150 of the Best High School Gyms in Illinois

From 820, down to 150 Gyms. Here are some of the finalists and what it might make take to make it into the book.

The basketball arena at Bloomington High School in Bloomington, Illinois, Known as “The Frank” in December 2021. (Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

There are over 800 high schools in the state of Illinois and with every school year you can start a new debate on which school has the best team. Luckily for fans of prep basketball, every school gets into the playoffs and the Illinois High School Association crowns four state champs.

You’d think with only a new gym or two built every year the debate over which school has the best gym would pretty much have been settled by now, but it has not.

The 150 Finalists; Who Are They?

I’m not going to divulge all the schools that have made what I consider a pretty thorough list, but I will hint at some of the choices still in the running and some traits a lot of the gyms seem to share.

They’re Old

One of the most common traits the gyms that end up on this list or other lists share; they are old. I haven’t done the math yet to average it out, but there are not many gyms on the list built after 1979. Is it because older gyms have a reputation head start over gyms built in the last 10-20 years, maybe, but there is also truth to the phrase “they don’t build ’em like that anymore.”

Evanston High School
Evanston Township H.S. Beardsley Gym, was built in 1925. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

They Host The Playoffs or Big Tournaments

Want lots of people outside your community to know about your high school gym? Just put a trophy on top. Having a big time tournament every year or making sure the road to state goes through your court makes a huge difference. Many of the well known great gyms host regionals, sectionals & super-sectionals, on top of a big holiday tourney.

Collinsville H.S. Fletcher Gym

They Hold A Ton Of Fans

Capacity for big games makes a difference. If your gym only holds a few hundred fans, imagine how long it would take to for ten-thousand new people to see a game there. While only 9 other high schools in the country hold more fans that Moline’s Wharton Field House, capacity 7,250, gyms holding around 2,000 or more seem to end up on this and others’ lists.

The Wharton Field House in Moline, the 10th largest capacity for a high school basketball court in America, on Jan. 15, 2022. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

They’re Intimate

Remember what I was just saying about capacity? Forget about it. Some hardcore basketball fans want to be as close to the action as possible and The Lion’s Den at Leo High School on Chicago’s south side is about as close as you can get. For some people, they’re literally on the court during the game, or at least their feet are. The first row of the bleachers goes right up to the sideline. A balcony above the court extends to the same line.

A Mount Carmel player looks to inbound the ball during a Catholic League Blue Conference matchup at Leo in Chicago on Friday, Jan ,28, 2022. (Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

They’re Unique

It’s hard to be unique when everyone is playing on an almost identical rectangle, but there are enough schools in the state that have done it differently. Glenbrook South’s Titan Dome is one of those schools that did. What makes it even more unique is instead of a track above the court, coaches can make you run laps under the court. The dome also extends beyond the bleachers and on one side houses the wrestling room. It’s multi-purpose with out being in a big boring box.

The Mustangs of Morgan Park from Chicago and the Titans of Glenbrook South from Glenview, during a game at the Titan Dome in Glenview on Dec. 22, 2021. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

They’re Made For Basketball Only

If your gym has permanent seating and a court that has two hoops only, well you’re in the right place to watch a basketball game. There are few places that are houses for hoops only and once you find one, you’ll look at ever other gym that’s made for multiple sports and school functions with a bit of a frown.

You’re only supposed to do one thing at Frankfort High School’s Max Morris Gym, watch basketball. Fans during the IHSA Class 2A Regional Final game between the Lions of Carterville and the Red Devils of Murphysboro, at Frankfort H.S., On Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.(Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

Class 1A Punches Above Their Weight

Some of the top gyms in the state were made for the larger crowds at the schools with 2,000 or more students. However out of the roughly 150 schools on the short list of best gyms, just over half have an enrollment of less than 500 students.

Greenview High School and its 69 students, shares a building with the elementary school, it is one of the smallest enrollment schools to make the list, Feb. 5, 2022.(Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

They Have Some Championships

Having a strong program over decades has a way of making your gym even cooler. Throw in a state title or two and a legendary player who went to the pros and you can guarantee the press will be there regularly and come to talk kindly about your gym. Part of the reason I decided to look for photos or visit every gym in the state, was because I saw this slight “out of sight, out of mind” bias that happened to schools with not-so-great programs, but great gyms. Benton was not one of those overlooked gyms.

The Illinois’ Best high school gyms series: Benton H.S., Benton, IL., on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. (Photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

They Can Be Ghosts

Remember that part about having and “old” gym; well what’s older than a gym that has out lived its usefulness? Across the state there have been consolidations, new additions, and just flat out closed down schools. Several gyms have snuck onto the list even though their school enrollment is zero, and quite frankly they aren’t even a school anymore.

The ghosts of hoops past meet here every Thursday evening at dusk for a game of pickup. (Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

They Put On A Show!

Quincy Senior High School would put most NBA teams to shame with the opening act they have to introduce their starting five. Throw in a band, a fan-o-meter, and I’m telling ya, you’d go back even if the team was bad… which they traditionally are not.

The Blue Devil of Quincy, Grayson Cooke, comes out at the start of a varsity basketball game, on Feb 5, 2022. (Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

They Have More To See Than Basketball

Whether it’s banners, video scoreboards, painted backdrops, or the skyline of Chicago, the walls of the state’s best gyms aren’t painted the same color as some bland personal computer from the 1990s.

The third-floor gym at St. Ignatius in Chicago has probably one of the best window views of any basketball court in the country. I mean, if you had to look at this while taking a free-throw, I think you’d be a little distracted. (Photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

They Are Hallowed Ground

Remember that part about being old; well how about old enough to be the first ever high school basketball program anywhere? That’s just one of the gyms on the list. Morgan Park Academy’s first team was formed in 1893, but it wasn’t for another 4 years, 1897, till their current gym was built. Varsity games are still played there. It kinda looks like a church. “Our Father, who art in hoops heaven, hallowed by thy lane; thy free-come, thy will rebound, on defense and offense too.”

Chicago’s Morgan Park Academy has the oldest high school basketball program in the world. Their current gym was built in 1897, just 4 years after they started playing basketball, Feb. 15, 2022. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

Who Else Makes The Cut

Best way to find out who makes the final 100 gyms is to subscribe for an email update about the book launch.

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Illinois’ Best High School Gyms updates (pick one)

View this list of best high school gyms in Illinois | See the gallery of other high school gyms