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The Legacy Of The '93 World University Games

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Rochester: The Legacy Of The '93 World University Games
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From basketball to baseball, gymnastics to soccer, many of the world's best athletes came to Western New York 20 years ago to compete in the 1993 World University Games. Don Heins has the final chapter in our series remembering the Games - with the help of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

The marquee competition of the 1993 World University Games was the men’s basketball tournament.

"It kind of gave you a flashback of the days when we had an NBA team," said Reggie Witherspoon.

Witherspoon may have been the biggest beneficiary of the Games, coaching both an Erie Community College program in the brand new Flickinger Center, which was built for the Games; and later UB, after hosting accelerated their advancement to the Division I level.

He was in the stands as Team USA tore through their first six games in decisive fashion.

"You’re sitting there and looking at really, really good college players, some of the best in the country. They’re representing our entire country, and they’re playing in Buffalo."

It’s fitting that the sight of perhaps the most memorable moment of the Games, the gold medal basketball game, now stands as a symbol of development here in Downtown Buffalo. What a game that was - coach Reggie Minton’s heavily favored Team USA trailed Canada by 12 at the half - to rally and win in front of 11,000 at the Aud.

"Coach Mitten had the United States team in a place where they could persevere (through) great opponents, and I think obviously having it in the United States was an advantage, because it’s a home court advantage. It was great that Buffalo was able to provide that advantage," said Witherspoon.

There was plenty of grassroots inspiration from the Games; people like Amy Aigner, who was barely a teenager in 1993. Currently a teacher and soccer coach at West Seneca West, she was influenced by watching the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team for the first time.

"You were in awe, of course, because those were the people you saw on TV every once in a great while, or read about or researched yourself when you’re that young. To see them play and put plays together and score goals was amazing," said Aigner.

In the end, UB vice president Dennis Black and the Games’ supporters see the World University Games for what they brought to Western New York, through the work of organizer Bert Flickinger.

"I think if Mr. Flickinger had an opportunity to sit in the stands today at the Empire State Games, the Special Olympics, the Masters Swimming and Diving competitions, a UB Division One athletic football team playing Ohio State this year, he would say it’s a better community than it was in 1993; and a community that has promise of a better future," Black said.

That future will come into focus when we open this time capsule outside of UB Stadium in the year 2043. What will our community look like then - when we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the World University Games.

Rochester: The Legacy Of The '93 World University Games
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The World University Games began on an inspiring note, but soon reality set in.

The organizing committee planned to bring in $6 million in ticket revenue. Sales totaled
$2 million. They were unable to secure a national television contract, and finding sponsors was a struggle.

"They lost $2.9 million, but what we got back was 10-fold, maybe 100-fold in an economic impact through the years," said Ralph Galanti, the former athletic director at Erie Community College.

Most of that was through the construction of two major structures - a world class natatorium downtown, now named after the Buffalo Games’ pioneer, Bert Flickinger; and Amherst’s UB Stadium, built for the games with 16,000 seats, and now holds 30,000.

"The stadium has brought to Western New York, and brought to the stadium, a variety of things that simply we wouldn’t have access to and opportunities. Each one of those has an economic impact. Each one of those brought dollars to Western New York that wouldn’t have been here otherwise," said Dennis Black, UB vice president of university life.

Namely, the Special Olympics, which will be held here for the third straight year in 2014; the Empire State Games in 1996, 2003, and 2010; the 1998 NCAA Track and Field nationals, and the Dalai Lama - who spoke in the stadium in 2006.

"I think having the World University Games housed here on campus institutionally raised our profile internationally. It may not have done a lot for us in Lockport, or Niagara Falls, or Springville, but clearly, it made UB recognized internationally as an international institution," Black said.

Back on the field in 1993, fans were hopeful that Team USA Baseball could be the first team since 1987 to knock off powerhouse Cuba, and they got that matchup in the semi-finals. But as expected, the Cubans were the strongest team at then Pilot Field, beating the Americans by a 7-2 count; and going on to win the gold medal.

What fans may remember most about the 1993 Cuban baseball team was a pair of defections. Famously, pitcher Eddie Oropesa jumped a wall at Sal Magglie Stadium during pregame warmups to escape to freedom. He went on to pitch four seasons in the major leagues, and currently works for the Dodgers as a mentor to rookie phenom Yasiel Puig.

The other defection from these games is well known to Mets fans. Rey Ordonez was on the Cuban team, and also left abruptly - moving on to a career where he won three gold gloves in the Big Apple.

Rochester: The Legacy Of The '93 World University Games
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"Outside of our pro teams and what they have accomplished, this has to be the number one attraction that ever came to Buffalo," said Ralph Galanti, the former athletic director at Erie Community College.

It was an event that began with great fanfare. More than 70,000 fans packed then-Rich Stadium to welcome 6,400 athletes from 136 different countries, competing in 12 sports. Highlighted with performances by Kenny Rogers and Natalie Cole, it was the place to be in Western New York on July 8, 1993.

"All the athletes from all over the world there, and all of our fans treating them like they were royalty, and cheering them. It gave you a tingle. It was just like the Olympics. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever come to the Olympics," Galanti said.

Those who were fortunate enough to be there as the Games opened can remember the lengthy parade of nations. By the time Canada was introduced, the cheers were so loud, no one could hear the public address announcer. And at the end, the Americans entered: to a deafening chant of USA, USA!

"That was incredible. It’s the type of thing that when I think about it, you have chills that run up and down you. It was the first time wearing a USA uniform for me, and being surrounded by so many other athletes and so many countries, and so many spectators there was probably one of the most thrilling moments that I’ve had as an athlete," said Vicki Mitchell.

Mitchell was one of four local athletes to compete in the Games; West Side Rowing Club members were inspired by their own Kevin Cotter. Neil Simon and Rachel Epstein represented Amherst Hills Tennis Club proudly.

Mitchell returned to Western New York and is entering her 15th year as UB’s cross country coach.

"The opportunity to be part of something this big, in Buffalo, I felt really put our area on the map, and the opportunity to do it with the support of family and friends, for me individually, was tremendous," Mitchell said.

As the competitions got underway, some events drew criticism for lagging ticket sales. That certainly wasn’t the case in the women's’ gymnastics competition. Capacity crowds filled the Niagara Falls Convention Center to see Team USA, led by 1988 Olympian Hope Shelley. Through the floor exercise, the uneven bars, and the balance beam, the American team was in the hunt for gold until the bitter end, but Ukraine edged Team USA’s girls by less than half of a point. Still, Niagara Falls cheered for an American silver medal.

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