As autumn fades into winter and local sporting events shift from football and soccer fields into the warmth of gymnasiums, I am haunted by sounds of the past that echoed from so many of those cozy places that once were a central gathering place for their communities.
Many of those gyms are long gone, some are still there but see little use, and a sweet few still stand to remind us of another time.
I have been told stories of people leaning ladders against the outside walls of the gym in Buford, trying to peer through the tall windows and over the crowd to get a glimpse of games unfolding inside when no one else could squeeze in.
From stories my mother has told me, I can imagine scenes inside the old gymnasium that was in downtown Lynchburg. In my mind I can see the stands on one side packed tight, with the scorer’s box tucked high up in one corner, the stage on the other side overflowing, and hear deafening sounds of excitement and disappointment reverberating back and forth.
Those thoughts entice memories of my own in many of the same places. It makes me wonder how many hours I’ve spent in gyms in and around Highland County.
There was the gym in Lynchburg, where my mom was cheerleader, I watched my dad play countless church league games, I played my own seventh-grade tournament, and years later worked as a referee.
There is Buford, the smallest gym I ever stepped foot in. Only two or three feet separate the top of both foul lane circles. I played there as a youngster, walked through haunted houses there, and not so long ago officiated church league games there.
There’s the old gym in New Vienna where I asked a girl to “go with me.” Her answer was, “Where?” I played reserve basketball and later officiated many youth games there.
There’s the gym in Marshall. As a youngster I followed my dad there when he played basketball with other men from the area. Most of my junior high basketball practices were held there. Later I played there like my dad had, and a little later coached my sons there.
There’s the old Hillsboro gym where I played my Pee Wee through high school games. It’s another place I followed my dad to as a youngster, and where in my day, big Chief Wanna-Win hung from the wall urging us on.
There’s the old Armory gym in Hillsboro. High school games were played there many years ago, and more than one school called it home. I never played there, but attended many high school dances and wedding receptions there.
There’s the Sinking Spring gym. I never stepped foot in it until a few years ago to ref some Christian school games.
There’s the old McClain gym, now 100 and going strong. I scored two points for McClain there, but was playing for Hillsboro.
There’s the gym in Belfast. I played junior high games there, pickup games later, and then watched my kids play there.
I played pick-up games at the old gym in Sugar Tree Ridge.
It was in the old gym at Highland that I played a sixth-grade tournament. It’s where my coach warned me that if I rubbed the bottom of my shoes (to get better footing) one more time I’d find myself beside him on the bench. I never stepped foot in it again, but can visualize it clearly.
In what is now the Lynchburg-Middle School gym I had one of my better varsity games – 22 points and blocked a cousin’s shot about five rows into the stands. Maybe better, though, I can remember the late Mary Muntz, in her perch above the stands, directing her bands as they marched during halftime performances.
There was the old gym in Leesburg. I played in a 104 to 90-something shootout there and years later had more than 20 officiating dates there in a single season.
I never played basketball in the old Mowrystown gym, but did play lots of volleyball there. I’ve officiated there, too. How in the world, I often wondered, did they play varsity basketball in there until the 1980s.
I watched my sons play in the Rainsboro gym and covered events there as a newspaper reporter.
I’ve often visited the South Salem gym and read of its storied teams. In my 20s I practiced in the old Bainbridge gym, where the clock still had working hands on it.
Yes, I’ve missed some – North Adams, Peebles, Blue Creek, Ripley and on and on – but you get the idea.
The old places had character. The new gyms seem too much the same and sterile.
I miss a stage alongside or at one end of a court, the sound of a basketball banging off a solid wood backboard or a dead spot in the floor, a concession stand tucked away in the most unusual of places.
Time waits for no one and life moves on, I know. Still, I can’t help but think that basketball was a little more special in those smaller places and a more simple time.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.
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