Johnston Gym – Can it Really Be Thirty Years?
Where were you thirty years ago? Specifically, where were you thirty years ago – Saturday, February 25, 1989 – at roughly 7:30 p.m.?
Wildcat basketball fans from near and far converged on Johnston Gym for the final basketball game in the venue that had been the home of the Davidson men’s basketball for 40 years. The Wildcats hosted the University of Central Florida for that milestone game.
The cornerstone for Johnston Gym had been placed in 1948, and teams began competing in the facility in 1949. The gym hosted varsity and intramural sports, team locker rooms, and even included an indoor pool in the basement.
Men’s basketball at Davidson has been around 1908, with the 1908-09 season as the first one listed in any historical records. With 40 years of basketball in the record books, the ‘Cats moved into Johnston Gym and played there for another 40 years.
For years, the classic wooden floor served as a home to teams coached by the likes of Charles “Lefty” Driesel, Terry Holland, Eddie Beidenbach, and Tom Scott. With the exception of Steph Curry, all of Davidson’s All-Americans (Fred Hetzel, Mike Malloy, and Dick Snyder) played in Johnston Gym.
Women’s basketball began in Johnson Gym in 1973 as the college’s first two women’s sports, tennis was the other varsity sport. Ann Holland, Terry Holland’s wife, volunteered to coach the first women’s team. The women set records in Johnston Gym too, and some of those still stand today. Susan Womack, Sally Howell, Heather McKee, and Lavetta Dawkins rose to the top of various statistical categories for their accomplishments in Johnston Gym.
The women’s program continued for the next 12 years, but was dropped in 1986 as the college faced challenges complying with NCAA Title IX policies. Women’s basketball returned to the campus for the 1992-93 season, and has been playing in Belk Arena ever since.
By the early 1980s the hardwood basketball court had been changed to a “spongey” soft court. Besides the court change, the gym could have served as the setting for the movie “Hoosiers.” It was an iconic basketball venue.
Back in those days, the Wildcat mascot routinely went up into the rafters and swung down on a rope. I’m told that practice stopped when the Wildcat broke his leg after someone installed a new (and longer) rope without telling the Wildcat.
What is most memorable about games in Johnston gym was the atmosphere. All the seats were on pull out wooden bleachers – and they made a lot of noise when the crowd stomped their feet. And if you thought it gets loud in Belk Arena, the all brick construction of Johnston Gym made it very loud when the fans cheered on their ‘Cats.
And no matter how much they tried to regulate the temperature in the building, when the fans got rowdy – it got steamy hot. The big windows behind the bleachers routinely steamed up, and it was not uncommon to open the windows – even in the middle of winter.
The 1988-89 season was the last for head coach Bobby Hussey, and he was followed in the job by a guy named Bob McKillop. The Wildcats had left the Southern Conference in 1988, and would be an “Independent” for another season until they joined the Big South 1990 for a 2-year stint. The Wildcats returned to the Southern Conference for the 1992-93 season, and they stayed there until joining the A10 for the 2014-15 season.
Thankfully the Wildcats’ move to Belk arena did not mean the demise for Johnston Gym – well, at least not the edifice. Today, “Johnson Gym” is the Alvarez College Union. It is the bustling home of myriad student activities, performance spaces, a café, student and staff offices, as well as the home of the student post office. On a campus that has a number of historically significant, repurposed buildings – Johnston Gym epitomizes Davidson College’s commitment to breathing new life into important architectural buildings on campus.
But back to that night in February 1989 – everyone who attended the game received a poster that commemorated the final game. Some of us diehard fans got the poster signed by all the players and coaches to create a special memory of the event. And I dare say that I kept that poster, and my ($7.00) ticket to that game. Despite dozens of moves that took me around the globe a time or two, both were in good enough shape to frame and offer to the Athletic Department for use over the coming months.
Oh, and the ‘Cats closed out the Johnston Gym era with a 75-64 win over UCF.