When an old gymnasium closes, people who played in it, coached in it, virtually lived in it, can grow nostalgic.
"Remember the night we beat. . . They didn't know what to make of this place . . . "
It was that way -- with other conspicuous emotions mixed in -- Saturday night at Catholic University when the last basketball game was played in the old Brookland gym, one of Washington's final landmarks of athletic yesteryear. Architecturally, it has been described as early airplane hanger.
"It was built during the war," a man said. He meant World War I.
The demise of Catholic's gym has been often predicted and long awaited. The Raymond A. DuFour Complex is under construction and scheduled to open in September.
If ever a college needed a new gym, unless it's American University, it's Catholic, which offers a low-key, nonscholarship Division III program.
"They'll get rid of the gym someday," a player said several years ago. "It'll probably just fall down."
No such luck. This was a building built to last.
A place with character, if not abundant charm.
"Before the games, they used to play this recording of fight songs from Big Ten schools -- it must have been some old 78 rpm they played real slow," said Jim Molloy, an assistant basketball coach from 1971 through 1975. "All you'd hear was 'On-n-n-n Wisconsin,' real slow version. I never knew where it was coming from, except that it seemed to be coming from somewhere other than this world. Oh, it was maudlin."
The old gym has a curved roof, which often has required buckets to be placed around the court on rainy nights, and interior walls of stucco, painted pale green. The floor through the late '50s was dark, giving a still gloomier cast to the inside. The locker rooms aren't much bigger than closets, and in the basement there are lots of holes in the walls.
But there is one room that is bona-fide Americana and it belongs to equipment manager Franny Murray. It's the kind of thing you'd find reconstructed at the Museum of American History as an example of American sporting life, circa 1940.
"We're going to move this room just as it is," said Murray, who's been the equipment man, father confessor to players, friend of students and a shoulder for coaches to weep on, for 38 years.
The room is a myriad of old, assorted uniforms and warmup jackets and worn basketballs. Signs: "Towels can be rented for 15 cents" and "Locks can be rented for 25 cents."
In one corner is an almost-floor-to-ceiling gray safe into which Murray placed the night's modest gate proceeds, stuffed in a burlap sack.
Much of the building's history is written on the wind, or stored in sweet remembrance.
"I hit a little jumper from 10 feet, right over there, as time ran out, to beat AU, 1959," said Bob Talbot, now head of admissions and financial aid.
Track meets used to be run in the place, and college boxing, which attracted black-tie crowds, no less, was big there, in the '30s and '40s.
For years, the typical CU basketball player has been there because he's wanted to be. No high-profile recruit. The team has earned a reputation for often springing major upsets. Still, playing there at times has seemed to a few like running cross country: Who knows the pain, the pleasures?
Once, a huge-for-Catholic 240-pounder named Will Booth walked out of a seminary in the Deep South and into the Brookland gym, presenting himself to then-coach Tom Young. "Big strong kid with stone hands comes walking in the door one day like a dream," Young said. "Not so agile, maybe, but immensely coachable."
With visiting prospective students, who also happened to be able to play basketball, "We'd stay away from the gym as much as possible," said Jack Bruen, the current coach and 1972 team captain. "We'd just go by real quick and say, 'That's the gym,' and take 'em over to the Shrine." The gym's future is uncertain. It could be used for intramurals, it could be leveled. The architecture department has expressed interest in it -- for space, not to study it.
For the last game, against Allentown College Saturday, some students wore "The Gym, 1917-1985" T-shirts. In the doorway was a wooden folding chair with programs stacked on it and the handwritten sign, "Free." On one stairway was the notice: "No women upstairs tonight -- officials dressing room."
It was warm outside, like an oven inside. At the half a cheerleader lay on an office floor trying to recover.
"Need a drink?"
"I've got one here," she said, looking wan.
A man in a black-and-white striped officials' shirt ignored the heat and got much of the crowd -- about 1,500 packed into five small bleachers -- doing the wave, CU version. Fans in two bleachers at one end of the court would jump up with arms upraised, and so would those in the two bleachers at the other end. Those in the one sideline bleacher, which might have been the middle of the wave, were largely not involved, but no one was complaining because many alumni and contributors to the new complex were seated there, and heartily welcome.
Catholic won, 74-61, and at the end players stood around and talked with their parents and others. Of all the luck, after all these years of talk about a new gym, senior co-captain Rory Cooper just missed the new facility. "I have no regrets," said the 5-foot-8 guard, with a smile. "I'll be around next year -- as long as they don't make me pay to get into the games."
It was all very civilized. Nobody stormed the court. Nobody cut down the nets. The gym passed quietly. She lived a good long life.