BANGOR, Maine — The small-town high school gymnasiums of the mid-1950s were a quirky lot.

When sophomore guard Ron Marks and his Besse High School of Albion teammates trekked to nearby Unity for a game during the 1955-56 season, they played on a basketball court housed in a Quonset hut.

Other games were played in gyms located in town halls, one with an overhanging balcony that didn’t allow for shooting in the corners, another with a working wood stove barely out of play.

Courts of that era often weren’t regulation size, either. Many had virtually no room out of bounds — players inbounding the ball had to keep one foot against the wall behind them.

So when Marks and the rest of the Besse Owls arrived at the brand new Bangor Auditorium to play their 1956 Class S tournament opener against Easton, the enormity of the facility — built for $1.7 million and originally designed to seat 7,200 basketball fans — was a bit overwhelming.

“Like everyone else who goes there to play for the first time, you’re kind of in awe,” said Marks. “It was so much bigger than the other gyms we played in, and the baskets were so far from the walls.”

Besse lost that game, and while Marks never made it back to the Bangor Auditorium as a player he made a triumphant return as a coach in 1967 when he guided Sherman High School to the Class S state title.

“Basketball meant a lot to those small towns,” said Marks, who later coached at Katahdin of Stacyville, Foxcroft Academy and Schenck of East Millinocket. “And it was important for the townspeople to go to the Bangor Auditorium to support their teams.”

More than five decades later that hasn’t changed, though Tourney Week 2013 will mark the final chance for basketball fans to experience the uniqueness of the Bangor Auditorium before it is replaced this fall by the $65 million Cross Insurance Center now under construction just a few feet away.

And the inevitability of the coming change has produced a flood of mixed feelings — anticipation for what’s to come and a sense of nostalgia about what’s being left behind.

“It more or less has been the right facility for basketball in the perfect location,” said Mike Dyer, executive director of Bangor’s Bass Park complex for the past 25 years.

A mecca of memories

The Bangor Auditorium is filled with the echos of the basketball heroes it created, from Mike Thurston making a halfcourt shot as time expired to win the 1969 Class LL state championship for Caribou to Joe Campbell’s buzzer-beating basket that rallied Bangor past Deering of Portland for the 2001 Class A crown.

Names such as Cindy Blodgett, Matt Rossignol, Jon MacDonald, Skip Chappelle, Stephanie Carter and Marcie Lane immediately conjure up images of the basketball history that has been on display in that building, as do such basketball dynasties as the Stearns of Millinocket boys teams of the mid-1960s, the Jonesport-Beals boys of the early 1970s, and the Blodgett-led Lawrence of Fairfield girls during the early 1990s.

“We all had our moments there, that’s part of what makes it special,” said coach Roger Reed, who played for Carmel High School in the 1957 tournament then subsequently coached Bangor High School to eight Class A state championships before stepping down after last season. “There’s also the many, many great games you saw there that you can actually remember. You’d see a game and think nothing’s going to top it, and then it happens.

“I don’t care where you play in the state, there’s nothing like the Bangor Auditorium.”

There’s also the quirkiness of the edifice itself, from its V-shaped roof to the challenge of gaining access to the floor-level bleacher seats in the middle of a two-game tourney session. From the dead spots on the basketball court that fooled many a dribbler to the leaky roof that first became a storyline before a Friday night session in 1986 that concluded early Saturday morning after Dexter outlasted Rockland 63-61 in a classic five-overtime Eastern Maine Class B boys final.

“From a fan’s perspective of watching a game, and I’ve got to imagine from a player’s perspective of playing on the floor with everybody right on top of you, it’s got to be one of the greatest things going ever for basketball,” said Dyer.

“But from the fan’s perspective as far as getting up to get something to eat or to get to a restroom and then get back and still have your seat available it’s been a little more of an adventure.”

The occasional leaky roof or other needed repairs as the auditorium has aged has been offset in the minds of most who played in or attended the tournament by the atmosphere created by thousands of fans literally a few feet from the players’ benches generating a decibel level of support — or opposition — envied at much larger or more modern arenas.

“To this day, I wonder how anyone can play in that atmosphere,” said Mike McGee, who played on two Eastern Maine championship teams during the mid-1970s for Lawrence of Fairfield and has served as the head coach at his alma mater since the 1985-86 season. “It’s amazing to look straight up and see the crowd. Your mouth is dry, all you want to do is drink water, and it makes you wonder how all those great athletes were able to perform in that setting.”

But much of the Bangor Auditorium’s appeal isn’t based on its physical structure, but what the building represents.

For generations of aspiring basketball players, it has served as the most desired destination in a cherished rite of athletic passage.

