Best HS Gyms: Back To Where It Started

A girls basketball game between the Lions of Lyons Township and the Huskies of Oak Park-River Forest, at OPRF on Jan. 7, 2012. Photo by Vincent D. Johnson.

Oak Park inspired Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and now me.

On the afternoon of January 7th of 2012, I was getting ready to photograph a varsity girls basketball game for the Oak Leaves newspaper, in what would be my first time inside Oak Park-River Forest High School. Little did I know that visit would put a thought in my head that would stick with me for the next decade.

I can’t tell you much about the game. I know it was a Saturday and early enough that the skylights were letting in some good natural light. I can probably also tell you with a certain amount of truth that the younger version of me was mildly grumpy because he was assigned to shoot girls basketball. Something I used to frown upon, feeling that the editors were giving me less prestigious assignments than others. I can also tell you over the last decade that opinion has changed thanks in-a-big part to working closely with the Daily Southtown’s Tony Baranek, (although he hasn’t sold me on stock car racing yet.)

One thing I can tell you with absolute clarity is that walking into that large-cavernous gym blew me away and as I sat court-side photographing the game an idea popped into my head and never left; wouldn’t it be great if someone did a photo book on all the unique looking gyms in the state?

To be fair I had already contemplated doing a photo book on the coolest high school football stadiums in Illinois. During my time at Illinois High School Football Weekly I had already been putting together a list and taking photos at games, but realized that there might be only a dozen to two-dozen stadiums in the state worth putting in a book, so I kinda scrapped it. Ironically OPRF would have been included in that book as well.

If you’re playing the cool sports facilities game at home you can check off Oak Park-River Forest on the trifecta list. Their football stadium and in-door swimming arena pull off the hat trick when you add in the field house on their campus.

That game, and in a follow up game at OPRF a year later, I didn’t really take any photos showcasing the gym. Part of the reasons why was, I was new dad and knew I didn’t have the time to start a project like that. The other more compelling reason was, I was sure this simple idea must have been done already or was in the works by some other photographer. Small hint here; it was not a simple project as I’ve come to find out.

Back again almost a year-to-the-day later, I was photographing The Oak Park-River Forest boys this time on Jan. 18, 2013.

A Decade of Stale Rectangles

Outside of OPRF’s field house though I was right back to photographing basketball in more modern gyms. With layouts made for modern needs. While talking with someone about the book project they referred to the standard high school gym as a “stale rectangle” and I couldn’t have agreed more.

However the days of schools only having the three major sports and no female sports, thankfully are long gone, but with that change so too is the possibility of a high school getting a gymnasium specifically for watching and playing basketball. Add local taxes attached to many school improvement projects, I couldn’t imagine a school superintendent asking to build a single use facility with permanent seating and not being run out of a job.

So, with exception of the rare occasion come playoff time where I ended up in a gym like Marshall in Chicago or Chicago Vocational, I was seeing very few gyms of a unique nature. That was until I started getting assigned to cover Brother Rice.

The Crusaders’ Crazy Gym

Illinois high school boys varsity basketball game between the Caravan of Mount Carmel from Chicago and the Crusaders of Brother Rice from Chicago, at Brother Rice on January 10, 2020, in Chicago. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson).

January 10th of 2020 wasn’t the first time I had stepped onto Brother Rice’s home court, but it had been 8-years since that thought popped into my head while covering girls hoops at OPRF and nobody else seemed to have made a book on the best high school gyms in Illinois yet, so while on assignment for the Daily Southtown I started making some photos of the gym during warmups and in-between periods. The idea was, I may or may not be doing this book, but if I’m going to be at some of these cool gyms, I’m at least going to have enough photos so I don’t have to photograph them again if I go ahead with it.

It probably doesn’t need to be said why Brother Rice turned out to be one of the only gym I photographed for a potential book in 2020. The thought sat with me through the pandemic and when full high school basketball returned in the fall of 2021, I had a list and was determined to photograph the best 30-50 high school gyms in the state, but a funny thing happened.

The List Kept Getting Bigger

Waukegan High’s Washington Street gym, on Dec. 4, 2021. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

Armed with a top 10 list of gyms the Chicago Tribune put out, with a few more added from colleagues in the media, I set off to travel to gyms on days I didn’t have an assignment. Waukegan on a Saturday night a day before my birthday; to Hebron from Chicago on a Tuesday night during frigid temps and snow. Turing down work so I could be at New Trier for the final game in Gates Gym, but for each gym I visited and each time I told someone about the project the list kept growing.

Wrapping It Up

The Lions of Lyons Township from La Grange Park and the Huskies of Oak Park-River Forest, at Oak Park-River Forest, on Jan. 12, 2023. Part of the Best High School Gyms in Illinois series. (Photo copyright of Vincent D. Johnson)

Now that list of 30 is up to about 150, with about 30-35 gyms left to photograph. Last week I finally made it back to the gym that started it all, Oak Park-River Forest’s field house, ironically they were playing Lyons township. So just as I’m wrapping up this very long post, I can finally see the finish line for this book.

If you’re still reading this make sure to subscribe to the email newsletter. I’ll be sending out the list of the last 30 or so gyms I will be photographing before starting to work on the layout for the book. This list is a subscriber only perk and it’s free to subscribe.

Also, I just added a page of photos and info about Oak Park-River Forest’s field house. <<–click here

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