BANGOR – The Bangor Auditorium has been the place every Eastern Maine high school basketball player has wanted to be in late February for the last 57 years.
The dream of playing in the tournament in the famed building has encouraged generations of youngsters to take a few more shots at the basket in the driveway.
Driving along Interstate 395 or standing across the Penobscot River in Brewer, there’s no mistaking the unique V-shaped roof of the building. It’s been a part of the city skyline since 1955, but this winter will be the final time teams will travel to the venue often referred to as The Mecca.
One last time. One last set of tournaments that will start Friday.
The building that has stood sentinel to the Paul Bunyan statue on Main Street will be razed in late May in favor of the 6,000-seat Cross Insurance Center that will open Sept. 20.
While time has passed the Auditorium by, the memories remain.
There have been concerts, pro wrestling and boxing matches, political conventions, trade shows, the Shrine Circus, the Bangor State Fair and other events. But the annual high school basketball tournament has given the building its folklore status. Fans from Aroostook County, Down East and other Eastern Maine areas make the pilgrimage each February school vacation. For many, it’s a community event.
“Most people feel that the Auditorium is as much a part of the tournament as the tournament itself,” said Peter Webb, the state basketball commissioner.
Webb, 74, of Stetson, has been part of the tournament scene since 1956, first as a player for Houlton High, then as an assistant coach, a referee, and for the last 23 years as the commissioner who selects and evaluates referees for the Eastern and Western Maine tournaments.
“I’ve been to state tournaments along the Eastern seaboard, in the South and the Midwest, and the excitement generated for a tournament at the Bangor Auditorium can’t be replicated,” said Webb. “The Auditorium was built for basketball at a time when there was no ESPN or March Madness. Television was fairly new. The spectators are close to the court and the noise seems to funnel down to the court.
“You feel like you’re right on top of the action. It all adds to the excitement. I’m going to miss the building and all of the intricacies associated with it.”
MEMORIES, SO MANY MEMORIES
The Auditorium is where Barry Tapley, a standout for Easton High, scored eight points in 30 seconds late in the 1956 Eastern Class S final against Beals, only to have his team lose by a point.
It’s where Morse beat Stearns 61-60 in two overtimes for the state title in 1963. Two weeks later, Stearns beat Morse for the New England championship at the Boston Garden.
It’s where Mike Thurston of Caribou made arguably the most famous shot in Auditorium history. His half-court heave at the buzzer beat Westbrook 65-63 for the Class LL state title in 1969.
The Auditorium is where Matt Rossignol of Van Buren and Cindy Blodgett of Lawrence sold out the place most every time they played.
It’s also where country singer Kenny Rogers had the roof leak on him during a 1988 concert. President Obama visited in 2008, and President Carter held a town meeting there in 1978.
“Anyone who has been to the Bangor Auditorium has a special memory,” said Adam Smith, the Yarmouth High boys’ coach who grew up in Newport, and played and coached in the building.
“Spending February vacation in the Bangor Auditorium is what you did. If you wanted to meet someone from your town, you would go to the Auditorium.”
Yarmouth won the Class B state championship there last season.
“Winning the state title was great, but winning it there made it even better. When the players walked through the doors and saw the arena, their eyes lit up,” said Smith.
Skip Chappelle, the former University of Maine basketball coach and standout, played in the first basketball game at the Auditorium on Dec. 22, 1955, for Old Town High against Bangor.
Eight days later, the Boston Celtics beat the Syracuse Nationals on the same floor.
“The size of the building was huge to us back in those days,” said Chappelle. “When we first went inside, one of the first things we wanted to do was go to the top of the seats and look down at the court. There’s an incredible amount of history from the small towns to the larger schools.”
Old Town won the state title in 1957 and advanced to play in the New Englands at the Boston Garden.
“Because we had played in the Bangor Auditorium, we weren’t in awe playing in the Boston Garden,” said Chappelle. “I know it sounds crazy but it was true.”
The stands on both sides of the court rise sharply to the ceiling. From the upper reaches of the Auditorium, the players look diminutive. With 5,000 to 6,000 fans, the noise can be deafening.
The capacity of the building has varied over the years. Because the stands aren’t completely pulled out for the Eastern Maine tournament, the capacity is just over 5,000.
