It was designed for calisthenics, not for three-point shooting or soaring. But if you use your imagination, you can still hear the squeak of sneakers on the hardwood.
In 1893, Lyman Archibald brought basketball to St. Stephen, New Brunswick, an industrial town of about 4,500 people across the St. Croix River from Maine. A protege of James Naismith, the Canadian inventor of the sport, Archibald was hired to lead the local YMCA. He helped introduce many young athletes to the new indoor game which was rapidly gaining popularity across the continent.
While most of the early basketball courts were destroyed, Archibald’s remarkable gymnasium survived, hidden for decades above a thrift store that until recently occupied the old YMCA building. And now a group of businessmen and hoops enthusiasts are about to share it with the world.
Last week, the Canada First Basketball organization hit the $1 million fundraising mark as part of its effort to build a basketball museum and international hoops sanctuary that will celebrate the former court, with its low pressed pewter ceilings and its lighting system operated by an iron crank. On a wall.
“We have a lot of work to do, but we’re on the right track,” said David Ganong, one of the group members and executive vice-president of Ganong Bros., Canada’s oldest chocolate company.
The gym looks nothing like a modern basketball court. It’s about half the length of an NBA court and is narrow enough that a player chasing an out-of-bounds ball could fly out of one of the second-story windows.
With its sky-blue walls and hoops made of woven fruit baskets hanging from each end, it looks like a portal to the 19th century. A newspaper article about a basketball game played here on Oct. 17, 1893 — months before a well-documented game at a YMCA in Paris — makes it the oldest existing court in the world, according to the organization.
The old courtyard was discovered after a fire in 2010 damaged a blue carpet in the room, which was used by the thrift shop as storage space.
The building has seen so many different uses since it was a YMCA – including as a recruiting center during World War I, a pharmacy and a dance hall – that many locals have forgotten that basketball games used to play there.
“After the fire, they took the rug down and said, ‘What the hell is that?'” Mr Ganong said. “It was kind of lost in local history as to what it was.”
The project is supported by Canada Basketball, the sport’s governing body. The national organization provides “ideas, connections and advice when needed,” according to spokesman Matt Walker. Project organizers also hope to attract the NBA and the Toronto Raptors.
Prominent New Brunswick business leaders, including Frank McKenna, John Irving and technology investor Tom Liston, provided early financial support. The draft might have some competition south of the border with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, Mass. But the St. Stephen group hopes its own facility will eventually house artifacts from the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, which does not have a permanent home. They also hope to feature basketball exhibits and even hold three-on-three games in the back parking lot of the building.
Mr. Ganong, whose own basketball career ended after high school when he tore the cartilage in his foot during a game, wants the basketball sanctuary to make St. Stephen a Cooperstown-like tourist destination for baseball fans. Among some merchants in town, there are already visions of new restaurants, sports bars and a hotel for basketball fans who want to make the pilgrimage.
“When it’s up and running, it should bring a lot of people across the city,” he said. “It will become a catalyst to create a lot of activities associated with it.”
The first million dollars is for the group’s purchase of the gymnasium building and an adjacent property, as well as engineering work to determine how to modernize and preserve the space. The second phase will include another round of fundraising, for an eventual total estimated at $10 million, and efforts to raise the profile of the project among Canadian NBAers, the group says.
Carol Kelly, chair of the Canada First Basketball fundraising team, said it was a thrill to see the project come closer to reality after years of planning and dreaming. “It is inspiring that with this small group of volunteers from St. Stephen, we have a clear and ambitious strategy for the future of the building. We are proud to preserve and showcase the city’s rich history,” she said.