 on the season. It was the first organized and sanctioned sporting event held in Long Beach since March 11, a layoff of nearly nine months that is completely unprecedented in the 125-year history of Long Beach sports.

Dan Monson, Long Beach State’s coach and the longest-tenured coach in team history, was appropriately introspective and conflicted about the unique scene.

“It’s different in this building because the Pyramid’s been such a special place to play,” said Monson. “There’s no better place when it’s full and the energy is there. But I’ve been in tournaments where there’s even less people than this, and to be honest with you, I don’t really notice much when the game starts. There’s definitely an eerie environment, it’s eerie personally. One of my kids asked, ‘When’s the last time you had a home game and your family’s not there?’ I couldn’t remember. Some of our players are in the same boat, where their parents have been at every game back to the fourth grade.”

Rather than focus on the empty stands and artificial crowd noise, Monson said he’s encouraging his players to be appreciative of the opportunity to play at all, something that has been in question at various points over the last nine months. The team’s season came to an abrupt end when the Big West Tournament was canceled last year, along with the NCAA Tournament, the organizing central event of the college sports landscape each year.

“It’s a bummer, but you can look at it that way or look at the other side of how blessed we are to have an opportunity to play,” said Monson. “It’s costing our administration money to have these games—they’re not making money off them, and they’re spending a lot on testing and everything else. So we have to enjoy it and we have to appreciate it.”

There was plenty to appreciate about the action on the court, secondary as it may have seemed to the off-court significance. Iona transfer Isaiah Washington proved to be every bit as good as Monson and Beach fans were hoping, with 20 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and no turnovers. The New York-bred point guard brought a toughness and competitiveness that’s been missing from  Long Beach the last few years. Washington would be worth the price of admission if you could buy your way into the game, and you absolutely can’t, not even senior athletic department staff was on hand unless they were directly involved in gameday operations.

The game hung in the balance when Seattle U tied it up 72-72 with two minutes left, but Washington immediately ran down the court and drained a 3-pointer to put the Beach in the lead for the rest of the game. It was an amazing moment, full of guts and fire, the kind of moment people come to see at games.

The Long Beach State women will get their chance to open the season this Saturday when they host Westmont at 2 p.m. The men’s team will hit the road for a five-game swing and return to the Pyramid New Year’s Day to host Cal State Bakersfield in a Big West contest.

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run the562.org, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.