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Wharton: Remembering Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse

Published February 18, 2013 2:50 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Seeing Billy "The Hill" McGill at a recent University of Utah basketball game brought back many pleasant boyhood memories, especially after a visit to Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse.

Many younger Ute fans may not realize that the tan brick building just north of Rice-Eccles Stadium served as the home of Utah basketball for 30 years.

But the old building, now a campus fitness center complete with aerobic machines, racquetball and tennis courts and weights introduced me to the joys of being a college basketball fan and a sportswriter.

According to J.D. Davis, who wrote a 1999 story for Continuum magazine, the building was named after Einar Nielsen, a Norwegian who served as the men's athletic trainer at the University of Utah and as the masseur at the old Deseret Gym.

The building opened in 1939 at a cost of $175,000. According to the University of Utah Historic Buildings site, it was to be used for physical education and the ROTC and was the largest building on campus at the time.

The fieldhouse was turned into a dormitory for 1,000 soldiers in 1943 at the height of World War II, with bleachers and the basketball floor stored in the balcony.

McGill was one of the first Ute players I remember. That said, since I had just turned 10, I have few memories of Utah's 97-92 victory over second-ranked Ohio State on Dec. 21, 1959, a game most Ute fans remember as one of the greatest ever played.

Tribune sportswriter Bob Williams called Einar Nielsen the "hilltop house" in his lead on the game, which drew 5,910 fans – probably over capacity for the old barn. It featured a great individual battle between Ohio State's Jerry Lucas and McGill. Lucas, who played on a team that included John Havlicek, finished with 32 points; McGill had 31. Both grabbed 17 rebounds.

Tickets were difficult to come by in those days. The Utes owned a great homecourt advantage and seldom lost in the old building. If memory serves, there were usually a couple of hundred tickets under the baskets that sometimes came available. They weren't great seats, especially since the floor was separated from the fans by a chain-link fence.

My dad, who played tennis and ran cross country at Utah, would drop me off at the ticket office in a tile-lined foyer. I would patiently wait in line in hopes of grabbing two tickets, which were surprisingly cheap in those days. We sometimes succeeded.

While Utah had some great players, including McGill, Jerry Chambers, Merv Jackson and Mike Newlin, I tended to gravitate to the less talented Utes. Two of my favorites were John Oblizalo, a 6-foot-6 center from Montana, and a guard named Granville "Granny" Lash.

I covered the last high-school state basketball tournament at the old building in 1969. I was a senior at Granite High and conned Dick Rosetta, then The Tribune's high-school sports editor, into letting me work the consolation games. Dick admonished me that I couldn't cheer in the press box as I watched my buddies.

The press box was at the top of the fieldhouse in bleachers that could be removed for indoor football practice. When the students started jumping up and down, it shook so badly you almost had to hold on to survive.

Appropriately, the Utes' final game in Einar Nielsen before the opening of the Special Events Center, which would become the Jon M. Huntsman Center, came against BYU on Feb. 22, 1969. With Newlin scoring 37 points, the Utes took a 98-85 win.

"It was like putting away an old baseball glove," Newlin, who went on to a great professional career, said of leaving Einar Nielsen.

The outside of the fieldhouse has changed little over the years. It still has the light tan bricks and distinctive windows and serves as a functional building that keeps dozens of Utah students and faculty members in good shape, something I suspect would have made Einar Nielsen proud.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton