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Tuesday, February 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sideline Smitty / Craig Smith

Gym dandies: These hoop havens heaven to some

Jim Valvano, the late North Carolina State basketball coach, once said, "There isn't a gym in the country I walk into without wanting to take a shot."

I feel the same way. Gymnasiums fascinate me the way churches or castles intrigue other people.

I can walk into a gym and feel heritage, anticipation and fun.

In fact, I still can recall the woodsy smell of my old grade-school gym in Bothell and how the excitement would grow with each step up the stairs.

So, when the "Sideline Smitty" question of "What are your favorite gyms?" was asked, it was time for a pilgrimage of the state's high-school basketball cathedrals, large and small.

There are more than 350 high-school gyms in the state and I have been to more than 130 of them over the years.

To refine the list of which ones to visit or revisit for my "Top 20" list, I talked to coaches, sportswriters, players and athletic directors to get their advice. "Have you been to ... ?" they would ask, or "What about ... ?"

I had trouble describing my criteria because it amounted to a gut feeling. Some places were magic and most weren't.

The phrase "best gym" didn't fit, and "gyms with the most character" or "gyms with an aura" came closer.

Grading was similar to walking through a statewide art gallery saying, "I like this one" or "Nope." Sometimes, I would spend 20 minutes in a gym, sometimes less than 20 seconds. All visits were made when games weren't being played so the facility, not the game-night atmosphere, would be evaluated.

I confess to a special fondness for "Hoosiers" type gyms of my youth, but these are being replaced with modern, efficient boxes.

"Do they still have that old gym with the balcony in White Swan (outside Yakima)?" asked Lee Ottini, scheduling supervisor of officials in Snohomish County. "I was working a game there in the 1970s and someone threw a live chicken on the floor."

Alas, that gym and other classic small gyms such as the old gym at Highland High School in Cowiche (near Yakima) have been replaced. Some old gyms are now junior-high facilities, which made them ineligible for this list.

So, after more than 1,000 miles in my car on various forays, here are my favorite gyms:

1. Mount Vernon

This is the Sistine Chapel of Washington gyms.

Built in 1921, it is old, wooden and has warmth and heritage. Many consider it the gold standard of high-school gymnasiums.

"I get goose bumps just walking in there," one coach said.

Mac Fraser, who won three state boys championships at Mount Vernon before stepping down to become an assistant, knows what that coach was talking about.

"I don't think there is anything better than coming in on Saturday morning and turning on the lights and lowering the hoops," he said. "It's a got a great feeling about it."

The bleachers are wooden and rise steeply from the floor. The school colors of green and white are everywhere with huge Bulldog mascot murals at each end. Near the rafters are radio nests for broadcasters.

The lobby is part of the experience because it has more than 500 photos commemorating the school's championship teams and best athletes, including competitive boxers.

Most athletic facilities at the school are being renovated, but school district spokesman Kevin Tate said the district realizes it has a gem of a gym and said no major design changes are planned for the gym itself.

"The coziness of the gym will remain the same," he said.

This golden oldie was built by the community in the mid-1950s and the craftsmanship and pride remain obvious.

"I was spoiled growing up in that gym," said Stacey Hanson, Darrington Class of '86. "Every gym you see after that is kind of a disappointment. Nothing compares."

Fan-shaped backboards rather than square ones are a tradition at Darrington.

The gym has a sunken floor, and it's 8 feet to the bleachers. Young fans lean over and slap hands with Darrington players before a game. Young fans slap the wood to make noise and rattle opponents.

There is a mountain mural at one end and large windows allow natural light to illuminate the glistening floor.

3. Battle Ground

When Butch Blue, basketball coach and now athletic director at this school north of Vancouver was presented with plans for the new gym in the mid-1990s, he surprised himself. "This is totally unacceptable," he told a room full of architects and administrators.

They told him to come back with a better layout. He huddled with colleagues in the P.E. Department and did exactly that.

