A small group of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School alumni and coaches said goodbye to the school’s 54-year-old gym just hours before the demolition crews were to move in this morning.
About 60 folks attended a $125-a-ticket farewell Tuesday night, where they donned yellow plastic hard hats and sat at tables accented with yellow construction tape.
When finished this fall, the renovated Maple Street gym will be named the LeBron James Arena in honor of the NBA star who is footing the $1 million bill for the project.
The gym will get a floor, lighting, bleachers, locker rooms, restrooms and an upgraded training room.
As the current collapsible bleachers are replaced with stationary seating, capacity will grow from about 1,700 to 1,800 fans.
Gary Johnson, who has been announcing games in the gym for 24 years, joked that there will have to be “courses” to teach people how to use aisles, since the current bleachers require fans to clamor over each other’s shoulders and knees.
But the announcement that the gym would have air conditioning is what garnered the most applause of the night.
Jerome Lane, a former NBA player and 1985 St. V-M graduate whose own jersey number was retired at the school, said better lighting is desperately needed, and a state-of-the-art floor that bounces will save wear and tear on athlete’s knees.
“There’s a lot of history and we had a great time in here, but we’ve got to keep up with the times,” Lane said.
James — a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player now with the Miami Heat, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a 2003 St. V-M graduate who led the Irish to four consecutive state championship game appearances — appointed varsity coach Dru Joyce II to oversee the project for him.
Joyce, who coached James before the phenom became the NBA’s first overall draft pick in 2003, said the gift of the gym is an example of something he’s always said about James: “What he does outside of basketball will be greater than what he does inside basketball.”
The current gym was dedicated on Feb. 15, 1959, during a game between St. Mary High School and St. Vincent High School — the two schools that later merged as a directive from the Cleveland Dioceses.
The gym cost $270,000, the equivalent of $2.16 million today. The existing building will remain, but the inside will be gutted.
Johnson said the gym’s memories go beyond athletic events, having been used for everything from academic meets to fundraising efforts.
‘‘It’s a place that has been used “to pray, to cheer, to comfort, to inspire,” he said.
In addition to several speakers, Tuesday’s celebration also featured a table for alumni to share their memories, competitive free-throw and other basketball games, and an auction that included the right to shoot the very last basket in the one remaining hoop.
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.