It’s the place players practice and sweat and strive for, the “Mecca” of high school basketball: the Bangor Auditorium.
Since 1955, the auditorium has hosted the Eastern Maine basketball tournament and Class C and D state championship games, as well as cheering competitions. This year will be the last the tournament runs in the auditorium, as the building will be replaced by a new arena.
While basketball teams will continue to aim for the tournaments (and that elusive gold ball) in Bangor at the new arena, this is the final year of playing in a space that has meant so much to so many.
The Island has brought home four gold balls for basketball over the years, two by the Stonington High School Rockets back-to-back in 1961 and 1962, a girls basketball victory in 1987, and the boys in 2007.
George Stevens Academy has brought home the gold ball with boys basketball three times—once before the Bangor Auditorium was built in 1948, in 1979 and in 2003.
Both schools have sent boys and girls teams and competed many times over the years in the tournaments.
“The auditorium has a closeness, a feel that allows the fans to feel part of the action,” said Jim Murphy, GSA Athletic Director. Murphy has been associated with GSA as a coach and then athletic director for a total of 29 years. “The auditorium has been dubbed the Mecca because it is such a great atmosphere for basketball to be played.
“Many have played there, and know what it takes to get there,” said Murphy of players and coaches.
Larry Gray played on the 1979 state championship team for GSA.
“It was a great thrill, one of the times the whole community came together,” said Gray. Gray also coached girls basketball for 10 years and led the Eagles girls to the state finals in 1999 and to the regional finals in 2000.
“It’s always felt like it was built as a basketball arena,” said Gray. “The crowd is so close.”
Coaching at the auditorium has its own challenges, said Gray. It usually takes teams a game to adjust to the visual difference and perspective of shooting the ball, and of course, it can be difficult to communicate with the team.
Glenn Billings has coached Mariners basketball for many years, and agrees that communication is a challenge.
“The crowd can be almost deafening,” said Billings, who said he’s not particularly loud himself but has always had assistant coaches who could “roar.” “Most of the time I had to talk to players as they ran by.”
Billings played for Deer Isle High School, and listened to the Rockets’ 1961 and 1962 wins on the radio. “It was so exciting, I wanted to make it to the floor. I never did, but I coached my son and he did.”
The facilities at the auditorium weren’t always the best over the years, with the occasional leaky roof. However, it is the court floor itself that had notorious “dead spots” where a bounced ball would not come back up as expected.
Lisa Zanke, a member of the 1987 Mariners state champions, said playing at the auditorium was a “surreal experience.” Zanke and her teammates made it to the tournament at the auditorium each year starting her freshman year, but didn’t win the gold ball until her senior year in 1987.
“It’s a huge experience as a 15-year-old,” said Zanke. Zanke said she felt their team should have taken the gold ball in 1986 as well.
“It seemed the auditorium could bring out the best or the worst in you,” said Zanke. “Our senior year it brought out the best.”
Zanke remembers her coach, Kendall McGuffie, coming into the locker room during the Eastern Maine finals at half time, when the team was down by 18. “Kendall walked in, he looked at us, shook his head and walked out,” said Zanke. “We walked out of there and we had a fire lit under us and we came back.”
Jack Scott, who has covered Island sports for 21 seasons, said covering the basketball tourneys is always exciting because “basketball is king” in the small schools of Eastern Maine. “As a person who came from away, I was quickly swept up in the enthusiasm of support that came for any team that made it up there.”
The auditorium has also hosted cheering competitions and other sporting events. Melissa Jones-Bayley was a freshman member of the 1987 Mariners team that took home the gold ball, and also a member of the cheering squad that brought a state championship title to the Island in 1988.
“When you walk into the auditorium now, it makes you feel like a kid again, like you did when you were playing there,” said Jones-Bayley. “I’ll miss bringing my kids to where I played.”
“I’m sure the new facility is going to be unreal,” said Billings. “But it’s going to be a little different. The old one has so many memories.”
Zanke has high hopes for the new arena. “Hopefully the seats will be a lot more comfortable. I plan to be there for years to come.”
This year’s Eastern Maine basketball tournament will be held February 15-23, with the Class C and Class D championship games on March 2.