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North High ready to say goodbye to its bygone-era gym

Published Feb. 20 at 2:03 p.m. | Last updated Feb. 21 at 7:01 a.m.

Not much is needed to spark the flood of North High memories for Joe Stevens. A mere mention of its unique gymnasium results in an outpouring of adoration.

“I started (varsity) as a sophomore, playing with guys I used to watch, in that gym, those bleachers, those brick walls, the locker rooms, the baskets,” said Stevens, 76, who helped lead North to the 1954 Class AA basketball title and later played at the University of Wichita. “You hit me in the heart.

“It’s the same gym when I go back…. When I stand below the basket, I see the memories all come back.”

The North gym, built in 1928, has that effect. The intensity of emotion has deepened because Friday’s girls and boys doubleheader against West will be the final regular-season games in the gym. The games, originally scheduled for Thursday, were pushed back a day because of bad weather.

A new gym, adjacent to the current one, is being built as part of the 2008 school district bond project and will open for the 2013-14 school year.

Few gyms like North’s exist anymore. The court is surrounded by brick walls with only enough room for the teams, coaches, scorer’s table and cheerleaders.

There is seating for 1,210 fans, all above the court, most with an obstructed view courtesy of the white-painted pillars.

“You come in and you feel like you’re on stage here,” North boys coach Gary Squires said. “The way it has stadium seating, the balcony. The kids feel like they’re under the lights.”

Zac Clark, an All-City League player in 2006-07, agreed.

“I loved the way the fans got to sit over you and you could look up into the crowd…. You get the automatic old feeling when you walk in. It’s like a dungeon. If I was an opponent, I’d probably feel trapped when I walked into it.”

It’s a small gym, nothing spectacular about it. But among all the modern behemoths, including North’s new gym that will seat 2,670, it’s a reminder of an era gone by.

“Those days at North for me were just about the best there was,” said Dick Sanders, who played football, basketball and baseball at North and at the University of Wichita. “… The time at North High with the friends you made there, you look back on those games and the gym, it’s the same. You can relive your memories and they were all good.”

Ann Burgett recalls basically growing up in the North gym. Burgett’s dad, Maurice Hendershot, coached multiple sports and ran the gym’s concession stand during games.

“I watched so many games there, and it was one of the loudest gyms around,” said Burgett, a 1981 graduate who teaches at North and is the softball coach. “… When I came back, it’s been four years now, for the first pep assembly, it was like I had never left. I’ve been to other pep assemblies, but it was just amazing, the noise and the enthusiasm that those kids share.”

Stevens well remembers being a junior-high student and going to the high school games.

“It was something to go to North High and watch those games,” Stevens said. “The people in the stands, the stomping of the feet, the guys we were watching down there…. ‘My God, I wished I could be down there.’ Then when I was, it was wonderful.”

North’s old gym won’t be destroyed, which pleases alums. Athletic director Brian Becker plans to have one game there each season, and it will also be used as a practice gym.

The Redskins’ new gym will be bigger and modern, yet it will incorporate the Native American detailing already throughout the school.

The thought of opening a new gym is exciting, but there’s going to be something lost, too.

“It’s very historic, and we talk to our kids about that,” Heights boys coach Joe Auer said. “A lot of great players, lot of great teams over the years in the City League have played there.”

Becker has worked to send out the gym in a classy way. Last Friday, he brought back members of the 1953-54 AA championship team, including Stevens, as well as members of the 1987 Class 6A title team.

Memories of the North High gymnasium

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The North boys team has done its duty in sending the gym into retirement by thrilling fans with success, both team and individual.

“You couldn’t script it any better,” Squires said.

North is 17-2 and won the City League title, its first since 1974. Senior Conner Frankamp has brought North alums — and basketball fans — to the gym in droves. Already signed to play at Kansas, he’s an exciting player with the ability to score from anywhere.

On Friday, he scored 37 points in a win over Bishop Carroll to set the City League career scoring record with 2,233 points.

Frankamp was proud to set the record, but also appreciated being able to set it at home, in the old gym.

“(The gym) is a lot different,” Frankamp said. There’s really not any other place like it in the City League…. I wouldn’t want to do it anywhere else, except in here, with these fans. It’s an honor.”

Check Joanna Chadwick’s high school sports blog at blogs.varsitykansas.com. Reach her at 316-268-6270 or jchadwick@wichitaeagle.com.

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