The result is a coach's dream of a basketball complex that suits other sports, too. There are 12 hoops on the main floor and seven in a balcony gym that is fully visible from the main gym. The downstairs gym has three full courts, the balcony gym one. There are six hoops and a full court in a nearby gym.

The well-lit gym has an indoor track, an orange-and-black theme, a huge wall painting of a tiger and artwork on the floor. An enormous light can be lowered for wrestling that makes the ring the only illuminated object in the building.

4. Richland

Art Dawald Gymnasium seats more than 5,000 and is billed as the largest high-school gym in the state. In the glory days of Bombers basketball in the 1960s and 1970s, fans started lining up at 3 p.m. to make sure they got seats for a big night game.

The 40-year-old gym has one of the hardest floors in the state and voters will decide in April whether to replace the floor.

The center circle has a mushroom cloud, the controversial emblem of the Bombers. The scoreboard is so elaborate it even lists how many fouls each player has committed.

5. Raymond

When an old gym is remodeled, it can lose its charm. This one didn't. The gym in this small Willapa Bay town with its huge, arcing ceiling was improved with remodeling.

"A lot of work we didn't have to touch because it was good, solid construction," Raymond Superintendent Mitchell E. Denning said.

The original gym was built in 1956, and KING-TV sportscaster Bill O'Mara was the celebrity guest at its dedication.

This is a well-lit, airy gym. One nice touch: One set of bleachers says "Raymond" when folded and the other says "Seagulls."

6. Shelton

This isn't the only "mini-dome" gym in the state, but no one does it better. From a distance, it looks like a spaceship. The center-circle artwork of a lumberjack topping a tree is ornate and the cartoon of a Highclimber on the wall is wonderful. The facility includes track lanes.

7. Skykomish

Call me silly, but this is a gym — built in 1935 — that I can't get out of my mind. Maybe it was just the solitude of the place on a sunny, mountain morning with sun streaming through the eastern windows onto the dark floor. This is one of the state's tiniest gyms for one of the smallest schools — 22 students in grades 9 through 12. There is balcony seating on three sides and shooters risk hitting the overhead in the corners. Out-of-bounds is only 3 feet in from the stage on the west side of the floor. No other gym reminded me so much of a church.

8. R.A. Long

One rival coach calls the "Lumberdome" in Longview "the loudest gym you can be in" and adds, "It doesn't take a very large crowd to hurt your ears in there." The gym was built in 1939 as a federal works project. An attached five-lane pool and handball court are part of the original construction. The gym has a red-and-black theme with wonderful touches such as a wooden Lumberjack mascot and a banner that begins with the proclamation, "Welcome to R.A. Long, where sportsmanship is an expectation." R.A. Long High School is one of the most attractive schools in the state and the first thing you notice as you approach is a large steeple that prompts the question, "Is this a high school or a small college?"

9. Jackson

This immaculate, modern gymnasium opened in 1994 at the Mill Creek school. The "Wolf Den" has 20 baskets, four full-length basketball courts and can seat 4,000, making it a popular site for district tournaments. The bleachers are the school color of forest green and the gym has something every school should have — a list of individuals who have won state titles in sports such as golf and track.

10. Auburn

This is a large, functional gym that was built in 1978 and has some wonderful touches such as a wall painting of the late astronaut Dick Scobee. He was an Auburn grad and was the commander who died in the Challenger space-shuttle disaster in 1986. The center jump circle has a painting of the Trojan mascot emerging from under the floor. With a capacity of 3,000 and two other gyms in the athletic complex, Auburn is a popular site for district tournaments.

11. Highline

A few years ago, a custodian asked an administrator why this old gym still was a district tournament site. "People like coming here," the administrator replied. "It's got character." The Burien gym, with its balcony seating on three sides, was built in 1946 and is showing its age. Nonetheless, it remains special. "This is 'Hoosiers' ," Nathan Hale Coach Ron Newton exclaimed when he took his team to Highline few years ago.

