It’s time to say good-bye to an old friend, one of the deepest and truest loves of my life.
For more than 35 years, she welcomed with me open arms. She always wooed me with the promise of something new, something different every time I handed my life over to her, be it for a couple of hours or an entire day. She never judged me at any point, not from the day I first set foot into her remarkable and unpredictable world. She was always there for me, beginning when I was just a child. She would later give me a home for three years, one I could always return to and feel as though I never left. She gave me memories that will last a lifetime.
And, I loved her. So much. She was the Bangor Auditorium. And I’ll never forgot her.
If you were born and raised outside of the area known as “Eastern Maine” you might not be able to grasp what the Bangor Auditorium means to those who walked through her doors and camped out below her unique, V-shaped roof. You might have been there for a circus, or a concert, a single basketball game, or the week-long basketball extravaganza known as The Tournament.
But it was Heaven in so many ways, to so many people. Everybody had a different relationship with The Auditorium and each is unique and special to that person, and that is perhaps what makes the old barn such an iconic place.
Yankee Stadium? Fenway Park? Wrigley Field? Lambeau Field? Madison Square Gardien? Hell, the Coliseum in Rome. None of you have anything on the Bangor Auditorium when it comes to great sports venues. Not in my eyes, nor in my heart.
I honestly can’t remember the first time I set foot in the Bangor Auditorium, but if I had to guess it was for the circus. I don’t remember the time-frame, but I was young. Really young. Elephants, clowns, scantily clad ladies flying around the air on what appeared to be invisible strings.
Little did I know what this beauty really held in store for me.
The “love affair” began in the late 1970s, which was right about the time I discovered the sport of basketball. They held “The Tournament” at the Bangor Auditorium during February school vacation week every year, and unless you lived it, you can’t quite understand how small towns throughout Maine would literally shut down, and make the pilgrimage to the Bangor Auditorium to watch their teams play basketball.
I had a friend in middle school and his mother worked in the concession stands down in the bowels of the Auditorium. Every day, for a week, we would tag along, getting in for free, and then spend all day inside the building, not just watching the games — two wide-eyed kids amongst a throng of thousands — but between sessions, we always got to to play on the court, as well.
I never realized how lucky I was back in those days. I couldn’t even count all the games I saw back then, but all those schools who came to play were just the first steps in ever-expanding world. Cony of Augusta. Stearns of Millinocket. Orono. Jonesport-Beals. Allagash — places I’d never even heard of, yet there they were, places and people and role models outside of my tiny little berg of Orrington, Maine.
Forget wanting to be a member of the Boston Celtics. I wanted to be Gary Towle, or Ray Felt, or Jeff Sturgeon, or Jeff Topliff.
By the time middle school was over and I went to high school, the Bangor Auditorium became my home court. I was wise enough to pick John Bapst Memorial High School, which was a private school located in Bangor, a little more than a mile away from the Auditorium. I played three years of JV ball as a Crusader — though I’ll go to my grave knowing full well I should have made varsity my junior year.
My freshman year, with a true varsity team to root for and support, I realized how special a place the Bangor Auditorium could be. During that year’s Eastern Maine tournament, a senior at our school — Tammy Stone — hit a shot at the buzzer to win the regional championship. The ball bounced around the rim not once, not even twice, but three times before falling in. Standing in the student section, waiting to go crazy and storm the court — we were allowed to do such things back in the day — I remember thinking the ghosts of this building are going to force that ball in. It’s nature. It’s our home court. It’s the Auditorium.
And, sure enough, we were champs.
Whether I was playing sub-varsity with my JV team in front of 50 fans, or whether it was watching a tournament game (or a college game — the University of Maine actually played its home games there for a number of years, including playing host to the No. 1 team in the country, DePaul, in 1981) — with five to six thousand others, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at home than inside the Bangor Auditorium.
During my high school days, during the tournament, since me and my friends knew the building so well, we knew where to hide out so we never had to pay more than once a day.
I even came “thisclose” to having my own incredible varsity moment at the Auditorium. My senior year, I had transferred to a public school in an adjacent town (why I did is a post for another time, but it all started with a girl). I tried out for and made the varsity team for that school, only with a caveat from the coach who told me I was good enough to make the team and I worked hard enough to deserve one of the top 12 spots, but because I was a first-year senior, playing for a young team which had played for the Eastern Maine Class B title the year before, he doubted I would get much time playing time.
I just figured I’d prove myself like I always did and get my shot. When our point guard got booted off the team, I got my opportunity and played pretty well over a holiday tournament and a couple of regular season games. Then, out of nowhere, he called three sophomores up to the varsity team and my playing time dropped off again.
I probably could have let it go as water under the bridge, but during that year’s Eastern Maine Class B tournament semifinals, we were in a tight game with Schenck High School and in the fourth quarter, one of our guards fouled out.
I knew this was my moment — my lifetime dream of being a tournament hero, right there for the taking. The coach looked down the bench, and he looked me right in the eye. In return, I looked right back at him with a look that said to him, “Coach, I got this. This was my home court for three years. I’ve lived here. This place does not intimidate me. Put me in.”
And he looked right past me, tossed a scared-shitless sophomore out there and that player made a couple of key mistakes in our loss.
Needless to say, I dammed that moment up on the bus ride home, refusing to let any water cross under the bridge, and have never forgiven the coach for not putting me in the game. He kept me from my destiny.
Just the same, even outside of basketball, The Auditorium has given me so much more.
My first experience with photography came shooting varsity basketball games there when I was a sophomore in high school. My father had purchased a Pentax K-1000 camera and took photos of me playing. I would then shoot photos of my friends playing the varsity game. Who would have thunk it would be the beginning of a career.
The second concert I ever attended occurred there, as well. Aerosmith — the summer of 1984. Back then, the band sucked because, as Steven Tyler once explained, they had gone from being a musicians who dabbled in drugs and become druggies who dabbled in music. But hearing “Dream On” in person — no matter how bad it might have sucked — is something that never leaves you.
And, of course, professionally, I had the honor of covering a dozen tournaments as a staff writer at the Bangor Daily News, hundreds of games and moments I’ll never ever forget.
From a five-overtime classic between Dexter and Rockland — complete with a game-postponing leaky roof that pushed the game deep into the night ; from a young kid named Matthew Rossignol of Van Buren, who in front of nearly 6,000 strong scored 50 points and when he casually sank a foul shot to give him that number, turned to the crowd and held up five fingers and then zero — the place went nuts; to Cindy Blodgett, who simply became the Larry Bird of Maine schoolgirl basketball.
Toss in a very special Orono High School prom and many memorable Maine Lumberjack games in the CBA, and the Bangor Auditorium became a part of me. (For the record, though, I never called it “The Mecca” as people started to do in the 1990s. The Mecca was always in Milwaukee, and giving another facilities name to my beloved Bangor Auditorium was blasphemy).
I left the Auditorium behind 15 years ago when I left my hometown for The Rest of My Life.
On my TV stand, however, is a piece of the Bangor Auditorium floor that I played on; perhaps my most prized possession from my best.
Just like my memories, I’ll have a piece of the Bangor Auditorium with me forever.
Thank you, old girl. I’ll never forget you.