The first time I covered a basketball game at the Bangor Auditorium was in 2001. It was the Class D boys championship game. Valley beat East Grand, 90-81, to win the fourth of a state-record six consecutive gold balls.
It was a Thursday night, and I was on a tight deadline. Even before the game was over, I typed away at the keys on my laptop, one eye on the court and one eye on the screen to make sure I wasn’t writing gibberish. The Valley students sat directly behind me, and they were loud.
That was the first time I realized how loud the Bangor Auditorium gets.
As the game ended and the Cavaliers celebrated, I continued writing. There was no wireless Internet, and I decided to finish my story at press row before running upstairs to the office to fight the other reporters for the one phone line we all used to file our stories.
Seconds after Maine Principals’ Association officials presented the gold ball to Valley, my table shook and my laptop jumped. I looked up, and to my left, there was Valley guard Nick Pelotte, standing on the table, the gold ball raised above his head. He smiled the smile of a guy who had just completed his high school basketball record with a perfect 84-0 record.
A swarm of Valley fans ran to the table to celebrate with Pelotte, and for a moment, I was trapped in their moment. I did the only thing I could. I continued working.
They cheered, and in the middle of it all, I worked. That was the second time I realized how loud the Bangor Auditorium gets.
This season’s high school basketball tournament is the last one in the Bangor Auditorium. The old building, built in 1955, is being replaced by the Cross Insurance Center, which is going up right next door, behind Bangor’s giant Paul Bunyan statue. In the 57 years since it opened, the Bangor Auditorium has been the place for high schools across eastern Maine to spend February vacation.
“All the years I’ve been varsity, I’ve been thinking of it. It’s a great opportunity,” Waterville senior J.P. Michaud said after his team beat Old Town on Wednesday to earn a spot in the regional quarterfinals at the Bangor Auditorium for the first time since 2001. Asked if he had any memories of the last Waterville team to play in Bangor, Michaud said no. He and the Panthers are rebuilding tradition.
Thousands of basketball players dreamed of playing in that V-shaped building, where all the crowd noise seemed to roll down those wings of bleachers and hang above the court, making it impossible to hear the person next to you. Coaches had to account for the crowd noise as well as the day’s opponent.
“At the Augusta Civic Center, even though they pack that place, the noise of the crowd seems distant,” Mt. Abram girls basketball coach Doug Lisherness said. “In the Bangor Auditorium, they sound like they’re right on top of you.”
They are right on top of you. Fans sitting in the lower level bleachers are just a few feet from the court. High school bands are usually seated in the lower bleachers, adding more volume to the spectacle.
A couple of weeks after the Valley game, I was back at the Bangor Auditorium when Bangor’s Joe Campbell dropped jaws from Kittery to Madawaska. Trailing Deering by one point as time ran out, Bangor’s Zak Ray missed a desperation shot. Campbell was there for the rebound, and scored as time expired. Bangor 57, Deering 56. Crowd goes wild. History is made, again.
It was here Mike Thurston of Caribou made perhaps the most famous shot in Maine basketball history, sinking a halfcourt heave in the Class A championship game to beat Westbrook, 65-63…
It was here Cindy Blodgett of Lawrence led the Bulldogs to two of their four consecutive state titles, in front of standing room only crowds…
It was here Brunswick’s Ralph Mims just about single-handedly beat Bangor in the 2004 Eastern A boys championship game. Mims scored 41 points, including 35 in a row, to lead the Dragons to a 51-42 win. And he didn’t score a point in the first quarter…
It was here the Cony girls basketball team won nine regional titles between 1987 and 2005, before the Eastern A tournament moved to Augusta…
It was here, in 1978, Cony’s Gary Towle made a shot you wouldn’t dare try in a game of Horse. Towle bounced the ball off the floor to avoid a tie-up, and it went in…
It was here that Maranacook’s Ryan Martin made a Class B record 18 free throws in a semifinal win over Medomak Valley in 2006…
It was here, in 1986, the Lawrence boys beat Waterville 56-53 days after losing to the Panthers by 56 points on Senior Night at Lawrence…
It was here Dexter beat Rockland in five overtimes, 63-61, to win the Eastern B championship. Because of a leak in the roof, the girls game preceding this one was delayed, and Dexter and Rockland didn’t tip-off until just after 10 p.m. It was after midnight when this marathon game finally ended…
Ahh, yes, the leaky roof. That night in 1986 wasn’t an isolated incident, just the most prominent on a long list of games delayed because of a building that did not age well.
The roof leaks. The heat can be hit or miss. Some days, the Auditorium feels like an icebox, some days it feels like a kiln. More than a few of the wooden chairs have broken over the years, replaced by blue folding chairs that dot the upper levels. There aren’t enough concession stands or bathrooms.
People who played there love the Bangor Auditorium, warts and all. Lindsey Welch played for Nokomis in two state championship games at the Auditorium, and in three Eastern A finals. She remembers standing in the hallway outside the gym, waiting to run on to the court for pregame warmups. You hear the crowd there, but when you run out and see it, the adrenaline rush is incomparable.
“That was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” said Welch, a first-year coach at Winslow who will lead the Black Raiders down that same hallway Saturday morning. “So many people, when they say ‘That’s the worst place to play,’ they’re not from northern Maine or eastern Maine. They don’t know. I would get so defensive about the place. It’s like family.”
Nobody disputes that the Bangor Auditorium lived a good long life and brought joy to thousands of people. The building does need to be replaced, though. A leaky roof doesn’t give a building character, it makes it a safety hazard.
Cross Insurance Center will be a palace. The moment the doors of the Cross Insurance Center open, it will be the best arena in Maine. The Cross Insurance Center is a Taj Mahal. The Bangor Auditorium is a tree house. A leaky tree house.
Maine’s population moved south, and with it, the Eastern A tournament, which started using the Augusta Civic Center as its venue in 2006. When the big schools played in Bangor, Lawrence boys basketball coach Mike McGee would tell his players the Bangor Auditorium was just a gym that seats six or 7,000 people.
“I miss that bleacher-type atmosphere there,” McGee said. “Not to demean the Augusta Civic Center, because it’s a beautiful facility. In Bangor, every basket, you felt like the roof was collapsing.”
Lawrence has a pair of state championships under McGee, but neither was won on the Auditorium floor.
“I always said the roof would explode if Lawrence won the state championship up there,” McGee said.
Both of Mt. Abram’s Class C state championships, in 1991 and 2007, were won at the Bangor Auditorium. In 1991, the Roadrunners held a practice at the Auditorium, where they made sure to note all the dead spots and live spots in the floor. Come game time, that knowledge didn’t matter.
“Coming from Western Maine, we did not feel comfortable there,” Lisherness said. “Calais made a run and I said to an assistant coach, ‘I’d hate to call a timeout, because I know what that Calais crowd is going to do.’ “
Everybody who has ever watched a tournament game at the Bangor Auditorium has a favorite moment. Those memories aren’t going anywhere. The wrecking ball can’t touch the mind’s eye.
Memories will form anywhere. Fifty years from now, people will talk about the great moments in Cross Insurance Center history. The building will have its own Mike Thurston. It will have its own Joe Campbell.
You know what will be cool? Next year, when the space now occupied by the Bangor Auditorium is a parking lot, walk across it and look around. Are you standing on the spot where Thurston let his halfcourt shot fly? Is this where Cindy Blodgett scored 47 points in the Eastern Maine championship her senior year?
Is this where high school basketball brought eastern Maine together for decades?
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242