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A brief history of NCAA tournament courts, and how they’re built

Go cradle to grave with how the NCAA tournament gets its playing surfaces.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Preview Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend in both Dallas and Glendale, Arizona you’ll see the culmination of five months of work gracing your television screen. Sure, it’s the players shooting dunking and defending but it’s also the wood under their feet. These are the Final Four courts in all their splendor.

Remember those generic black NCAA tournament courts?

For forever, the NCAA didn’t do much with its courts for the tournament’s earlier rounds. They kept whatever sites they had with their own distinct flavor.

Then for a few years, the NCAA went with generic black courts at both the first and second round sites, as well as the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight sites.

It wasn’t an awesome experience for viewers and the generic look, while clean and branded, was boring and didn’t really differentiate from site to site save the text on the baseline.

Then in 2016, the NCAA announced that they would unveil customized courts for the first and second rounds, as well as the First Four to give the early tourney a distinct look.

The regional semifinal and final sites also got their own looks in addition to the Final Four court which has always had a distinct look.

The company behind getting these courts to where they need to go is called Connor Sports.

The Final Four courts you’ll see this week are two of 12 new courts that Connor Sports will build, paint, ship, and assemble on-site for the NCAA tournament. They’ve had the partnership with the NCAA for 12 years, and currently make four regional final courts for each tournament in addition to the Final Four courts, as well as two courts for the fan experiences called bracket town.

The new first and second round courts for the men’s tournament simply get stored and re-used each year with a decal to denote the city. The first and second rounds of the women’s tournament are played at on-campus sites and don’t get an NCAA makeover.

SB Nation spoke with Gary Gray, a portable sales manager for Connor Sports, who said things start in the fall with the design process.

“We’ve been doing this for 12 years now, Gray said. “The black courts was what was specified by the NCAA that’s what they wanted. But then just two years ago they changed and wanted to brand each city differently to have a different look cuz everyone was turning on the television and they’d see the black and the blue disk but you really didn’t have an identity of where that actually was.”

The actual design work is done by the NCAA, but Connor Sports will supply paint samples and a mock-up of the court for final approval before getting to work.

Production on the courts begins in October or November, with the actual building of the courts. The wood comes from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and by January it’s time to paint and finish the courts for March delivery.

“[I]t takes us about a week to build the raw courts,” Gray said. “Then we send to a finishing facility and then to finish those courts ... it’s usually about eight guys then two or four to do the painting and finishing so that process takes another three weeks.”

To save on shipping costs, Connor Sports has regional locations. Tournament courts in the South go to Tennessee to be finished and in the Midwest they go to Ohio. The men’s Final Four court, and other tournament sites on the western seaboard head to Idaho to be finished before being sent to their final playing destination.

Once the court is on-site, it takes three to four hours to put together like a jigsaw puzzle ...

... and viola, you’ve got a fancy basketball court to decide a national champion on.

After the title’s decided, to the victor goes the spoils.

Florida bought the 2006 court they won the title on in 2006, unveiling it for fans at the championship celebration days later. The Gators re-painted it, and played on the championship wood in subsequent seasons. When they repeated in 2007, UF bought that court too. The actual midcourt section from Atlanta hangs in the school’s practice facility along with replica versions of the other three Final Four midcourt logo which the school has participated in.

Duke chopped theirs up and sold it to fans in 2015, and the practice of reusing Final Four courts goes way back.

The oldest Final Four floor still in use? It might be the one from 1974, when North Carolina State and David Thompson defeated UCLA and Marquette for the title. The court is used by Greensboro Coliseum for high school, AAU and other amateur events.

In addition to the NCAA tournament, Connor Sports supplies courts for multiple college and pro teams and also produces indoor track and field surfaces. But they’re most notable for supplying the stage for college basketball’s grandest spectacle.