Billikens Say Farewell To West Pine

ST. LOUIS — The retirement of an aging athletic facility is often a nostalgic occasion, a time for fond reminiscences and the recounting of past glories.

And sometimes it's not.

After Saint Louis University's West Pine Gym played host to its last scheduled athletic event Wednesday night — a 77-66 Billikens loss to Temple — you got the distinct impression that some of its occupants were quite happy to be moving on to bigger and better things. Actually, it was more than an impression.

"Just look at it," Billikens coach Shimmy Gray-Miller said, pointing to the remains of a junk food binge underneath one of the building's aging bleachers. "The pop cans will probably be here next year. I took this job knowing I was not going to spend my entire tenure here. For other people who have played there whole careers here and coaches who have coached here, and for fans who have come to games for years and years, I'm sure this place has a lot of nostalgia and tradition. But as far as trying to grow and develop a program, we've got to get out of here. I was happy to turn the lights out tonight."

The finale, which was attended by 689 fans, illustrated some of the building's shortcomings in a way that made it quite evident why Gray-Miller is so eager to relocate. The scoreboards were hard to read because several of the LEDs were faded or broken.

At one point, the shot clock shut down when someone accidentally unplugged the cord behind the basket. And a second cord-related incident interrupted Gray-Miller's postgame radio show, as someone on the cleanup crew unplugged the power strip leading to the hosts' microphones before frantically plugging it back in.

And yet the night was not entirely nostalgia-free. It was the seniors' final home game, and one of those players — guard Hayley Leake — was content to have played her entire career in West Pine Gym.

"I'm from a small town, so I like the older style of the gym. It doesn't bother me," said Leake, a Silex, Mo., native. "When you get enough people in here, it's a hard place (for opponents) to play in. So although it would be awesome to play in the new arena, I liked West Pine."

The 80-year-old facility is officially known as the Bauman-Eberhardt Center in recognition of former SLU athletic trainer Bob Bauman and former phys ed department chairman Walter Eberhardt. But most people still refer to it by its original name, even though West Pine Boulevard these days stops about two blocks short of the 2,200-seat field house.

And the name isn't the only holdover from a bygone era. So too is the paint. And the plumbing. And the ventilation system, which frequently fails to keep out the sweltering summer weather.

In a story in Wednesday's St. Louis Post-Disptach, Gray-Miller recalled stepping in the building for the first time during her job interview:

"It was old, moldy, terrible," she told the P-D's Tom Timmerman. "I told them they better get me out pretty quick before I stopped loving (SLU) so much."

The men's basketball team did just that, abandoning West Pine Gym in 1945 in favor of Kiel Auditorium and eventually the Scottrade Center. The women, however, continued to make it their home, coping with its strange microclimates, which could vary from room to room depending on the weather outside, its peeling paint and its substandard amenities.

Wednesday's game was supposed to be the gym's farewell, but it seemed for a while as though the Billikens and Owls would still be playing on Thursday if not beyond. There were 57 personal fouls called, and Temple attempted an Atlantic 10 season-high 55 free throws.

The Owls finally took control of the seesaw game with a 12-0 run late in the second half. Guard Ashley Morris finished with a game-high 22 points as Temple improved to 18-11 overall and 11-2 in the conference.

Sophomore guard Theresa Lisch led the Billikens (10-18, 5-8) with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Maggie Hennegan added 15 points, while Leake had 11.

"It was very physical," Leake said. "But I don't think we backed down for a second. I'm proud of how we responded."

SLU officials haven't decided what to do with West Pine Gym with both basketball teams set to begin play in the sparkling new Chaifetz Arena next season. It may be razed, or it may be refurbished.

In the meantime, players and coaches are looking ahead.

"I'm definitely excited about the new arena," Lisch said. "It's definitely going to provide a boost to our program. But we're leaving a lot on this court."

Gray-Miller is thinking along the same lines. After the final buzzer, as the house lights dimmed and the band played a mournful rendition of "Taps" she grabbed the public address microphone. First she promised better things to come. Then she bid farewell to the crowd.

"You don't have to go home," she said, "but you've got to get the hell out of here."

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