Auditorium basketball passes into history

Applauded by Coach Jessica Witham (left) and greeted by other players and a manager, Orono Red Riot Katie Smith (30) takes the floor at the Bangor Auditorium prior to the Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 Class C girls' final against Calais. Watching Smith are teammates Jillian Woodward (50) and Elea Kass (34). The game marked the Red Riots' last appearance in a basketball game at the auditorium.
BDN Brian Swartz
Applauded by Coach Jessica Witham (left) and greeted by other players and a manager, Orono Red Riot Katie Smith (30) takes the floor at the Bangor Auditorium prior to the Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 Class C girls' final against Calais. Watching Smith are teammates Jillian Woodward (50) and Elea Kass (34). The game marked the Red Riots' last appearance in a basketball game at the auditorium.
Posted March 05, 2013, at 3:22 p.m.

By Brian Swartz

Weekly Staff Editor

High school basketball bade “farewell” to the Bangor Auditorium last Saturday night. I dropped by to catch a final game and think about all the excitement the sport has brought to the Mecca on the Hill since 1955.

The BDN Sport’s Desk has eloquently covered the athletics. Let me touch on the off-court color.

The bands

Most schools send bands to the tournament. Large bands and their associated student cheering sections can pack the assigned bleacher space; think “Nokomis.” Sometimes only a drummer, a bass player, and a few brass and woodwinds show up.

No matter its size, each band has one assignment: to make musical noise for the local team.

My on-site tournament memories date to February 1972, when Curvin “Chip” Farnham trucked the entire Brewer High School band to the Mecca. The No. 8 Witches — boys only, girls not deemed worthy of their own tournament in that era — played the No. 1 Bangor Rams that day.

Blatting “The Horse” and “Hawaii 5-0” loudly and enthusiastically, the Brewer band cheered on the Witches as they kept the game close. A classmate, William “Lucky” Webb,” scored a late two-pointer to give Brewer the win.

Radio talk

The Maine Public Broadcasting Network provides outstanding tournament TV coverage during the semi-finals and finals. Radio, however, carries tournament games deep into the hinterlands from the opening tip-off to the final buzzer.

Often perched along the railing separating the bleachers and wood-backed chairs, the radio folks blend into the partisan crowds. Two people typically “work” a game, with one handling the play-by-play and the other providing background information.

Some radio personalities are long associated with the tournament. In the 1960s and ’70s, Bangor’s dominant tournament “voice” was George Hale, usually broadcasting on a local AM station; similar under-powered AM stations broadcast games specific to local markets, and local fans knew their local announcers just by their voices.

The roof

Dripping water and suspended blue tarps secured legendary status for the auditorium’s inverted-V roof decades ago. Some Februarys, buckets proved more valuable than brooms out there on the hardwood.

But the roof had other issues. One night in the early 1990s, a tournament official and I stood talking beside the “away” team doors facing Buck Street. The Calais and Mattanawcook Academy girls played slam-bang basketball indoors while a nor’easter howled outdoors. The snow was swirling so much and so hard, I could not imagine the Calais fans driving home via Route 9.

Late in the second period, I brushed away the dust flitting onto my head and shoulders. More dust settled around us; suddenly that dust reflected the auditorium’s wretched fluorescent lights.

Snow was falling inside the Bangor Auditorium! Finding an opening somewhere high overhead, the nor’easter had decided the join in the tournament fun.

No, the game was not called on account of blizzard conditions, and the maintenance personnel did not swap their brooms for shovels at halftime.

Calais went on to win, but the Lynx played their hearts out — despite the dusting of snow in a far corner.

The wildlife

The Bangor Auditorium is not a wildlife sanctuary, but one critter created a brief reign of terror circa a February 1993 Class B game.

My son and I sat halfway between the bleachers and nosebleed seats to watch a nighttime game involving a John Bapst team.

A bat swooped past us.

Count Dracula was loose inside the Bangor Auditorium in midwinter!

The poor little critter flapped hither and yon over the Bapst fans, who pointed and ducked according to the bat’s trajectory. “Just watch this,” Chris muttered as the bat suddenly dive-bombed the auditorium floor, where a coach had called a timeout.

The Bapst cheerleaders lined along the press table and launched into a “rah-rah-sis-boom-bah” Crusader chant. The bat swept low over the cheerleaders; screeching on cue, they tossed their pompoms protectively over their heads and dove for cover.

The bat continued terrorizing the tourney crowd well into the next game. Chris and I shifted to the nosebleed seats on the “home” side and watched all the Draculian excitement.

Alas, the poor bat made a run at us, and a man sitting across the aisle snatched the would-be bloodsucker from midair, tossed it on a concrete step, and stomped it to death.

The food

No Eastern Maine basketball tournament would be replete without experiencing Bangor Auditorium hot dogs, pretzels and popcorn. I liked the popcorn, poured into large clear plastic bags and occasionally salted to death.

Then there were the liquid refreshments. Unlike the auditorium roof, which could leak at the first raindrop, the water coolers did not always provide cold water — or any water at all. And if the Food Court lines backed into the corridor during halftime, the auditorium soda machine might not always dispense soda (Pepsi most years, as I recall).

The ambiance

Dedicated tourney fans recall the auditorium’s other idiosyncrasies:

• Cold outdoors, cool indoors;

• Bitter cold outdoors, frigid in the main lobby and first-floor corridor;

• Warm outdoors (around the freezing mark), decidedly warm indoors;

• Poor acoustics. When the Central Aroostook and Washburn boys hammered each other late during their 2013 Class D semifinal, friends sitting three warm bodies apart in the bleachers conversed by shouting, not talking.

Over the decades, the only time that fans could hear a pin drop occurred when a player slammed into the floor — and did not get up.

The people

Despite the auditorium’s familiar industrial-grade concrete and steel, the Eastern Maine basketball tournament was always about the people. The faces change, but the categories stay the same:

• The players. Forty-one years ago, they looked so young, like me. Forty-one years later, they still look so young, and I don’t.

They still give every game all they’ve got.

• The refs. Seldom appreciated, these men and women still make the tough calls and catch the catcalls.

• The officials. If a tournament’s flawless production depended on the Maine Principals Association representatives, each February’s eight regular game days would flow perfectly. But Mother Nature or the Bangor Auditorium always tosses a monkey wrench on stage, but no fan can blame the MPA for a blizzard or a drippy roof.

• The fans. The partisan crowds brave inclement weather, messy roads and inside-the-auditorium traffic jams to cheer their favorite teams to victory. Boys who played here in the 1970s introduce their young grandkids to the tournament today; girls who first took the tournament floor in the 1980s now watch their youngest children pound up and down the floor.

Farewell to thee

So Bangor Auditorium basketball has passed into history. Next February, 48 high school teams will run onto the Cross Insurance Center floor for the first time in the first Eastern Maine Basketball Tournament to take place there. Most players will compare the new facility to the Mecca.

But not so the freshmen, for whom the Bangor Auditorium will not be a memory. For them, the CIC will live forever as the only place they played tournament basketball.

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