Clippings: Empty town gym is full of memories

Years ago, long before the plan surfaced to replace 94 Main St. with new downtown Middlebury town offices and a new Creek Road gym and recreation center at a bargain basement price, I wrote a column here about my undying affection for the old municipal gym. In it, I concluded I at least wanted a souvenir brick from that battered old barn when it got torn down.
It’s no exaggeration to say that place has been my home away from my several homes in Middlebury over the years — almost a dozen apartments, one condo and two houses since 1978, when I settled here for better or worse.
I probably spent more time in that gym than in some of those apartments. Let’s figure two or three times a week for most of those 38 years, at an hour or two a clip, counting pickup basketball, playing in and refereeing in the basketball league I founded, playing pickup and league volleyball for several years, and coaching elementary school basketball for four years. Call it about four hours a week for 50 weeks for 38 years.
That’s 7,600 hours. A year is 8,760 hours. It could easily be that much time, a year, I have happily spent living within those four walls.
When one former town manager closed it in the summer, I snuck in through unlocked windows — I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired. When another manager wanted to close it in the winter to save money, I protested before the selectboard. Other towns would have given an arm and a leg to give their citizens what that gym offered year-round — ask the folks in Bristol.
That is the larger point: I am just one of many who enjoyed that place. I recall some of my story because community recreation gives people like me so many opportunities.
The Middlebury gym has hosted aerobics and Zumba classes, teen dances, gymnastics courses, St. Mary’s School recesses, youth football registration and equipment handouts, AAU and adult three-on-three basketball tournaments … the list of fitness, friendship and community goes on and on.
A former hockey player, I learned how to play basketball in that gym (and in the Middlebury College gym), just playing pickup. I founded the Middlebury Basketball League there because I wasn’t good enough to get on a team in the Bristol league, which used to have a quota on players living out of the Mount Abraham school district. That meant teams brought in ringers, not short guards with so-so skills.
The Middleburyleague lasted the better part of three decades, in part because we got sponsors to help pay for officials. We got sponsors because we got publicity. We got publicity because I wrote about the league for this newspaper. I got my job here when there was an opening because of those articles on the league. One could argue the gym helped start me on the right career path.
Back before I told anyone I planned to start the league, I asked the best player around, Peter Quinn, if he would play on my team, and he said yes. Other talented, unselfish players who liked to play defense then also signed on, and we won a few titles and had a good time. So did other teams, from Bristol, Orwell, all over the county, with athletes from all over the Champlain Valley.
Meanwhile, pickup hoop continued to bring together kids and graybeards, lawyers and carpenters, the skilled and less so. Unlike gyms around the world, winning teams didn’t automatically stay on. Those who sat always had next. Teams were chosen at random (well, at least by those who hit free throws and by what order they showed up that night and wandered up to the free-throw line). It was democracy in action. In later years, I ran the Wednesday night pickup game to make sure it stayed alive.
Then there was volleyball, always co-ed, and with one notable exception largely free of gender bias. In pickup the one group of guys who were happy to finally get on a team “with no broads” were thumped several games in a row by a co-ed group I was happy to play on. Those guys didn’t return. For a few years there was also a terrific, competitive co-ed league.
I’ve always believed it is remarkable what teams can accomplish when everyone trusts their teammates. That remains one of the great lessons of sports, and the major one that I tried to teach the kids on the Lavender Leopards and Pink Panthers. Those were among the names we coaches let the elementary-school-age girls choose for their basketball teams, based in that old gym that once hosted the Middlebury High School team.
The kids have probably all but forgotten those years, but I hope they still remember to have faith in their teammates, treat them well no matter what, and watch both the ball and their girls on defense.
Soon the gym — with fiberglass backboards at both ends, two wooden ones on each side wall in front of the towering windows, and the stage at the south end, usually packed with gymnastic mats and equipment — will be filled with stuff to be auctioned off from the old town offices. The bleachers, even the nicer new ones that replaced the old folding ones that took three or four people to move and permanently scratched the floors, are gone. The place stands bare to the walls.
Despite my love for the gym, tearing it and the town offices down and replacing them with the new buildings was the smart thing to do. It was not worth the huge investment it would take to fix up the aging, unattractive, inefficient structures, especially with the substantial college support for the new buildings. It closed to the public for the last time this past weekend.
I did get to say goodbye. Bryan Jones, who took over running pickup hoop a couple years back, organized a chance for a few of us to play basketball one last time this past Saturday. I quit the sport about a year ago to protect a balky shoulder. A half-dozen of us, including Peter Quinn and Greg Borah, one of Peter’s and my favorite pickup hoop teammates, played three-on-three. Peter, like me, does not play much basketball any more due to injuries, but came out of retirement for the occasion.
We changed the teams every game. In the final one, Peter and Greg and I played together. We set picks, moved the ball, and hit a half-dozen straight shots to end the afternoon. Peter, fittingly, nailed a foul-line jumper that will stand as the last competitive basket sunk in the old gym.
I think I’ll skip the auction. Who needs a brick, anyway?
All those memories are enough.

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