12. Lewis and Clark

A wonderful new gym at one of the state's oldest schools. The Spokane facility opened for the 2001-2002 school year with nine baskets in the main gym and 10 in the adjoining gym. The gym, with a orange and black color scheme, is named after former coach E.L. "Squinty" Hunter, who guided the Tigers to three state championships.

13. Cathlamet

The well-maintained gym in this Columbia River town is about 40 years old and has beautiful cedar paneling on the walls behind the end lines. There is a stage on one side. "I love this gym," said superintendent Bob Garrett, who is the assistant boys basketball coach for the Class B school. "When I first came here nine years ago I walked in and thought, 'Wow, this is cool.' "

14. Harrington

This is a beauty in the middle of farm-and-ranch country about 45 miles west of Spokane. The old wooden stands are lovingly repainted every summer. There is a couch on the home side where winners of the "Dollars for Scholars" raffle get to sit. (OSHA required a safety bar in front of it). This is a very loud gym. On the day I visited, I had trouble carrying on a conversation because a grade-school class was playing floor hockey. This is home to the combined Class B Sprague-Harrington Falcons, who play some of their games in Sprague, 22 miles away.

15. Lynden Christian

This well-lit gym at the 2A school in the hoops hotbed of Whatcom County has one of the best floors in the state and has a reputation as one of the state's noisiest facilities. Generations of knowledgeable fans show up, and many plan their vacations around the state boys basketball tournament because the Lyncs have gone 21 of the past 22 years. The lower bleachers extend within inches of the floor. The only banners on the wall are for state championships and there are 18 of them, eight of them for girls basketball.

16. Centralia

It's called "Ron's House" for Coach Ron Brown, one of the state's winningest coaches. The orange-and-black color scheme is carried out well and there is a good mascot drawing of a Tiger. It's a big gym with a lot of tradition and warmth.

17. Oakesdale

The gymnasium for this school 30 miles north of Pullman in Whitman County sits atop the cafeteria. The smell of food works its way upstairs into this functional gym built in 1948.

18. Nooksack Valley

The gym was built in 1959 and the lobby display is among the best in the state, celebrating such former stars as Joe Cipriano, who went on to play for the Washington Huskies and NFL lineman Tom Ackerman, who played last year for Tennessee. The facility is called Kay LeMaster Gym after the coach of the 1974 boys Class A state-championship team. On one wall, there is a large painting of a frontiersman — school nickname is Pioneers — wearing Nike shoes and holding a musket. (Some newcomers complain that he shouldn't be holding a gun, but how did he kill his food, throw rocks?) The only real knock against the gym is that it isn't well-lit.

19. Willapa Valley

You can't beat the history of this crackerbox gym — it's a prize for winning the state tournament. Because of the Depression, there was only one tournament in 1936 for all enrollment classifications, and Willapa Valley in Southwest Washington, with an enrollment of 96, was the mouse that roared. It upset giants Lewis and Clark of Spokane, Walla Walla, Everett and Hoquiam to win the championship. The story goes that Gov. Clarence D. Martin presented the trophy and said, "You need a better school." So, with Works Progress Administration funds, the current school and gym were built in 1937.

20. Stadium

This gym is underground. It's a paradox because the gym could be called an athletic dungeon in the gorgeous old Tacoma school that has the best view in the state. Stadium High was built as a luxury hotel and overlooks Puget Sound. The only restaurant I know with a better view than the Stadium cafeteria is the Space Needle, which is just a bit more expensive. The gym only can accommodate about half the students at the 4A school, the lights have a yellowish tinge and from some seats you can't see the entire court. Folks on the official scorer's bench for basketball have to look around a beam. Plans call for a new gym to be built above ground in 2006. After it opens, folks are sure to say, "You guys should have played in the old gym. Now that was an experience!"

Have a question about high-school sports? Craig Smith will find the answer every Tuesday in The Times. Ask your question in one of the following ways: Voice mail (206-464-8279), snail mail (Craig Smith, Seattle Times Sports, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111), or e-mail csmith@seattletimes.com.

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