All in the name of progress
Progress is great. Newer facilities, newer technologies, newer and comfortable seating, and all-in-all, a better fan experience, right? Throw in the fact that the athletes have bigger and nicer locker rooms, more training options at the facility, and increased seating for people to watch their events makes it seem like a slam dunk to built new facilities whenever one can, doesn’t it?
Well, at least most of the time.
One of the great Meccas of college and high school basketball in the state of Ohio is going to be demolished soon. A place that has so many memories and legends. A place that just oozes tradition the minute you just walk into the place. Just think…soon it will be a parking lot
Ohio State’s St. John Arena
Those familiar with St. John Arena may only know it from the current volleyball and wrestling teams that host their events there. It is much more than that. Much, much more. It was built in 1956, named after longtime Ohio State athletic director Lynn St. John. Seating 13,257 people, it was one of the great venues of its time. It has seen a NCAA basketball championship team, the 1960 Ohio State team, led by NBA Hall of Famer John Havlicek, and Hall of Fame coach Bobby Knight. It saw the magnificent play of Middletown’s Jerry Lucas. The 1970’s saw Barberton’s Carter Scott, and Toledo’s Kelvin Ransey hold court. The 1980’s brought a revival of Ohio State basketball led by great players Clark Kellogg, Herb Williams, and…….Granville Waiters (kidding). Canton McKinley’s starting backcourt of Troy Taylor and Ronnie Stokes played and started together in the 1980’s. Toledo’s Dennis Hopson was a first team All-American in 1986, and was the second pick in the NBA Draft. The 1990’s brought Ohio State fans the “J.J. Era”, Toledo’s Jimmy Jackson. Along with Cleveland St. Joseph’s Treg Lee, Dayton Dunbar’s Mark Baker, and Columbus Wehrle’s Lawrence Funderburke, the Buckeyes were a top five team in the country for those three years.
St. John Arena holds a special place for me. From the time I was in 7th grade, to the time I was a sophomore in college, every third weekend in March was spend with my dad at the Ohio state high school championships. My father would take a day off during the week tickets went on sale and drive to the schools in the Cleveland area to get tickets. Through other high school coaches, we would always seem to have tickets to every session for the semi-finals on Thursday and Friday, and the state championship games on Saturday. The routine was always the same. Watch a game, go back to the car, open the cooler to have a sandwich and a pop, wait about a half an hour, then go back in for the next game. Crash at the hotel (same one every time) and do the same thing the next day.
The players we saw!!! A literal “Who’s Who” of Ohio high school basketball. Canton McKinley’s Gary Grant, Tim Jackson, and Bill Robinson. Columbus Wehrle’s Jerry Francis, Lawrence Funderburke, and arguably, the best player I ever saw at the state tournament, Eli Brewster. Toledo Macomber’s Jimmy Jackson led his team to an overtime win over Tony Miller’s Cleveland St. Joseph team. Speaking of Cleveland St. Joseph, the 1987 team of Treg Lee, Eric Riley, and John Beauford lost a semi-final game to the best TEAM I ever saw at the state tournament, Dayton Dunbar, led by future Division I players Mark Baker, Kirk Taylor, and Mike Haley Jr.. Lima Senior’s Greg Simpson put on a scoring display at St. John Arena during his run in the early nineties. St. Henry’s Bobby Hoying, who would later star on the gridiron for Ohio State, led his team to a state championship in the biggest rout in state finals history, a 94-35 win. Some other great players which I didn’t have the pleasure of seeing that left their mark at St. John Arena are East Tech’s Manny Leaks, Barberton’s Bodnar brothers, and Cathedral-Latin’s Colin Irish. The list goes on and on.
So WHY is St. John Arena such a great place to watch a basketball game? There are many. Just walking into the arena, seeing all the plaques of the ex-athletes and their accomplishments are enough to keep you enthralled. The seating is impeccable for basketball. You are right on top of the court. St. John Arena is built vertically, not horizontally the way the new buildings are. The old-time pull out bench seating along the sidelines gets the crowd right on top of the action. The same pull out bleacher type seating is used behind each basket, where the student sections of each school sit. The mezzanine section and the upper deck have the old time wood curved seats with the seat numbers on the back. The best seats in the house may be in the first few rows of the upper deck, which acts as an “overhang” over the mezzanine. It has a certain feel of a “Fieldhouse” instead of an “Arena”.
And it gets LOUD…REAL LOUD
Ask anyone who was there in person how loud the building got when Treg Lee hit a shot from the baseline off a feed from Jimmy Jackson with two seconds left in double overtime when #2 Ohio State beat #4 Indiana in 1991. In all due respect to Nationwide Arena and the Schott, it was never louder.
It was the same way for the high school state tournament. WHY? Because of the passion of the fans, especially from the smaller schools. It was the smaller schools that made the state tournament worth coming to. Seeing the whole town of 2,000 all at the game, dressed entirely in the same color, taking over one entire side of the court behind each basket was a thing a beauty. For every big school that gets the attention of winning a state title, it’s Fort Loramie, Kalida, Berlin Hiland, Van Buren, Van Wert, New Madison Tri-Village, Bucyrus Wynford, Haviland Wayne Trace, St. Henry, Jackson Center, Holgate, Delphos St. John’s and Fort Jennings of the world that really make the tournament special. Imagine being Jeff Preeble. Who is Jeff Preeble? He is the little 5’10” guard from Jackson Center that hit a shot at the buzzer to win the state title game in front of 5,000 orange clad fans from Jackson Center, even though the town itself only has 2,500 people in it. It’s the traditions of each school and the neat chants they come up with. The famous “barnyard chant” on a bad call turns into a chant of “WE BEG TO DIFFER! WE BEG TO DIFFER!”. When their team is at the free throw line, putting their hands in the air, and when the free throw is made, clapping twice, bringing their hands back down and screaming “WHOOSH!”.
Do these sort of things still happen at Nationwide Arena? Sure they do, but it just doesn’t seem the same. Nationwide Arena is a state of the art facility, seating over 19,000 fans with corporate suites, and is used for a number of functions, including Blue Jackets hockey. It’s a wonderful building. However, it isn’t quaint, it isn’t intimate, and as a fan, you don’t really feel like part of the game. It may be a better fan experience with all the bells and whistles, but there is just something about seeing a game in an “old barn” where tradition takes hold.
So WHY is St. John Arena being demolished? Like most older buildings, it’s the cost of maintenance. According to the University, St. John Arena needs nearly 30 million dollars worth of repairs. The cost of building a brand new facility is $40 million. Wouldn’t the University be saving 10 million dollars by just fixing up St. John? Well, when you have a 10 million dollar gift from Sam Covelli, the nation’s leader in owning Panera franchises, the choice becomes pretty simple now does it?
Ahhhh….progress. Progress is great. No one can argue that. Fresh, brand new facilities and perks. The problem with progress is many times while selling all the new features, one tends to forget what is being left behind. The memories, images, and stories people will be talking about for years.
St. John Arena is OUR Hinkel Fieldhouse and OUR MacArthur Court. It deserves better than to be a parking lot
Before it faces the wrecking ball, wouldn’t one last basketball tournament or set of regional games be appropriate?
It absolutely would be