A relic, a shrine, Hoop Heaven: a gym

What a coincidence!
I was in Maine visiting family last Saturday when the Middlebury basketball teams just happened to be in Lewiston to play against Bates College. So I decided to take in the men’s and women’s games (I actually watched Bates play Williams the night before, too).
Bates plays their basketball games in Alumni Gymnasium. Constructed in 1928, it’s the oldest New England college gym still hosting varsity basketball, and indeed one of the oldest such arenas in the country.
If Dr. Naismith wandered in to Alumni Gym today, he would say, “Yes, this is what I had in mind,” and John Wooden would nod affirmatively. It’s the Fenway Park of hoop. It’s the gym in the movie “Hoosiers” (which is actually at Butler University); it’s a trip back in time, a great place to watch a game.
It is right in the center of campus, a stone’s throw from the library and adjacent to the new dining hall. Its architecture is ’20s Collegiate Gothic, classical brick. The capacity is just 750 and it’s usually full of rabid Bobcat partisans.
The intimacy of the setting magnifies the intensity of the play. Spectators are at floor level, so close to the action (the bleachers on the sidelines only go up six or eight rows), they can hear every sneaker squeak, grunt, and muttered curse. The collisions, bodies flying, are immediate.
Opponents call it a “bandbox,” a “hothouse.” When Bowdoin or Colby come to town, it’s a madhouse.
It’s also where I learned to love the game. My basketball passion was born and nurtured in that place.
My earliest basketball memories are going to Bates games with my dad, sitting in the balcony behind the near basket. He and his faculty and staff cronies cheered lustily and pointedly corrected the many mistakes of the referees.
For a few years, my friend Bobby Lux, the son of the athletic director, and I were the basketball team’s “ball boys,” chasing errant balls during warm-ups, wiping wet spots from the floor, and generally being proud little factotums. We sat on the end of the bench with the players and wore jackets with a bobcat patch over the heart.
In high school, I often headed over to the Bates gym to shoot hoops, or ideally, to get in a game with the college boys. As I entered through a side door, I could immediately hear if there was some full court being played upstairs, by the distinctive thundering sound of the footfalls of the players, sprinting and jumping and cutting, and by the heated language of competition: “I got ‘im!” “Switch!” “Foul!” “SH*T!” Sometimes I managed to get in a game; sometimes it was “get lost, kid.”
I went off to Middlebury College and played on the basketball team here, but never had a chance to play a college game in Alumni Gym. Middlebury didn’t schedule the Maine teams until after I graduated.
After college, I lived for three years in Maine, teaching school only about 20 miles from Lewiston. I made friends with people my age at Bates, young staffers and some students. Alumni Gym became my second home. I could usually find a pick-up game now. Basketball was a staple of my social life.
I played for Fortunato’ Texaco in the Lewiston Adult Rec League with my high school pals and found my way on to an intramural hoop team at Bates. Our team was called the “Off-Campus All-Stars,” and we were a motley crew, but pretty good, too. Intramural basketball at Bates is like IM ice hockey at Middlebury, or was anyway — that is, a big deal.
We came in second in the A league, losing in the championship game. Our success prompted a young sports journalist, Bryant Gumbel, Bates ’70, to complain in the student newspaper that we didn’t belong in the league: The Bates’ associations of some of us were too tangential.
We did have Russ Reilly and he was legit: a recent Bates grad who was the athletic trainer and jayvee basketball coach. We also had professors from the History and English departments. The director of dining halls came off the bench.
Steve Johansson from Admissions brought the ball up and played the point. A few years later, he left Bates to come to Middlebury as the director of career services here. Russ’s college roommate was teaching school with me at the Kents Hill School. At Bates, he had been the football captain. He was a moose, with a feathery jumpshot.
Jimmy Taylor and I were the “ringers,” the so-called “faculty children.” Jimmy’s mother worked in the Registrar’s Office. A tall African-American, he had just returned from combat duty in Vietnam with the Marines. He still works at Bates in the athletic department as the equipment manager. The college boys wanted none of him. He got every rebound.
At the end of each game, we repaired to the Blue Goose Tavern for the obligatory post-mortems.
Alumni Gym at Bates College: a relic, a shrine, a storehouse of memories for me, all good.

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