WATERVILLE — The memories that waft through the rafters of the Gilman Street School gymnasium reflect finished products — such as the New England champion 1944 Waterville High School boys basketball team that called the old brick building home.
But today on the same court that produced such Purple Panther legends as Ted Shiro and Johnny “Swisher” Mitchell, the name of the game is developing the next generation of players.
Instead of the crowds that once flocked to the venerable facility — now a historical landmark — to watch the best high school players around, small groups of youngsters can now listen attentively to specialized instruction in hopes that some day they, too, may become local legends.
“Every time I talk to someone around here they have some kind of story about that gym, either playing there or having memories of watching someone play there,” said Lenny Homes, founder of the recently opened Gilman Street Basketball Club.
Most of the former schoolhouse, now known as the Gilman Place Building, has been converted to affordable housing apartments that were opened to the public this spring, but what to do with the gymnasium had been a lingering question.
Ultimately Holmes — a former Bangor Daily News All-Maine basketball player from Presque Isle during the early 1980s and a veteran high school and AAU coach — was convinced by developer Kevin Bunker to return the gym to its original mission as a basketball facility.
“Once I saw the work that had been put in to restore the building as much as they could, it appealed to me as a place where they should have basketball,” said Holmes, who had enjoyed a previous relationship with the Gilman Street site as the operator of a “Bounce Zone” indoor inflatable playground there before the building underwent its most recent restoration.
What evolved from Holmes’ interest is a fledgling training facility dedicated to helping players enhance their individual skills.
“One of the biggest problems in basketball is the lack of sustained training,” said Holmes, a former Maine and New England AAU basketball director who still oversees Maine Hoops AAU teams out of the Southern Maine SportsZone, a three-court facility he operates in Saco.
“Everyone is just playing games, or you can go to a weeklong camp where they offer great things but there’s no sustained follow-up with skill development after you get home.”
Holmes equates the Gilman Street Basketball Club to an exercise club where the targeted membership — in this case primarily players from third grade through high school age — may select from a variety of options.
Those options range from an open gym/fitness membership to personalized training opportunities and from leagues and weekly specialty clinics to “The Basketball Institute”, where players can take skills they have learned through drills and incorporate them into competition.
“Like at a fitness club where you can choose from a number of different classes, here we have a basketball club where you can become a member and choose from a number of basketball activities,” he said.
Also heavily involved in overseeing the Gilman Street site is Veazie native Tony Staffiere, a former men’s basketball coach at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and most recently an assistant women’s basketball coach at Colby College in Waterville who serves as director of operations and lead instructor.
He sees the club’s role as complementary to the existing school-based basketball programs.
“Lenny and I have a similar philosophy, that there’s a gap between the playing seasons for middle school and high school players that needs to be filled with instruction of the fundamentals and a lot of shooting,” said Staffiere. “I’ve felt a dire need to help players understand the value of the practice session, addressing things like shooting and ball handling, especially with the younger kids in grades 3, 4 and 5 because I’ve found that the kids who can handle the basketball at that age are the kids who are going to get the shots and are going to get better at those skills.
“There’s a need for kids to understand the importance of the practice in everything from the fundamentals to the mental part of the game.”
With a facility that includes a fitness area on a stage adjacent to the court as well as a lounge for club members equipped with an HD TV and video editing capabilities to analyze individual shooting techniques, Holmes sees the Gilman Street Basketball Club as an all-around training center that focuses on basketball, and envisions implementing what he describes as the “European training model.”
“There you identify players who want to make a little more commitment than the average player,” said Holmes, “and then you’re able to give more to those kids who want more.
“I want to address something that I believe, and it’s not just me but most everybody believes, that the level of skill development is lacking,” said Holmes. “I want this to be a total focus on player development rather than it being about playing games all the time.”
The ultimate success of the Gilman Street Basketball Club will depend on generating membership.
“The reaction has been quite positive so far,” said Holmes. “We hope to get 50 members in the first month, and we have 36 right now.
“Certainly we need to make a go of it financially, but it’s just so cool here because this place is so different than anywhere else. It just seemed like a great place to turn back into a basketball facility.”