Swimming pool basketball
Jan. 26, 2012
By Bill Skiff
Vermont native son Peter Bent Brigham established Brigham Academy in Bakersfield in 1879; he later founded Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Though the Academy is no longer a school, it was a hotbed for high school basketball in the 1940s and 50s.
Originally conceived to be Brigham’s swimming pool, plans changed during construction and it became a basketball court. It maintained many of its swimming pool characteristics, which led to a unique set of home court advantages.
The floor of the court was down at the bottom of the pool. It was closed in on four sides by high solid walls. At the top of the walls, a balcony around three sides formed a horseshoe viewing area. Spectators would hang over and taunt opposing players as they dribbled up and down the court. Other times, when fans thought the officials were not looking, they would drop things on opposing players.
The backboards hung at each end of the court from iron pipes attached to the side of the protruding balcony. Kids sitting behind the basket would shake those pipes causing the backboard — and basket — to move. When shooting, you thought you were seeing double. Sometimes, as the backboards moved, loose particles fell off and into your face. The fans doing the shaking would also make faces at you as you went up for a layup. Our Cambridge team felt home court advantages were influencing the competition but the officials never seemed to notice. If we complained loudly enough, they made the kids move.
Down in the pit, chairs for more spectators sat around the edge of the court and against the wall. The out-of-bounds line was just in front of these chairs. People sitting let their feet stick out onto the court. As you dribbled down the side of the court, spectators would pull in their feet just a few feet ahead of you. Sometimes, if you were ahead of one of their players, they would wait until the last minute to move their feet (which allowed their player catch up).
The competition between Bakersfield and Cambridge was fierce. We played for bragging rights. The entire population of both towns attended these games — the towns closed down. You couldn’t buy a quart of milk if you tried.
The competitive loyalties were very personal. In one game, our center, Charlie, was holding the ball over his head when Frank, an opposing player, reached up and grabbed it. Both players hung on, as Charlie bent down with the ball. He continued pulling the ball down, while Frank clung on. As it turned out, Frank’s mother was a teacher at Cambridge High — but her son played for Brigham. Suddenly, when Frank flew up and over Charlie’s back — and landed in a heap on the floor right in front of her — she jumped up and hit Charlie over the head with her umbrella.
While Charlie stood dumfounded, the officials stopped the game and consulted their rulebook. They found no reference to a foul that could be called on a mother, so they gave the ball back to us and continued the game.
When we played them later in a Waterbury tournament, another teammate’s mother cheered so hard that she was taken to the hospital at halftime with a heart attack. We won and she lived.
Private academies fell on hard times during the 1960s. In 1966, Brigham Academy closed. Many attempts over the years to restore it have failed. The original Academy in Bakersfield is on the National Historical Registry.
The court at Jericho High School also had an interesting home court advantage: a heating grate in one corner of the court. It supplied heat for the entire building. We lost the ball there many times. When you dribbled down the court, the ball bounced waist high. When you dribbled over the grate, however, it only raised knee high. As you passed over the grate, you found yourself dribbling air — while an opposing player grabbed the loose ball behind you and headed the other way.
Our team dressed for the game in an adjacent building. When you were ready, you ran through the snow and subzero temperature to the building with the basketball court. You arrived half frozen, with snow all over your sneakers.
Johnson High School’s court was lined with supporting pillars down both sides, located just out of bounds. Sometimes, when you were guarding an opposing player down the sideline, he would give you a little push and you were “picked off” by a pillar. He would then go down the other end of the court to score.
There were many talented girls teams in the 40s and 50s. Next time, I will share with you what made their game of basketball so different — and fascinating.
Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.