I hadn't forgotten, but the event had been tucked away in one of my brain's little-used drawers. However, when my wife and I moved to Bluffton, SC, we had to collect, sort and pack a bunch stuff I hadn't looked at in years. Stuff like this newspaper photo (below) ... which was taken that awful night.
That's me in the dark uniform, looking for an exit. I was on the Solvay High School basketball team that entered the Twilight Zone in Binghamton, NY, in December, 1953, to play that city's Central High. I didn't know anything about Binghamton Central until after we arrived. By the end of the game I knew too much. The learning process was painful.
Several things about this game can be used to cite differences between the past and the present. For one thing, today high school sports gets much more coverage. In 2011 we would have been familiar with Binghamton Central and its star players. We probably would have seen them play on cable TV. Basketball "experts" would have rated any highly recruited Binghamton players.
Though Binghamton back in the '50s didn't mind putting a cupcake or two on its December schedule, especially for its homecoming game during Christmas vacation, it's unlikely Solvay would be selected anymore. My school is smaller now, its sports classification lowered. Also, high schools, like colleges, have holiday tournaments over Christmas vacation. Solvay most likely would be playing more appropriate opponents, perhaps on their homecourt.
Today a shot clock would prevent us from employing the strategy our coach, Bob Demperio, outlined seconds before tip-off when he instructed us to freeze the ball, pass it around, stuff it under our shirts, deflate it, do anything with it except shoot – unless a can't miss opportunity presented itself. (I'm surprised he didn't order us to face the crowd and shout, "We who are about to get slaughtered salute you.")
INCREDIBLY, three of our starters had played Binghamton Central the year before. Those of us who had been on the junior varsity somehow were blithely unaware that game ever happened. It wasn't mentioned in the yearbook, though that game was respectable, Solvay losing, 73-57.
That none of those three players talked about the game was puzzling. So was the fact our coach didn't attempt to prepare us for Binghamton Central until the game was about to start. However, I believe there was a good reason my teammates had selective amnesia about Binghamton, and I'll soon get to it.
Our effort to "control the tempo" (as they say) wilted under the boos of disgruntled Binghamton fans. At the four-minute mark of the first quarter the score was tied, 4-4. Over the next 28 minutes they outscored us, 95-45. Yes, we lost by 50 points.
FROM AN HISTORICAL perspective, what is most interesting about the game, and what it says about the era in which it was played, was the venue – Kalurah Temple. It was an old building that would not be used by Binghamton Central after that season. I think it had been built as a theater; whatever its original purpose, it was designed for anything but basketball. Yet when we climbed a flight of stairs to the main room, we found a court laid out between two rows of bleachers squeezed beneath pillared balconies on both sides. High above center court loomed a huge, intimidating chandelier that could come crashing down on us. I believe the place was haunted by The Phantom of the Kalurah.
Team benches – maybe they were folding chairs – were behind one of the baskets, on a stage, four feet off the court. Entering the game proved a test of agility. Leaving the game and returning to those seats was an even greater challenge, especially if you were fatigued.
The dressing room was more like a janitor's closet, cramped and unpleasant. We were initially unaware that players from both teams would shower together under one — count 'em, one — shower head. It had the force of Chinese water torture, a final insult.
So it's no wonder three teammates couldn't recall being there previously. If there had been no photographer at the game to record my presence, perhaps I'd have been able to forget it, too.
TEENS WHO played the sport in the 1950s may have been the last generation to experience both the horror and the humor of playing on outlandish courts in buildings where basketball clearly was an afterthought, often an inconvenience. Recently I came upon an old newspaper article that mentioned a basketball game played at my elementary school soon after it was built. That building had a room that doubled as a gymnasium and auditorium. It was maybe 50 feet long. When I was a student there, in the 1940s, there was only one basket, and the ceiling so low that it blocked more shots in one game than Bill Russell did in a season.
But that court was a pleasure compared with one at a parochial middle school in Syracuse. I played there twice with Solvay's Eighth Grade team. Two baskets had been set up over a sloping floor in another one of those auditorium-gymnasium combos. The basket at one end was about nine feet off the floor, the basket at the other end was higher than the regulation ten feet. Oddly, the baskets were level with each other. The floor was better suited for skateboarding. Shooting was difficult at both ends. As I recall, it was more difficult shooting uphill than down, though dribbling was more of a problem downhill. There were more turnovers than points.
Our Solvay Tigers youth team played in a league at the Syracuse Boy's Club where we were relegated to a court in what appeared to be a sub-basement. Originally it must have been a handball court – or a bomb shelter. There was little ventillation and lots of odor – stench might be a better word. Years later when a co-worker recalled naval service aboard a submarine and described the smell, I likened it to basement basketball at the Boy's Club.
(My father went me one better. He played for Solvay High back around 1920 and recalled baskets set up in rooms heated by a stove at midcourt. One objective was to back opponents into those hot stoves on your way downcourt.)
AT SOLVAY'S first high school there was no basketball court. It did have a basement gymnasium that was smaller than the upstairs classrooms. My father's high school teams played home games in a facility at the Solvay Process Company.
Solvay's second high school had the shortest basketball court in the league. The out-of-bounds line at either end ran along walls padded with thin mats. Spectators stood in the corners and were often in-bounds. There actually were two ten-second lines, both a few feet behind the foul lines. This enabled the team with the ball to use about three-quarters of the court to set up its plays.
There was seating for maybe 400 people, but many more were crammed in for every game. When things got exciting the noise was incredible because the room seemed to be constructed in such a way that sound reverberated for several seconds, turning the place into an echo chamber. In my junior year we entered the final minute of a game against North Syracuse trailing 58-53. Lance Baker, one of our guards, threw in a one-handed shot from way out, then we rebounded a North Syracuse miss and Baker made another long shot, bringing us within a point. I don't recall how we got possession again, but with time expiring Baker made a running one-handed from half-court. The noise was deafening and we ran to our dressing room thinking we had won, 59-58. We didn't know for a minute or so that a whistle had blown and that Baker was called for traveling. (A bum call, by the way.) I think we clearly had the noisiest facility in the league.
Syracuse Central High School played basketball on the stage of its auditorium. One of Solvay's biggest games during the 1951-52 season was when it attempted – successfully, it turned out – to extend its undefeated streak during the Section III playoffs. While Solvay did beat Central during these playoffs, I think their opponent at the Central gymnasium was then-arch rival Camillus (now West Genesee). It was one of the strangest games I had ever seen because the players seemed a mile away. From some seats in the auditorium you couldn't see the entire court.
SEVERAL SYRACUSE teams, including the Syracuse Nationals of the National Basketball Association, played at least a few games downtown at the Jefferson Street Armory, a cavernous facility which went on forever beyond one of the baskets, which created perspective problems for several players. It was like playing in an airplane hangar.
The Nats also used the State Fairgrounds Coliseum, an all-purpose facility that also hosted horse shows. That, too, could be an uncomfortable venue because everything was temporary. Syracuse fans were known for jiggling the portable basket stanchions when opponents took shots. When your favorite team was losing you almost expected the cavalry would come riding to the rescue.
East Syracuse High School, before it was consolidated with Minoa, had a court even narrower than Solvay's, though I think it was a few feet longer. Bleachers on both sides were set up under overhangs from the second floor. The only area that was two stories high was over the basketball court, just like at Solvay High. Only East Syracuse's gym wasn't well lit. It was a dark, mysterious place to play. The school should have nicknamed its basketball team The Vampires.
Liverpool High School's gymnasium presented a unique obstacle. It was the only place in our league that featured fan-shaped backboards, and I believe they were metal, which took some getting used to. The one nice thing about playing at Solvay was the wooden backboards that gave what I considered a true bounce. You might have felt cramped in the Solvay gym, but shooters liked it. Liverpool was just the opposite. I really hated playing there.
North Syracuse's old gymnasium put the basketball court in a pit. Spectators sat one story above you. During my senior year we enjoyed what I regard as our Manley Field House moment. Syracuse University fans still bristle about former Georgetown coach John Thompson's remark after they beat the Orange in the last game played at Manley when he said the place was now officially closed. Well, we were the opponent in the last game played at the old North Syracuse gymnasium, and we won.
BY THEN, however, the future had come into view. North Syracuse wasn't the only area building a new high school. They were popping up all over. Basketball courts were becoming standardized, all gymnasiums began to look alike. Soon everyone would have glass backboards, a difficult adjustment for anyone used to wood.
One of our league opponents, Fayetteville, merged with Manlius High School, and for awhile – probably while their new facility was being built – played home games at the Manlius Military School gymnasium where, legend has it, a mistake was made in the measurements. It had — or appeared to have — the longest basketball court ever made. Even a player in superb shape was winded after sprinting back and forth a couple of times.
When my senior season ended, three of us from Solvay were selected for a Syracuse-area team to play in a charity tournament. We practiced at the Manlius gymnasium. It was so gruelling that one of the Solvay boys didn't return for the second practice. Pete Lefevre and I hung in there and Don Blaich, who coached at Christian Brothers Academy at Syracuse, whipped us into the best shape of our lives. (When LeFevre signed my yearbook a few weeks later he said, "I was worred for awhile that Blaich might kill us.")
No such surprises greet today's kids. Now we have cookie-cutter courts. To invoke a sports cliche — the playing field has been leveled. Which may be a good thing in basketball. It's no fun dribbling uphill ... or down. I speak from experience.