When the Downeast Classic, a college basketball tournament comprising eight teams, including Maine, Colgate, Rutgers and Rhode Island, was played from 1959-61, Chappelle, the Black Bears’ standout, swears there were 7,000 crammed into the building when Maine won the event in 1960 and 1961.
When Chappelle coached Maine, the Black Bears played DePaul — the top-ranked team in the country at the time — at the Auditorium on Jan. 6, 1981. Maine kept the game close before losing, 85-77.
“When we scored to cut it to four points, I had never heard noise like that,” Chappelle said. “It was absolutely incredible. When the place was rocking, it was a loud scenario.”
THE PLAYERS REMEMBER
Throughout Eastern Maine, elementary-school kids accompanied by their parents would go to the tournament every year to watch their local heroes play. They couldn’t wait until they played for the high school.
Steve Pound, 62, works for the Cianbro Corporation of Pittsfield in workforce development. He grew up in Millinocket, about 70 miles north on Interstate 95 and home of Stearns High.
“Growing up, the whole thing was to play for Stearns High, which was synonymous with the tournament,” said Pound. “The tournament was the biggest event of the year. I remember asking my father one year when I was young if we could go to the tournament. He told me he didn’t know if we would have enough money, but just before the tournament he said we could go. He told me to ask a friend and off we went.”
Pound is Stearns’ all-time leading scorer. He scored 68 points in the first game of his senior year and averaged 40 points per game as the Minutemen won the 1968 Class LL state title with a 59-57 overtime win over South Portland at the Portland Expo.
Counting regular-season games against Bangor and the Eastern Maine tournaments, Pound estimates he played more than 12 times at the Auditorium.
“I took the whole atmosphere in. It was wonderful. You always remembers those things,” he said.
Bill Burney, 61, of Augusta still holds the Eastern Class A tournament record for points in a game. Playing for Cony, Burney scored 53 points in a quarterfinal against Presque Isle in 1969 at the Auditorium.
“I remember walking through the doors into the arena when I was a freshman,” said Burney. “I wasn’t playing. I had gone up to watch the varsity. The pageantry with the bands, the cheerleaders and the fans was just stunning. That’s when I realized I wanted to play there.”
Kyle Bouchard, a sophomore, is Houlton’s leading scorer this season. The Shiretowners will head into the Eastern Class C tournament Feb. 19 as the top-ranked team. Bouchard’s grandfather, Terry Spurling, played for Ellsworth in the first tournament at the Auditorium in 1956, and Bouchard will play in the last. If Houlton advances to the Class C state final, Bouchard will play in the last game there.
“I’ve been going to games there with my father, mother and grandfather since I can remember,” said Bouchard, whose father, Marty, is principal of Houlton High. “So many stories have been written about the Bangor Auditorium. To have a chance to write the last one would be extremely special.”
Mike Dyer has been the general manager at the facility since 1988 and will continue in that capacity at the Cross Insurance Center, which will be run by Global Spectrum, a management company out of Philadelphia.
“The memories and the associations of the Auditorium will always be there,” said Dyer.
BASKETBALL TO WRECKING BALL
But among the things Dyer won’t miss is the leaky roof. They have been issues during the tournament, and as Kenny Rogers will attest, during a certain concert.
“From the operations side, the aggravation of making the whole thing work will be gone. There hasn’t been anyone when they tour the new building who isn’t excited,” he said.
While admitting that he didn’t have the opportunity to watch a lot of basketball over the years because of his job, Dyer’s favorite tournament memories were during the Blodgett era at Lawrence from 1991-94.
“The building was always full and there was a total buzz for basketball,” he said.
In the Cross Insurance Center, which will be the new home for the Eastern Maine tournament, the Maine Basketball Hall of Fame will have a wing to honor the game’s history, outstanding players and coaches in the state. The first induction is tentatively scheduled for the spring of 2014.
The final high school basketball game will be the Class C boys’ state final March 2. Dyer said the last seated event will be the Shrine Circus from May 3-5. The very last event will be the Bangor Savings Bank employee recognition night May 22. Six days later, the wrecking ball will swing and an era will end.
“There are a lot of emotions with the Bangor Auditorium,” said Tapley, 73, the Easton standout who lives in Torrington, Conn. “I don’t like to see it demolished but with modern times, things change.”
On Feb. 23, 1956, Jim Trafton of East Corinth, playing for Central High, scored the first basket in a tournament game at the Auditorium.
On March 2, 2013, someone will score the last.
Staff Writer Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at: