One Last Time at Alumni Gym

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Well, that’s a wrap for Elon’s Alumni Gym. I just watched the final men’s basketball game that will ever be played in the facility; a facility where I spent many, many hours during my time as an Elon student from 2008-2012. This quaint little gym will hold a special spot in my heart forever. I guess my purpose here tonight is to try to bid it farewell in blog form, just as this gym’s architect would have wanted.

Let’s use a familiar writing trope and start this farewell where it ended: tonight’s game. The Phoenix lost to James Madison, 90-84. That’s not the way you dream it up when you’re planning the final season for a historic facility. Especially this season. The Phoenix returned all five starters from last season’s team that, by most accounts, overachieved in CAA play. This year, they were the preseason pick to finish third in the CAA. Many (probably Elon homers like me) thought they’d seriously compete for a conference championship. That’s not exactly how it’s played out.

At the beginning of the CAA season, we thought, maybe Elon could do this. Alumni Gym was a source of several wins as Elon beat eventual conference regular season champ, College of Charleston, and jumped out to a 4-2 start in conference play. But nobody seems to know what happened next. Elon closed out the season by winning just two of their final twelve games. Within that stretch, they lost four of their five home games. Elon will head to the CAA Tournament as the 10-seed. In case you’re wondering, there are only 10 teams in the CAA.

But tonight, despite the loss, Alumni Gym showed a glimpse of the magic it bestowed upon the Phoenix (and the Fighting Christians) for 68 years.

There’s something a bit poetic about playing basketball in such an intimate setting (this place holds 2,000 people on a good day). Over the last few years under Head Coach Matt Matheny, it’s become tradition for students to walk down to the sidelines at the end of a game (win or lose) and high five, dap up, or shake hands with the Phoenix as they head back to their locker room, all while the Pep Band plays the Alma Mater (“Alma Mater we will cherish thee”). Tonight, I watched as Elon Senior, Dmitri Thompson, somewhat somberly, but also with a glint of appreciation in his eyeballs, walked down the line one last time offering his peers handshakes, daps, and hugs.

Hell, “Meech” even shook my hand. I’m probably just a romantic, but man, watching Dmitri Thompson in that moment was really something. For the senior to quickly put the loss behind him and soak it all in one last time was simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. The season has certainly not gone how he hoped or expected, but I loved that he was able to shake away the loss for that moment and soak it up.

Then there’s fellow senior, Brian Dawkins, who poured in a season-high 25 points tonight to close the building. “I didn’t wait until today to think about finishing my career at Alumni Gym,” says B-Dawk. “I’ve been thinking about that the whole year. I’m disappointed I couldn’t finish with a win, but I’m still grateful this school has given me the opportunity to play college basketball.”

“Our goal is still achievable. If we play with the effort we did today and find a way to execute, we can still accomplish our dreams. My dream is to play in an NCAA Tournament. You have to leave it out on the floor and that’s what I intend to do during the CAA Tournament in order to realize my dream.”

Dawkins’ game-tying layup through contact with about 12 minutes remaining had Coach Matheny waving his arms to get the crowd fired up one last time at Alumni Gym. “Tonight, there were great moments,” said Matheny. “Loud, exciting times. That’s what I’ll remember about Alumni Gym. When I think of this building, I think of some great nights. We had some of that tonight. We made some shots. It got loud.”

He’s right. I watched as Elon’s student section (sometimes, but not often, referred to as “The Nest”) stood in unison and cheered their Phoenix on one last time. Sure, they remained seated for the first 38 minutes of the game. But those final two minutes? Whoooo boy. EU, you know!

I’ve written about it a bit before, but I’m endlessly fascinated by the culture of small-town/mid-major hoops. Elon’s Alumni Gym has been the epitome of that for me. As a student, there was never any doubt about whether the opposing players could hear me when I yelled last-name-based puns at them. Now, as a media member, I’m given the opportunity to attend post-game press conferences. Instead of cameras rolling and laptop keys typing, it’s usually just me and one or two other beat writers or broadcasters in the media room. College Basketball is an entirely different experience when you play at a venue like Alumni Gym, and part of that is going away now.

Brian Dawkins said it well the other night, after Elon’s loss to Northeastern. “Seeing the same faces and getting to know the people that come to these games is a special thing. Just the family feel inside this gym is special.”

It’s been an absolute pleasure to get to know this building over the past 10 years. For me (never much of a college party person, which is a common trait among the majority of Elon students), Alumni Gym is where the social butterfly in me did its best fluttering. In this building, people knew who I was. And that’s meaningful to me in a narcissistic way, I guess. But whatever, it’s important to feel valued however you can get it, ya know?

And okay, fine… Elon’s new Schar Center will still be plenty intimate when they open it up for business next season. There’s still going to be plenty of that “small-town hoops” feel to it, but it won’t be Alumni Gym.

So fare thee well, Alumni Gym. Thanks for the memories.

And to the Schar Center, here’s to banking on an “if you build it, they will come” situation for the Men’s Basketball program.