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Culture / Sporting Life

UH’s New $60 Million Arena Wows as Tilman Fertitta and Renu Khator Go Into Hall of Honor Together

The Secrets and Surprises of the Fertitta Center, College Basketball’s Newest High-Tech Showcase

BY // 11.30.18

Walk into the new $60 million home of University of Houston basketball and you’re immediately struck by the lighting and how intimate everything seems. Even the farthest red seat from the shining court appears close. This Fertitta Center is a whole new ballgame for UH, as big-time and high-tech a stage as almost any college basketball program in America has.

“It’s just a new facility,” Houston billionaire Tilman Fertitta says, whose $20 million gift powered the new arena and put his name on the building. “This isn’t the old facility. I told people from the beginning,  ‘You all can call this a redo. This isn’t a redo.’ ”

Only the steel and some solid building bones remain from the painfully outdated Hofheinz Pavilion that previously stood on this site. You won’t recognize anything much of Hofheinz on first, second or third glance.

Certainly not in the new premium seating, which include a spacious Courtside Club and 20 leather barcaloungers that seem to lord right over the court from their platform. In all, there are 712 premium seats in the Fertitta Center, compared to the 140 floor seats that Hofheinz offered.

Overall, the new arena carries a capacity of 7,100 compared to the 8,479 of Hofheinz. It offers fewer seats — and much, much better ones — with the number of women’s restroom stalls tripled and the number of men’s stalls doubled, and the concession stands greatly enhanced.

Attending University of Houston basketball games just became a decidedly more VIP experience. No wonder why super lawyer Rusty Hardin, longtime courtside Rockets season ticket holder and basketball fanatic, is in the building to check out the new digs.

“We don’t even have this in Toyota Center,” Fertitta cracks, looking around the plush club seating. “I’m going to have people who are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for tickets saying, ‘Do I need to go to the University of Houston to get great seating and better basketball?’ ”

Donald Trump, Tilman Fertitta is not.

This is a billionaire who is willing to make a joke at his own expense (and in this case, at the expense of his currently 9 and 11 NBA team too). But the one liners cannot hide how much pushing to deliver this building for UH means to Fertitta. Especially not from the people closest to him.

“It’s been amazing to see how much our father has cared about the University of Houston over the years,” his son Patrick Fertitta tells PaperCity in a quiet moment, before the pageantry, giant red scissors and flashing lights of the ceremony. “And to finally be able to put his impact and his lasting legacy on an arena like this, and to help the athletic program and the game of basketball, it’s all coming to a head.

“He considers himself an alumni of the school and he wants to continue to support UH. And his family will continue to support UH, hopefully for decades.”

“My dad loves UH,” Fertitta’s oldest son Michael says simply.

On this night, dedication night, Fertitta walks into the Fertitta Center, carrying a basketball. It happens to be an official NBA basketball, but when you also own the Houston Rockets, that’s understandable. Fertitta does not spend much time on the red carpet outside that stretches into the VIP Club Entry way.

He wants to get into the arena. In some ways, Fertitta wants to get to Saturday night when the UH men’s basketball team plays the inaugural game in the Fertitta Center against No. 18 Oregon.

“As far as I was concerned, we didn’t have to do tonight,” Fertitta says. “I even said just the opening game was fine to me. But the school wanted to do this tonight, so I’m here if I can be of service to my school.”

Joining the Hall

Fertitta gets inducted into the UH Athletics Hall of Honor on this ribbon cutting night too, joining such legendary Houston athletes as Hakeem Olajuwon and Carl Lewis. Then, he goes about trying to make sure the night is about almost everyone else in the building too.

He introduces his parents, Vic and Joy Fertitta, and notes how lucky he is that they’re still around to see him achieve moments like this. He insists on bringing all the Landry’s people who show up — including his longtime assistant Rhonda DePaulis, who’s been with him for more than 20 years — onto the gleaming court to take a picture, too. Rockets CEO Tad Brown and general manager Daryl Morey are lumped in with the Landry’s crowd for the photo, part of Tilman’s ever growing world.

“I think Tilman’s determined to take a picture with everyone in the building,” emcee Bill Worrell cracks at one point. “So come on down folks.”

That does not exactly hurry the billionaire along. The demonstration of Fertitta Center’s most high-tech feature — the fact that its entire court can turn into a high-definition 3D screen that stretches 94 feet and guarantees to give UH some of the most show-stopping pregame introductions in all of college basketball — will have to wait a few more minutes.

Fertitta Center court lights
The Fertitta Center court is quite the stage. (Photo by Chris Baldwin.)

But the most effective way that Fertitta shifts some of the focus away from him is that he conspires in surprising University of Houston president Renu Khator with the fact that she’s also being inducted into the UH Athletics Hall of Honor right along with him on this Thursday night.

As closely as Fertitta, as UH’s Board of Regents chairman, has worked with Khator in transforming Houston’s largest university, it’s a fitting two step, one that Khator seems genuinely caught off guard by.

This new $60 million on-campus arena is just the latest major move.

“I think it just shows the pride,” Khator tells PaperCity. “And I’m just so happy we can bring back the pride of the Phi Slama Jama days. I wasn’t here at that time, but people always remind me of what a glorious time we had and being here, it feels like it.

“I love the transformation.”

A Forever Fertitta Center

The new Fertitta Center has a red wall dedicated to Phi Slama Jama, those rollicking, high-flying, dunk happy Cougars teams of the early 1980s that captured America’s attention and contended for national championships with stars such as Hakeem, Clyde Drexler and Michael Young. Another curving red wall lists all of the UH players drafted by the NBA over the years.

While the past is honored, some of Tilman Fertitta’s fire comes out when he talks about the arena’s future.

“I promise you, they will not let the name change in 49 years,” Fertitta says after introducing his four kids. “It will still be the Fertitta Center.”

As Cougars past and present mill about — Drexler, Otis Birdsong (fresh off his induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame), golfer Steve Elkington (the greatest Jim Rome guest in history), football coach Major Applewhite (who takes the time to get into a suit with his season still going on and a bowl game announcement coming Sunday) and basketball coach Kelvin Sampson (who mostly hangs back, out of the spotlight, even though his program figures to benefit most from the new showcase building) included — it becomes clearer what this night is all about.

Tilman Fertitta’s pulled off a number of true showcase projects in the last few years — buying the Rockets for $2.2 billion, finally giving Houston a true showcase hotel with the opening of The Post Oak — but there is something decidedly different about this new state of the art UH arena.

Houston’s most famous billionaire, the guy who used to carry around his grandfather’s briefcase everywhere as a kid and tell everyone his “business” was in in there, is not going to make any money off the Fertitta Center.

“It’s rare that a guy like him puts this much capital investment into something that doesn’t have a return on investment,” Patrick Fertitta says.

For Tilman J. Fertitta, this one’s for the heart more than even the name.

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