Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Walk Down Memory Hall

As we walked up the ramp into the old Memorial Gymnasium in Lebanon, Indiana, I remember thinking, “If only these walls could talk."  A lot of basketball history was written in the gym, from successful teams to a Hall of Fame coach and a legendary player, to even one of the greatest set of free throws made in basketball history. From the excitement the gym has witnessed over the last 82 years, the walls would probably be speechless.

Basketball has been a staple in Lebanon as far back as when it was introduced to Indiana in the 1890’s.  Lebanon is part of the basketball region of Indiana referred to as the “Cradle of Basketball” because the first eight state champions came from a three-county, 30-mile radius. When Crawfordsville won the first Indiana high school state championship in 1911, it was Lebanon High School that they beat.  But it didn’t take long for Lebanon to write their own chapter into the Indiana basketball history books because a year later, in 1912, they took home their own state title and then two more in 1917 and 1918.  To honor these great Lebanon teams, the city built a new gymnasium.

Memory Hall, formally Memorial Gymnasium

In 1926, the 2200-seat Memorial Gymnasium would become home to the Lebanon Tigers until 1968. Its pale-yellow brick interior walls, horseshoe seating, and stage, make it one of the most appealing gyms that I have seen.  For decades, the community would fill the gym to watch their beloved Tigers, but in 1963, a certain player would launch a career that would later put college coaches in the bleachers and Lebanon on the nation’s basketball map.   

Rick "the Rocket" Mount played for Lebanon from 1962-66, where he led his team in scoring, including 33.1 ppg throughout his junior and senior seasons. On February 14, 1966, Mount became the first high school athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  His Senior year, he won the Indiana "Mr. Basketball" award and was named "USA Basketball Yearbook Player of the Year," given to the nation's best high school player. He finished his high school career with 2,595 points, currently the fourth highest total in Indiana high school history. Mount would attend Purdue University and become a 3-time All American.  Mount’s high school and Indiana Hall of Fame coach, Jim Rosenstihl, acknowledged that Rick is “naturally one of the greatest shooters to ever play the game”.  

As the excitement was fading in 1966, a new school and gym were being built on the east side of town.  After Memorial Gymnasium closed, it fell under authority of the Parks Department, which renamed the gym Memory Hall and leased the facility for some time to Ivy Tech and the YMCA.  Afterwards, there were periods of time that the gym set unused. 

According to the City of Lebanon's website, in 1831, the city was named Lebanon because a cluster of hickory trees on the site reminded one of the town's commissioners of the Biblical cedars of Lebanon.  It's only fitting that in 1985, another form of "hickory" would bring basketball fans back to Memory Hall.   It was Lebanon’s own, Memory Hall, that played the part of Jasper gym, the site of the Regional Finals in the movie Hoosiers.  The game is most remembered for its final seconds when Hickory manager, Ollie MacFarlane, is put into the game when the Huskers have no other players left.  After being fouled with only seconds left on the clock, he sinks two underhand free throws to win the game, sending the Huskers to the state finals and Memory Hall into movie history.  After the filming was completed, the gym would again go unused.

Memory Hall played the part of Jasper
In 1992, Lebanon's new mayor faced the prospect of demolitioning Memory Hall but instead made finding a use for the historical gym a top priority in his administration.  With help and state grants, the building was redeveloped as senior housing and the gym was restored as a fitness center, Lebanon Sports & Fitness, for the community.  So often, old gyms are demolished so it is uplifting to see a community fight to keep an old gym and its memories alive and use it for the greater good of the community.

Our time spent in Memory Hall was memorable, not only because we were able to play basketball in one of Indiana's historic gyms, but because of the stories we were told while touring it as well.  I am so glad the walls couldn't talk that day, because my family was given an even greater opportunity to hear the stories from non-other than Indiana basketball legend, Rick Mount himself.  And after listening to those stories, I'm speechless.

Visiting with Rick Mount

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