BEAR DOWN GYM

Patrick Finley: Ball's in another court for Bear Down Gym

2012-09-06T00:00:00Z 2012-09-06T16:19:29Z Patrick Finley: Ball's in another court for Bear Down GymPatrick Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 06, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Somewhere underneath the new durable blue carpeting inside Bear Down Gym is the spot where one of the most amazing moments in the Arizona Wildcats' sports history took place. Ernie McCray, one of the UA's first black basketball players, scored his 46th point on Feb. 6, 1960. It's still a team record.

Where cubicles now stand, the Wildcats won 81 straight home basketball games from 1945 to 1951.

Banners still hang in the rafters of Bear Down Gym, where the UA played every meaningful indoor sporting event until McKale Center opened in 1973.

Generations of students since have played pickup basketball on the wood floors that still exist underneath that layer of carpet.

But Bear Down Gym isn't a gym anymore.

It probably never will be again.

In June, the Arizona Board of Regents approved a $13.5 million renovation of Old Main.

Needing to create space for the displaced, Bear Down Gym was turned into the temporary offices for admissions, Think Tank tutoring services and more.

Carpet was laid, temporary air conditioning tubes and heating vents put in, and Think Tank was the first to move in, in the second week of July.

It held an open house Wednesday.

Eventually, Bear Down Gym, built in 1926, will become the permanent home to classrooms.

Peter Dourlein, the UA assistant vice president for planning, design and construction, told me Wednesday the plan is for the school to build a three- or four-story building behind Bear Down Gym to house the employees there now.

Then the UA will remodel the gym, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and install classrooms.

It'll be like building a ship in a bottle.

"One of the highest priorities will be to recognize the history of the building," he said.

The full project will cost $27.4million, according to the June Regents report, and could be completed within 3 1/2 years.

By installing permanent air conditioning, the campus' 12th-oldest building will look more authentic to the original plans than it did with swamp coolers hanging out of windows, Dourlein said.

Inside, it will look different.

He plans on keeping the open roof structure and bleachers hanging from the wall, a nod to the past. The roof, which was redone this spring, will have "Bear Down" painted on it, again, by the end of the month.

"A bunch of us are alumni, too," Dourlein said. "We're all very sensitive about any tradition."

The key, Dourlein said, was to "extend the useful life" of Bear Down.

"A building can deteriorate physically, and it can also deteriorate functionally," he said. "Right now, mostly it was being used for pickup basketball."

Campus Recreation director Lynn Zwaagstra joked that she didn't get much of a vote in the matter. She said 50 campus groups used Bear Down for activities.

"All those organizations, we no longer have space available for them," she said.

Intramurals have been moved to the gorgeous, modern UA Recreation Center. The UA gave the one-court Gittings Gym to Campus Rec.

Zwaagstra said the transition "has gone very well," but it doesn't feel the same.

"We'll miss the gym," she said.

So will I - and, I assume, most students and alumni.

On a campus that creeps further into the city each year, I wonder why a different solution wasn't available.

Or why, years ago, the UA athletic department didn't claim the building for a hall of fame.

Or why there was anything wrong with a place for kids to play hoops. It's the dustiest, most charming place I've played.

But then there's this: From 1942 to 1944, the UA played at Tucson High so the Navy could train for World War II at what was christened the "USS Bear Down."

The gym's greatest moment had nothing to do with sports.

When I visited Wednesday, I saw a building bustling with students, many who were being tutored for free.

Logically, it's hard to argue that a basketball gym would be a better use of space.

Emotionally, though, it's a shame.

"I love the idea that Bear Down is the hub of student activity," Think Tank director Dorothy Briggs said. "And I think that's part of the legacy. It was in the beginning, and it still is. It's just kinda reframed itself in terms of that activity."

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