The looks on the NJIT students’ faces as they entered the brand new Health and Wellness Center told you all you needed to know Saturday night.
A mixture of “Wow”, “This is ours?”, “Unbelievable”, and good-old silent mouths agape were heard and seen as nearly 3,000 entered, approximately a third of those students. To understand the present (and future) of why the $110-million facility is so staggering and important for NJIT, you have to start in the past.
Disrespecting the deceased is never a good look, but now that it’s gone I think we can all say that NJIT’s Fleisher Center was, well, inadequate for a Division I team. Or possibly your local varsity high school squad.
“Let’s be honest, It wasn’t a Division I facility,” former NJIT and current Columbia coach Jim Engles said. “In some ways, it wasn’t a Division IV facility. We made the most of what we had.”
To be fair, Zoom Fleisher, whose name (along with his wife Estelle) graced the old place that opened in 1967, agreed for the most part. When the Newark-raised decorated World War II vet and former NJIT (then the Newark College of Engineering) hoops captain died in 2011, he asked for donations to be made to the NJIT Building Fund.
By then, the Highlanders had been a Division I basketball team for four years, but largely as a punchline, playing in something called the Great West (for more on their history, I wrote this in 2014). But Engles, against most rational odds, was building something. To what end was unclear, as without residence in an automatic bid conference, there was no way that Engles could tell recruits what most dreamed of: a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
— NJIT Basketball (@NJITHoops) November 11, 2017
Yet some brave souls came anyway. Many had been passed up by almost everyone else. And Engles went out and routinely beat his New York City metro area neighbors. But it was a day in December of 2014 that the country took notice, when the Highlanders took down Michigan – less than two years removed from an appearance in the national championship game. Then there was a run to the semifinals of the CIT later that season, complete with raucous celebrations at the Fleisher Center. But to build a new arena, NJIT needed a conference, and while the NEC and America East continued to obfuscate, a lifeline came from an unlikely source: the Atlantic Sun.
The rest is now history. And while the NJIT Health and Wellness Center is not quite completed and construction will continue through the next few months (NJIT has still never practiced in the arena and saw it for the first time at the shootaround Friday night), the atmosphere Saturday night meant so much to so many people.
“Jim and I stay in touch all the time,” NJIT coach Brian Kennedy said. “The building today is a tribute to our former players and former coaches, and former staff as well, and Jim obviously had a huge part in that. I consider Jim to be a great friend and we’ve texted all week long. This arena is a tribute to everyone who has ever been involved with NJIT basketball. My brother Rob said to me this might be the biggest transformation in facilities in Division I history, going from there to here.”
You won’t get any argument on that front from long-time NJIT Athletic Director Lenny Kaplan. He began in Newark nearly two decades ago when NJIT was Division II in everything and trusting the process of moving up meant a lot of patience and understanding. To him and other long-term NJIT employees, alums, and even the Newark community, Saturday was a time to celebrate.
“Understand this is my 18th basketball season at NJIT and we have guys that can’t believe that this is where we are,” Kaplan said. “We’re going to miss a little bit of the charm of Fleisher, but looking at that student section was unbelievable. And they were into it. And they were pumped. Now that we have an arena to show off, I do think our crowds will be a little bigger. It was just a giant flashback. All those days when we were first Division I, then those CIT games, which were great. But in many ways, this crowd was even better, and then we just have to keep taking it to another level.”
Alas, Wagner was not a very good party guest Saturday, as the Seahawks suffocated NJIT’s offense (holding it to 0.72 points per possession) late in the game to quiet the crowd of 2,970 and go back to Staten Island with a 60-49 victory. Somewhat amazingly, Wagner coach Bashir Mason (whose right foot was in a boot and was moving around on a scooter) never saw the Fleisher Center. But he could still appreciate the upgrade.
“Actually I never saw the old place. Just on film,” Mason said. “I didn’t know what to expect walking in, but I could hear the crowd back here in the locker room long before I came out for the tipoff. When you walk out there, the place is beautiful, and with the crowd going the way they were, they were awesome.”
The Highlanders have a young team this season, led by South Alabama transfer Abdul Lewis and All-Atlantic Sun preseason first-teamer Anthony Tarke. The pair, along with everyone else at NJIT, has seen the Wellness Center rise on campus, brick by brick, addition by addition. And finally, there it was, full of fans to see NJIT basketball.
“It was electric. We’re not used to having all these fans,” Tarke said. “For us, whenever we go on the road, we hear that kind of crowd, but it’s nice to have it on your side. It was great.”
For Lewis, who grew up in Newark, it was an especially proud moment to be in front of so many friends and family.
“I was excited. It didn’t feel real,” Lewis said. “I felt like I was dreaming, especially being from Newark, right here in my home city. It meant a lot to me to play in a place like this. Thanks for everyone that came out, I just wish the result were a little different.”
Going forward, there will be a little more pressure on Kennedy and NJIT to win. They certainly want those fans to return and being an Atlantic Sun powerhouse and getting to that first NCAA Tournament will be huge in that quest. But for now, it’s time to just take a step back, think about how far NJIT has come and marvel at the new facility.
“It’s a tough loss, but it’s a great, great day for NJIT,” Kennedy said. “Yesterday we had the ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was just fabulous. We had a lot of politicians, Mayor Ras Baraka was here. You don’t realize when you’re on campus the impact that this facility has outside of NJIT. It has a great impact on our students and our student-athletes. You understand that, but to listen to the people talk about the impact on the city of Newark and beyond is a powerful thing.”
As he should, Engles does take some credit for the NJIT Wellness Center being built. But not in the way you think.
“Almost 30 years ago when I first got to Wagner as a new assistant, I kept hearing about the new gym they were going to get, but it never happened,” Engles said. “When I left, they finally do it. I go to Rider. Same thing. Leave and the new gym goes up. At NJIT, those plans were in the works for a while, but when I left, the thing gets finished. I watched some of the second half (Saturday) night. You think about all the memories as interesting a place as Fleisher Center, it really was a home-court advantage. But this will be so much better. So many kids put NJIT in a position to open that place. It’s a legit arena. You sort of feel proud that they were able to do that.”
NJIT had at least one alum from each decade of its basketball history in attendance on Saturday, but it was the most recent alums who seemed most in awe of the new digs. Most of their names might eventually be lost to history, but without them, it’s pretty safe to say that there would be no Health and Wellness Center on the NJIT campus.
“There were a lot of kids that had all the things that were against us at the time that took a chance on NJIT,” Engles said. “And they made it something special. To see the program now a real mid-major Division I program with an arena and an intimidating student section and everything? That’s just awesome.”