By Steve ruman
When Niles’ James Tate converted a pair of free throws with 26.5 seconds remaining in Saturday’s game between the Red Dragons and visiting Howland, it was more than just the final points of a hard-fought contest between bitter rivals.
Tate’s second free throw will go into the record books as the final point ever scored at the current home of the Red Dragons. After serving the Niles McKinley High basketball program for 56 years, War Memorial Gymnasium hosted its final game in front of a capacity crowd.
In April, high school students in Niles will move into a new building, located next to the current high school on Dragon Drive. When the move is complete, the current school — gym included — will be demolished.
War Memorial Gymnasium hosted its first game on Dec. 14, 1957. Playing in front of 1,500 fans, the Red Dragons defeated Rayen, 54-44. The Niles starting five included Willie Moran, Tom DeMont, Jim Miller, John Mitrega and Tony Perrone.
Moran and Perrone were among a large contingent of former players who attended the finale. Moran recalled the gym’s opening night.
“Basketball was big in Niles in the 50s, so this was a big deal,” Moran said. “We used to play our home games at the old Washington Junior High Gym. It was so small, some of our games were moved to McDonald. All of a sudden, we felt like we moved into a palace.”
Current Niles coach Ron Price has been part of the Dragons’ program in some capacity for the better part of 27 years. He said the closing of the gym “definitely signals the end of a special time.”
“There’s a lot of memories here,” Price said. “What I’ll remember most is the heart of the guys who played here. Niles kids have more heart than any other players around.”
Stacia Ray made more baskets at War Memorial Gymnasium than any other player in its history. The 2004 Niles graduate is the Red Dragons’ all-time leading scorer (male or female) with 1,496 points.
Ray said she will miss “the overall atmosphere” of the gym, including its large walls which were often adorned with spirit signs. She noted that the gym was unique in that it showcased both a vast nature and an intimate feel.
“When you walked into the gym, it could be very intimidating,” Ray said. “Its really high ceiling and two-story balcony makes the place look huge. But the stands are right up against the court. During games, the fans are right on top of you.”
Ironically, one of Ray’s lasting memories was a game against Howland which was delayed in the second half when a power outage darkened the gym.
“We were a big underdog, and we were up by two points,” Ray said. “The lights went out and when play resumed, Howland gained momentum and ended up with the win.”
Following a Niles-Howland tussle on Saturday, the lights went out for good at War Memorial Gymnasium.