John Kohtala, from a family of farmers, climbed to the upper level of the Bangor Auditorium with his Mt. Blue High teammates and peered down at the basketball court, more than three levels below.
Coach, he said to Jim Bessey, you could put a lot of hay in here.
That was back in 1981 but the memory is fresh. For many the Bangor Auditorium was a big barn, particularly when it was empty of fans. Bessey’s team had left Farmington days before their Eastern Maine quarterfinal to practice and explore, to get a feel for the place that magnifies everything.
Bessey made dozens of trips with Mt. Blue teams to the Eastern Class A tournament. His 40-year high school coaching career, which included a few seasons at Class C Madison, ended last season.
He had become very familiar with the sounds, sights and smells of the old arena. For his players, it usually was an introduction to another world.
The court was legendary for dead spots. Basketballs didn’t bounce true. Uneven spots skinned knees of players diving for loose balls. For Bessey, the noise from the crowd was like nowhere else. Inside, the building looked like a giant V, with levels of bleachers and seats soaring to the roof.
“There was a vastness to it that made it so different,” said Bessey. The court was at the tiny base of the V. Noise came from every direction and it rarely diminished.
“As a coach you had to prepare for that. You couldn’t audible. Your players couldn’t hear. You had to have visuals.”
Bessey loved the locker rooms even though they could feel so dank. A coach could get caught up in thinking how many players over decades had dressed for games and listened to final instructions from coaches. Bessey had taught history, and here his teams were living it.
Out on the court, despite the swirl of noise and thoughts, Bessey found his nose twitching. He could smell the popcorn.
Winning the 1997 Eastern Maine championship — Mt. Blue’s only regional boys’ basketball title — was the highlight. The low happened seven years earlier against Brewer in a quarterfinal. Jason Leighton’s desperation 3-point shot from beyond half-court went in, knocking Mt. Blue out.
Imagine the noise that day.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: