The era of Utah's tiny bandbox high-school gymnasium is almost over.
These days, the gym is often one of the newest and nicest buildings in Utah's small towns, a gathering place for all sorts of community events. At the bigger urban high schools where the facilities serve many functions and teams, most are sprawling complexes of hardwood floors and lines. At a given moment, you might have a wrestling meet, a basketball practice and a drill team workout going on in different areas of the same building.
Long gone are classic prep palaces at schools such as Jordan, Bingham, Olympus, South, West and East. The old gym at Tintic in Eureka once had sidelines so narrow that the scorers table was in a hanging balcony. To check in, players had to pull a string with a bell on it. The building at Granite, with its bouncy hardwood floor reportedly built on giant springs, remains, but is seldom used now that the school has closed.
One such gym still hosts dozens of events. On a recent rainy December Tuesday evening, I wandered up to Salt Lake City's east side to watch the Judge Bulldogs' boys team take on Riverton in one of the last classic Utah gyms. The place holds many memories because, as a kid, I often played there.
Stan Finn, longtime scorekeeper for the Bulldogs, told me the cinder-block building with the metal beams holding up its roof opened in 1960. Though the bleachers have been updated slightly and the building that seats about 1,500 has been repainted numerous times, it has changed little.
The small balcony remains, its metal posts covered by pads. Banners celebrating Judge's athletic successes hang from the rafters. A banner listing the times the boys played in the prestigious Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament holds a prominent wall display.
As a kid, I played Catholic Youth Organization hoops on this floor. I also can brag to being one of the few boys to play a game in the old St. Mary of the Wasatch Catholic girls school on 1300 S. 3000 East before it closed in 1970. There weren't many Catholic school elementary gyms back in the 1960s. Finn said the Judge gym remains busy most Saturdays and Sundays hosting Catholic league games.
I have to confess to never caring for the Judge gym. Its backboards and rims were less forgiving than the ones at the Mormon ward houses where I joined my buddies to practice. The lighting wasn't the best, and the locker rooms were tiny and cramped.
Few gyms are this loud. Even on a night when the stands are just more than half full, the place is mind-numbingly noisy. The rowdy student section gives the Bulldogs a distinct advantage. Finn said the gym has a new sound system, but you could have fooled me. The acoustics in this place make EnergySolutions Arena seem like Carnegie Hall.
I'd hate to be a referee there. Fans are right on top of the action, and the refs can hear just about everything. It's an intense place.
Finn said the home-court advantage here is real. Taller teams can't take advantage of their height because the floor is a little smaller than most.
The gym maintains a certain rustic charm. But it isn't large enough to accommodate Judge's fine girls and boys basketball teams, which play home games there but alternate practice there and at the old Westminster College gym. It bears the imprint of now-retired boys coach Jim Yerkovich, who retired in 2010 after 44 years at the school. His signature "WE" concept remains honored by players wearing uniforms with that word on the back instead of their names.
Most Utah prep gymnasiums these days serve as practical multipurpose facilities, often with a certain sameness about them. Many schools once boasted facilities that looked just like Judge's. These days, Judge's home floor is a rarity.