While the Rotunda is getting some much-needed attention and a new set of capitals, another venerable building on Grounds quietly passed a milestone this spring. It’s been 50 years since the last season of UVA basketball in Memorial Gym, before the team moved to University Hall. Surviving members of that squad recall upset victories, rowdy fans and old-school fashion.
While today’s raucous UVA basketball fans have created a formidable home-court advantage in the John Paul Jones Arena, Cavalier teams that competed during the Memorial Gym era played with a “sixth man” of a different sort.
“There was a little dead spot on the court where if you dribbled past it, the ball basically didn’t bounce back up,” says Gene Flamm (Educ ’62), who played for the Cavaliers from 1958 to 1963. “That was like the sixth defensive player on the team for us.”
Built as a World War I memorial in 1924, Memorial Gym had an official capacity of 2,500 and served as a multipurpose arena, hosting everything from wrestling matches to social dances. At the time, it was the third-largest gym on the East Coast.
Basketball fans inside Memorial Gym sat on wooden bleachers that circled the court. A track ran around the building’s perimeter above the bleachers and served as another viewing area.
“For ACC games, they’d occasionally fill that place with people sitting on the track, their feet hanging over,” remembers Chuck Rotgin (Col ’66), who played for the Cavaliers from 1961 until 1964. Flamm adds that those fans would sometimes try to deflect the ball off the backboards during warmups. No air conditioning meant the gym, when stuffed to capacity, was hot—and smelly.
“If you got 3,500 people in there, you couldn’t get another one in with a shoehorn,” says Bernie Meyer (Col ’65, Law ’68), a member of the 1962-65 Cavalier team. “You had to stand on people’s toes to get the ball in bounds on the sidelines.”
“If it was a packed house, especially a game that was contested, with the screaming and the cheering and applauding, your ears would actually hurt,” says Flamm.
Students were admitted for free and while the student body was much smaller, Mem Gym provided a formidable home-court advantage as students enthusiastically heckled the opposing squads and cheered on the Cavaliers. Even faculty contributed to the mayhem. Rotgin recalls the former dean of the education school, Ralph Cherry, sitting in the east stands and questioning the referees’ calls in a voice that echoed throughout the gym.
When the team traveled, it wasn’t quite in the style of today’s squad. Flamm estimates they flew on a plane twice in his four years; instead, they typically rode in state-owned cars or took the train.
Even the uniforms didn’t match today’s standards. Flamm remembers white shorts that resembled high school gym shorts, emblazoned with a rubber stamp that read “UVAA.” The footwear was white Chuck Taylors—which usually turned orange from sweat after the third game of the season.