BANGOR, Maine — It’s the must-play destination for high school basketball players throughout northern and eastern Maine, that special court that’s targeted from the first day of pre-season practice as the place memories are made.
“The Cross Insurance Center during tournament time is a great atmosphere,” said Hermon High School junior Keenan Marseille. “The big court and the bright lights gets a player like me very excited to play and perform.”
This year marks the fourth in which the Cross Center will host the Class B, C and D North tournament. It’s also the first season in which no participating seniors have played at the Bangor Auditorium, the former site.
“I didn’t play on the old Auditorium floor, but the Cross Center is amazing to play at,” said Rylee Warman, a senior captain for the two-time defending state champion Houlton girls. “There is nothing like the crowd at the Cross Center and it gets so loud on the floor. It feels like a mini TD Garden [home of the NBA’s Boston Celtics].”
Others left the nearly 60-year-old barn on Dutton Street behind — after Penquis Valley of Milo defeated Boothbay in the 2013 Class C boys state final — with memories of days gone by and an occasional tinge of sadness. The Cross Insurance Center stands only a few feet from where the Bangor Auditorium carved out its own niche as a basketball mecca.
“I think the first year everyone was concerned about the atmosphere and how loud the place was going to be,” said Rene Cloukey, the longtime sports director at WAGM-TV in Presque Isle. “I think since then you’ve really noticed the atmosphere build up with some of the games we’ve had and the huge crowds we’ve had there.”
The Cross Center, Cloukey said, has developed its own identity and provides an exciting basketball environment.
“Some people talk about, ‘I remember when at the Auditorium…,’ they remember the good old days,” he explained, “but I think everyone is now just saying this is a great new building, so let’s take in this environment and enjoy the seats and enjoy the games.”
Seating is one of the biggest differences between the two buildings. The Bangor Auditorium featured wooden bleachers and wood-backed seats, while the Cross Center has more than 5,000 padded, theater-style seats.
“The seats are comfortable, the air is clean, the roof doesn’t leak, it’s temperature-controlled, the lighting is good,” said Jerry Goss of Brewer who, with Allen Snell, serves as co-director of the tournament for the Maine Principals’ Association. “Those were the things that people focused on once they started coming here, the improved atmosphere of this facility.”
At the Bangor Auditorium, players often had to wait their turn for locker-room time and space. The Cross Center has enough locker rooms to serve all four teams during a typical, two-game session.
“The amenities are just so much better,” said Jason Coleman, a player during the Bangor Auditorium days and now the boys coach at Orono, which has played seven tournament games at the Cross Center in the last three years.
“We have our own locker rooms that are functional, so now pregame the kids can get there early and have space to relax without being right on top of people,” Coleman said.
Goss also appreciates the additional space now available for tournament officials, game officials and others involved with ensuring a smooth flow from game to game and day to day during tourney week.
“What we tried to do in moving from the old Auditorium to the Cross Center was to keep the basic physical setup, as close as we could, to the same,” he said. “That first year we had it pretty well set up and really didn’t find many glitches, and the relation between the MPA and the Cross Center officials has been remarkable.”
One significant difference between the two arenas is the location of the fans. At the Bangor Auditorium, front-row fans could almost tap the coach in front of them and offer suggestions. Subsequent rows of patrons seemingly went straight up to the highest point of the V-roofed edifice.
At the Cross Center, front-row fans are farther away from the court and the slope of subsequent rows is more gradual, perhaps dispersing the din of the crowd more.
“The Cross Center is like going to a movie. The seats are comfortable and it’s quiet. You could almost fall asleep in there,” said Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook girls coach Cliff Urquhart.
“The Auditorium was louder,” he said. “There was a lot of excitement. There were nooks and crannies everywhere. The Cross Center is a state-of-the-art facility but it’s going to take a while to build that history, to build those experiences. People will look at it differently 10 to 15 years from now.”
Coleman and others believe that transition already is underway, noting in particular the large crowds that have energized the Class B regional tournaments the last two winters.
“Our (semifinal) game last year against Old Town was pretty impressive,” said Coleman. “The place was sold out. You had Ellsworth and Caribou right before us and it was the first-ever Orono-Old Town postseason game.”
The bands of participating schools sit side by side at one end of the court during games, whereas they were positioned on opposite sides of the court at the Bangor Auditorium.
Nostalgia for the Bangor Auditorium and its unique imperfections still lingers, particularly for those who made basketball memories there.
“The Cross Center is a beautiful facility but it isn’t like the mecca,” said longtime girls basketball coach John Donato, who is now at Lawrence High in Fairfield. “When I was at Houlton, when you went on that floor you felt like you were in a different world. All the memories from the games and the championships we won there will last a lifetime. The sound and roar of the crowd. You felt like you were on a stage in Hollywood. The dead spots on the floor. The lighting. It’s something you’ll never replace.”
Those involved in the tournament now say the new building is merely modernizing the memories of a new generation.
“I enjoyed the old one a lot, but the first day I came into this building I was really impressed,” said John Rogers, athletic administrator at Woodland High School and the sports editor of two Down East weekly newspapers, the Calais Advertiser and Machias Valley News Observer. “The City of Bangor (built) a fabulous, fabulous facility for this sized community and for this part of the state.
“Right now it’s obvious to me that it’s the premier civic center in the state.”