BANGOR, Maine — Their bus was waiting to take them back to a state championship celebration in Milo, but Trevor Lyford and Jason Mills couldn’t help themselves.
Instead of exiting one of the Bangor Auditorium’s back doors late Saturday night, the star forward from Penquis Valley High School and the Patriots’ assistant coach took a right turn and stepped back onto the storied basketball court one last time after participating in the final tournament game to be played at the 58-year-old facility.
There Lyford and Mills took out their cellphone cameras and clicked off a few more pictures of the place where a half-hour earlier they helped craft perhaps the sporting memory of their lifetimes, as well as the scoreboard that still reflected their team’s 61-54 victory over Boothbay in the Class C state final.
The place was otherwise empty save for workers cleaning up the bleachers and a television crew breaking down its equipment.
But through those pictures — or even merely the closing of one’s eyes — the echos of generations of thrilling basketball moments were as loud as any standing-room-only crowd.
“The Auditorium’s been amazing,” said Lyford earlier in the week while anticipating his chance to close down the home of Eastern Maine tournament basketball since 1956. “I remember going there when I was about three feet tall to watch my cousin [Michael Weston] play. [Penquis] ended up playing Boothbay over in Augusta in the state final [in 2000] and I’ve watched that tape about a thousand times, so to be able to play Boothbay for a state championship in itself is amazing but to be the last game in the Auditorium is something nobody on this team is going to forget.”
The Penquis-Boothbay game was the last of four state finals played on the final day of tournament basketball at the aging edifice, which is due to be torn down this spring and replaced in September by the Cross Insurance Center now under construction just a few feet away between the Auditorium and the Paul Bunyan statue.
For fans such as Bill Greenlaw of Calais, Saturday marked one final chance to cheer on the home team — in his case the Blue Devils’ girls basketball squad — at a venue that’s become a home away from home for thousands of like-minded individuals and families during late February and early March over the years.
Greenlaw has called Seat 7 in the top row of the Auditorium’s second level of seating his home come tournament time for the last 28 winters.
“The best word I can think of this place is that it’s intimate,” he said. “It’s not like the Augusta Civic Center, which is a long ways from the court. Here you can reach out and touch, it’s almost like a flat-screen TV with the crowd all around you. I can’t imagine there’s any other place like this anywhere else.”
And while there were few signs of sentimentality as this year’s tournament and the more permanent relationship between this annual rite of Eastern Maine winter and its home for more than a half-century wound down, there was some finality in the air.
An occasional sign thanking the building for its service was displayed in the crowd, and a brief ceremony was held just before Saturday night’s Class C doubleheader during which the sponsors of the tournament, the Maine Principals’ Association, thanked city leaders for the long-standing relationship between the tournament and the Auditorium — an acknowledgement that prompted a standing ovation from the fans.
“There’s no question this is the greatest environment for high school sports in the state of Maine,” said MPA executive director Dick Durost shortly before the ceremony. “It’s an old, tired building but it’s so different from any other facility we use for any other sport.
“For all these years from 1956 to now in Eastern Maine where high school basketball is different than anywhere else — with no disrespect to any other part of the state,” Durost said, “this facility has been a part of that along with the coaches, the players, the officials, the communities and the school administrators all coming together to enjoy the greatest environment for high school basketball that we have.
“This is my favorite week of the year, and this is my favorite place to be during my favorite week of the year,” Durost said.
But largely the observance of the Auditorium’s last stand as a shrine to Maine high school basketball was more subtle.
Not long after the state’s basketball commissioner, Peter Webb, arrived for the day about 7:15 a.m., he noticed a small group of people that had arrived — odd only because the game’s first basketball game was not scheduled to begin until 1 p.m.
“It was a dad from Ashland, his daughter and a friend from Ashland,” said Webb. “The dad had had two other daughters play here but his other one is in seventh grade and won’t get the chance to play here.
“So she spoke to Mr. (Bass Park general manager Mike) Dyer yesterday and at 8 a.m. today they were in here for 40 minutes so she could shoot on this floor, and I noticed that the dad was shooting and the friend did as well,” Webb said. “That tells you a little bit about the attraction of this building.”
Cameras also seemed in greater evidence during the day, with pictures of the surroundings being taken or folks asking friends or other high school basketball comrades to take pictures of them in the Auditorium on what they considered an historic occasion.
“I just think everybody has something in common when they come here; it’s high school basketball,” said Jamie Russell, the boys varsity basketball coach at Piscataquis of Guilford and a Maine high school basketball historian. “I think high school basketball is deteriorating and losing its fan base and the number of kids who are participating, but this is the one place where it still has a pulse. It’s where you get to see the coaches and past players, and with everything that’s part of the tournament here from the ladies who greet you when you come in the back door to the press, this place makes you feel like it’s still important.”
Perhaps the most prevalent aspect of the day’s unofficial tribute to the building known best for its unique V-shaped roof designed to reduce heating costs was the rekindling of the many memorable moments this arena has hosted, as well as a slight sense of impending loss for what will be missed when what often is described as “the old barn” is replaced by its state-of-the-art successor.
“I love this place,” said Tim Brewer, who won one Class D state championship as a player for Central Aroostook of Mars Hill in 1994 and since then has guided his team to four more state titles and five Eastern Maine crowns as the boys varsity basketball coach at his alma mater for the last 13 years. “The atmosphere is what everybody is going to miss and hope that the new building will retain, but I don’t think this atmosphere is ever going to be duplicated.
“The fans here feel like they’re right on top of the court. It has a home-gym feeling and there’s no delay on the noise, it’s right there,” Brewer said. “Hopefully I’ll be able to coach a few games in the new place and I’ll like that place, too. Change is usually for the good and facility-wise it’s probably time for a change, but I think everybody is going to miss this atmosphere.”
For teams that are regular participants in the Eastern Maine tournament like the Central Aroostook boys and the Washburn girls — who are 11-0 in the Auditorium while winning the last three Class D state championships — their familiarity with virtually everything about the place, from its occasionally leaky roof to the dead spots on the basketball court, has supplied a level of comfort to the pressures of postseason competition.
“I miss playing on this floor already,” said Washburn junior forward Carsyn Koch just moments after her team defeated Richmond 75-55 in Saturday afternoon’s state final. “But I’m looking forward to something new and I’m looking forward to making new memories. It’s not always bad to make new memories, and in the new building we’ll be able to see the new locker rooms and make new memories and meet new teams and meet new people, so I’ll miss it here but I’m looking forward to the new auditorium at the same time.”
And so as this year’s tournament now becomes its own chapter in the history of Maine high school basketball, the transition begins.
“The older I get the more I reflect on the roughly 50 years I’ve been coming here, and for me it’s not about individual memories, it’s about the experience of being here,” said Durost, who attended tournaments at the Auditorium as a player, coach, official, sportswriter and school administrator before taking his current post at the MPA 12 years ago.
“At the same time I look forward to the new facility next year. Everything I’ve seen and heard about it is that it’s going to be a great place,” Durost said. “We’re closing out the memories here [Saturday night] but next year we start a whole new year of memories, and there will be 11-year-old kids coming to the the tournament for the first time next year for whom 50 years from now somebody will be having this same conversation about what a special place the new facility is.”