Next Saturday, I will be returning to my undergraduate alma mater, the University of Charleston, for a very special alumni event. February 28 is “Close the King”—the last regular season basketball games (it is a double-header with the women at 2:00 and the men at 4:00) in UC’s Eddie King Gym. Later this year, the old gym will undergo a complete renovation and expansion. Among other changes, the basketball court will be reoriented 90 degrees (becoming perpendicular to the river rather than running parallel with the river). It will have a completely different “look and feel” after this season.
The old gym is long overdue for replacement, but it will be important to see it one last time. I have lots of good memories in that place, and it has changed little over the decades since my student days. Heck, it even still smells the same—not a bad smell, but just that old wood and varnish smell that permeates many old gyms.
I was never much of a basketball player, but I was a big fan in those days. UC didn’t have a football team at that time, and so basketball was clearly at the top of the athletic hierarchy. I loved going to the games and cheering loudly with all my friends. We’d go around to the student entrance on the river side of the gym, show our IDs to the old guys in green sport coats who controlled access, and scramble into the pull-out wooden bleachers close to the court.
Often, the TKE fraternity would have their big old church bell there in the corner, and we’d take turns yanking on the cable to ring the bell for every point scored. It was great to see the guys (as well as the cheerleaders!) whom we knew from our classes, the dorms, the cafeteria, etc., take the court against other WVIAC foes.
This was in the era before ESPN, when local communities would come out to support their hometown college teams. Even the students were more supportive of the teams than today’s students, who too often stay in their rooms playing video games (or whatever). This was in the good old days before three point shots, alternating possession jump balls, shot clocks, and long shorts that look more like pajamas. It was great entertainment!
We cheered not just for our men’s team, but we also had pretty good crowds for the Golden Eagle women’s teams. In my era, UC was the dominant women’s team in the conference. During my year as student government president, the Student Government Association (SGA) promoted “Women’s Basketball Appreciation Night” when we had a big game against WVU (yes, WVU came to Charleston to play in the Eddie King Gym). I’ll never forget the large crowd we had that night. Best of all, it ended up as a thrilling victory, with Cathy Penczak hitting a last second game-winning shot from deep in the corner.
Speaking of SGA, I will also remember the hassle of getting a large parachute hung inside the Eddie King Gym, along with the mirrored disco ball. Then, we spent many hours pinning to the parachute a hundred or so cardboard stars on strings that other volunteers had covered with glitter as decoration for the big Fall Festival dance—the only formal dance held in the gym during my days. It took a lot of volunteer effort to set up for that dance!
Another even bigger SGA event in the Eddie King Gym was the concert by the rock group Pablo Cruise (their hits included “Love Will Find A Way,” “A Place In The Sun,” and “Whatcha Gonna Do?”). Their opening act was James Taylor’s younger brother Livingston Taylor. For years, students had wanted to host a concert in the gym, so we finally got the go-ahead to give it a try. A big time concert was not easy to set up in the Eddie King Gym (not to mention meeting all the contract requirements and other hassles). Their stage took nearly a third of the floor, and the acoustics were terrible. But we gave it the old college try and pulled it off (and almost broke even).
Although I wasn’t a basketball star, I played various intramural sports in the gym, in addition to the physical education classes I took there. In my later years, the UC volleyball coach would invite guys who she thought were pretty good in her volleyball class to come scrimmage against her volleyball team. That was a lot of fun for me!
One of my final memories of the gym from my college days was that we held graduation practice inside the gym, which was also the alternate graduation location if it rained. Fortunately, the weather cooperated and we were able to hold the traditional UC graduation ceremony on our beautiful riverbank, with the West Virginia Capitol in the background.
As you can see, I may not have been a varsity basketball star, but I have a lot of good memories in that old gym. It is important for me to see it one last time in its current configuration. Best of all, there will be many of my fellow alums there, which is what really makes it special. As important as the building is to me, the people I knew in that era are even more important. We are getting older (one of our friends recently died unexpectedly) and so seeing each other again is very important. When we get together, we don’t see each other as being old—we see each other as the college students we once were we when first met each other. We talk until our throats hurt, we smile until our cheeks hurt, and laugh until our sides hurt. It may sound painful, but indeed, it is fantastic!
Especially if you live close by, please support this event, because many alums are coming from far away to be there, and they want to see old friends. Come early to chat with fellow alums (I plan on hanging out in the student union beginning around 10 AM until they open the gym doors for the game), wear maroon if you can, and stay afterward for a free reception in the student union. It will be a wonderful day! Go Eagles!