“As a young kid, you’d go up to the games with your parents and get a taste for the excitement of the tourney,” said Deer Isle-Stonington coach Glenn Billings, who played at Deer Isle High School. “And from then on you’d look forward to having your chance to maybe play there one day.”

For the families and community members who flocked to Bangor each February vacation week to support their teams, it doubled as a chance to cure the cabin fever of a long Maine winter, to renew acquaintances with fellow fans last seen a year earlier, and to share a common bond.

“No other building in the state captures our communities, our passions and our culture more acutely,” said Jon Moro, a Camden-Rockport High School graduate who played on two Eastern B title teams, including the Windjammers’ 1999 state championship squad. “There are few experiences more thrilling than standing passionately alongside your neighbor, barber, teacher or grocer in support of your town, your team and your young athletes. There is a purity and joy in this experience apart from the lens of cynicism through which we perceive the college and professional ranks.

“Whether as a player, coach or parent, to attend a game at the Bangor Auditorium was to experience everything good that sports has to offer. Simply making the tournament could galvanize a community and if we won it all, we all could stand a bit straighter and prouder,” Moro said.

Changing times

The crowds aren’t quite as large now as they were a generation ago, a casualty in part of the demographic reality that there are fewer kids growing up and playing basketball in northern and eastern Maine today than there were during the 1970s and 1980s.

The tourney itself also has changed — with both positive and negative effects on the region.

The girls basketball tournament arrived during the mid-1970s in the aftermath of the 1972 passage of Title IX, which banned sex discrimination in schools, whether it be in academics or athletics.

The girls’ Eastern Maine semifinals and finals were played at the Bangor Auditorium for the first time in 1975 and the quarterfinals were added there a year later.

“The SPA [State Principals’ Association, now the Maine Principals’ Association] lost $23,000 on that first tournament, but they were prepared for that,” said Brenda Beckwith, a former girls basketball coach at Lawrence and Messalonskee of Oakland and a Maine women’s basketball historian. “But the second year people really started going crazy about it. The fans liked it, and I think they made their money back over the next few years.

“Now every Western Maine team that comes up to Bangor is thrilled to get to play in that environment. It’s just magical.”

That magic perhaps reached its crescendo during the Blodgett Era from 1990 to 1994, when a slightly built, immensely talented guard led Lawrence High School to four consecutive Class A state titles with the Bangor Auditorium as her center stage.

“[Bangor Auditorium staff] don’t get the chance to take in as much of the games as people might think because there’s always something going on,” said Dyer. “But the one thing that sticks out in my mind — and it wasn’t a particular game but two or three games — was Cindy Blodgett’s last year here [1994]. The crowds and the regional interest when she was out there playing was just phenomenal.

“To me that kind of said what this building meant to this entire region for such a long time because people were truly interested in coming out whether they had an interest in the specific teams or not. The place was packed to the rafters — they were almost turning people away — and it was just the buzz everywhere you went.”

But as the state’s population base has shifted south, so, too, has the tournament schedule.

The large-school Eastern Maine Class A tourney was moved to the Augusta Civic Center in 2006, leaving just the Eastern B, C and D tourney in Bangor.

And for many of the Class A coaches who once competed for regional glory in Bangor, the new locale has been unable to match the auditorium’s aura.

“Since we’ve gone to the [Augusta] Civic Center coaching hasn’t been the same for me,” said McGee, who is retiring from a 28-year career as Lawrence’s boys varsity coach after this year’s tournament.

“The fans are so on top of you in Bangor. You hear a giant roar when you score and now it’s just silence by comparison,” he said. “They can hear me all over the Civic Center, and back when we played in Bangor we had to use play cards because the players could never hear me.

“The crowd effect, the bleachers, the old floor, the popcorn, just the excitement of it all, there’s that much difference.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed wondering if the Cross Insurance Center — even with all its modern amenities including padded seats with cup holders, increased access to concession stands and restrooms, elevators, and luxury suites — will provide the same electric backdrop for high school basketball as its predecessor.

Dyer, who will serve as general manager of the new facility set to open in September, suggests that fans let the Cross Insurance Center establish itself for all it will have to offer — particularly the chance for future players to create new memories.

“This new building will work a lot better for a lot more things, but we think we can make it work for basketball, too,” he said. “We won’t be able to replicate the intimate feel of the current auditorium, but the new arena will make up for that in the sight lines, the creature comforts, and the ease of getting in and out.

“It will be different, but I think what will allow it to develop over time its own panache and its own set of memories is that it’s not going to change is the enthusiasm that the people of this region have for following their teams to Bangor.

“But there’s no denying this old building has meant an awful lot to this region for a lot of years.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...