BANGOR, Maine — The Downeast Classic invitational college basketball tournament was held at the Bangor Auditorium for three years starting just after New Year’s in 1959. It was part of Bangor’s 125th anniversary celebration, according to a story in the Feb. 9, 1959, edition of Billboard magazine.
While it has been more than 50 years since the last one in late December 1960, the memories still linger.
“When I visited John Ingalls last year — we were roommates — the discussion always gets around to basketball,” said former University of Maine star Larry Schiner. “The Downeast Classic came up because it was a great experience for us.”
St. Michael’s College of Colchester, Vt., won the first one, but the Black Bears swept the last two. The tournaments consisted of eight college teams, including Maine, Bowdoin of Brunswick, Bates of Lewiston and Colby of Waterville. Four schools from outside the state completed the fields.
“Bates, Bowdoin and Colby were on the same level as us,” said Skip Chappelle, who also starred for the Black Bears when they won the second and third Downeast Classics. “We didn’t have any scholarships then, either.”
UMaine downed Colby in the final in the second Classic in late December 1959, and the Bears repeated in late December 1960. Maine’s victory in the third Classic was the most memorable.
“We beat Boston University in the first game, Cornell in the second and Rhode Island 69-65 in front of a packed house [in the championship game],” said Schiner. “It was a hell of a basketball game.”
According to former UMaine Sports Information Director Stu Haskell’s “The Maine Book,” which covers UMaine athletics from 1881 through 2007, the Black Bears’ victory over Rhode Island was witnessed by more than 6,000 fans.
“We always enjoyed great fan support,” said Schiner.
Schiner remembers the turning point being a defensive change by Maine to stop URI scorer Charlie Lee.
“I think we went to a box-and-one,” said Schiner, “and I was given the challenge to play him. I didn’t stop him completely, but I did fairly well.”
Rhode Island was no slouch that year, earning the school’s first trip to the NCAA Division I tournament.
Even at his class’s 50th reunion, Schiner said talk of the tournament came up again.
“It was one of our favorite events,” said Schiner, who later became coach at Brewer High School and faced Bangor High and John Bapst of Bangor at the Auditorium, which was the home site for both programs.
Chappelle’s memories of the tournaments are also strong, and he’s helping set up an opportunity this weekend for past Eastern Maine basketball tournament participants to relive their moments at the Auditorium and give the general public a chance to make their own memories by putting up a few shots from the Auditorium floor. It will be part of the activity surrounding the 57-year-old institution’s final months before it’s torn down later this year and replaced by the Cross Insurance Center next door.
The Final Buzzer Shoot Around, sponsored by the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame and a fundraiser for the organization, will cover two days.
The Saturday Last Shot Shoot Around will be for teams, players, coaches and officials who participated or were eligible to participate in the Eastern Maine basketball tournaments. Western Maine teams or players who competed in state-championship games at the Auditorium are also invited.
The day will be split into three eras. The first is for players from 1956 through 1974 from 9:30 a.m. until noon; the second session (noon-2:30 p.m.) is for players from 1975-2000, and the third session (2:30 p.m.-5 p.m.) is for players from 2001-2012.
The structure for the sessions will be a little loose, allowing for some low-impact competitive events such as H-O-R-S-E, around the world and pickle ball, according to Bill Burney, a member of the organizing committee who still holds the Eastern Maine Class A tournament single-game scoring record of 53 points for Cony of Augusta in 1969.
The fee is $20 per participant with souvenir T-shirts to the first 600 players. For $35, a participant also will receive a charter membership in the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame. The fee is $5 per spectator, $10 for a family.
There also are plans for a women’s alumni game at 5:30 p.m. and a men’s alumni game at 7:30 p.m. if there is enough interest.
The Sunday Shoot Around will be open from noon to 4 p.m. to any member of the public who wants to wander the Auditorium or take a few shots. The ticket price is $5 a person or $10 for a family. A student wearing his or her high school or club team jersey gets in for free.
Online preregistration (at www.mainebasketballhalloffame.com) is recommended, especially for Saturday, but not required, and all fees will be collected at the door.
Chappelle is also one of the people spearheading the establishment of a permanent home for the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame at the Cross Insurance Center. Memorabilia that may be exhibited in the Hall of Fame will be on display at the Auditorium during the Shoot Around.