—-Waukegan High’s East Campus Gym on Washington Street, nicknamed the Dog Pound, Saturday Dec. 4, 2021. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

Before There Was A School, There Was Basketball

To understand the mystique that surrounds Waukegan’s gym, you might only need to know one little tidbit that locals may tell you “the gym was built before the school.”

To be fair to the good people of Waukegan, there had been a high school around since 1870, the gym was just the first part of what would become their new school at the time. Built in 1927 this brick and cement structure is what some refer to as a “barn style” gym; one that has a raised ceiling above the court and a lower ceiling over the seating sections. These gyms are typical of the early 1900s and have steel beams surrounding the court to hold up the raised middle ceiling. Taylorville’s West Gym and Ottawa’s Kingman Gym share some similarities.

Brick and steel hold up Waukegan’s gym. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

Basketball was king in Waukegan. Part of the old Suburban League that was made up of the larger towns’ high schools in Cook County; it included the likes of Oak Park, New Trier, Thornton, Proviso, Evanston, LaGrange, Morton, and even Morgan Park (before that town was incorporated into Chicago.) Formed in 1914 it shouldn’t be a surprise that most of the schools still operating in older buildings in the conference have gyms that are more like arenas and subsequently have made the list of what many consider Illinois’ Best High School Gyms.

A quick look at the entertainment landscape of the day will give you an easy answer to why so many of these towns had more of an arena feel to them than modern gyms. You’d be hard pressed to find fandom of college teams back then like you do now. The NBA was still 20 years away when Waukegan’s gym, as well as most other classic gyms were built, and from a logistics standpoint America was still 40-50 years away from even the beginning of the Interstate Highway System, let alone what we have today. This wasn’t just the only game in town on a weekend night, it was the only thing to do without planning a day trip.

The 1960s at Waukegan High

The 1960s were the pinnacle for the town’s frenzy around its high school basketball team. From what I was told during my visit to the school, you pretty much had to get season tickets if you wanted to see a game for most of the 1960s. Sadly 4th place in the 1958-59 season was as far as the Bulldogs ever made it. There were a few deep runs with a few super-sectionals and a quarterfinal appearance outside of the 4th place finish, but no title.

The benches at Waukegan High School East Campus’ gym still have old wood bleachers with seating number for when demand was so great, season tickets were the only way to see a game, Dec. 4, 2021. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

The irony in the fandom around basketball at Waukegan in the 1950s & 60s is that the very same gym had a perennial powerhouse of a wrestling team, yet there was always plenty of seating at meets. For 15 years, between 1950-51 and 1965-66, the Waukegan wrestlers would make the championship finals seven times, winning state four of those seven and doing that all in a single class system.

Waukegan High fans packed the gym on game nights for basketball during the late 1950s till the late 1960s, but only had one team place at state. Meanwhile their wrestlers brought home 4 titles and 3 2nd place finishes in the same time span, but always had plenty of room for seating in the same gym. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

Jereme Richmond’s “Half-Court Shot”

While it’s believed that Hebron’s magical “Hoosiers” like season went through the Waukegan section in 1952, nothing may ever live down the 2009 buzzer beater delivered by Waukegan’s Jereme Richmond, that happened on their home court as the sectional host. Down by a point with 4.7 seconds left, a then junior Jereme Richmond got an inbounds pass, dribbled to half-court and unleashed a shot that was nothing-but-net, to stun Warren Township who had just gone up by one point. The Bulldogs would go onto finish 2nd in 4A that year. It was the schools only title game so far.

Old Gym Stuff

One of the things that makes old gyms interesting has to do with just how inventive the room was laid out. Giant entry-ways you could drive a car through along both baselines; stairs at all four corners leading to locker rooms. Or the shuffleboard and monkey bars built into the seating areas. Cement floors and wooden benches with seat numbers on them are a reminder that you’re in a place made for watching a game and nothing else is to happen in those seating sections besides spectating.

Teams enter the court at Waukegan High by coming up stairs from locker rooms under the bleachers. Dec. 4, 2021. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)
What looks like a ladder attached to the ceiling is a wooden set of monkey bars most likely used in P.E. classes back in the day, Dec. 4, 2021. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

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