Two Firsts Are The Newest Gym Visits Added

In 1893 Morgan Park Academy became the very first high school in Illinois to field a basketball team. Their gym was built in 1897 making this room most likely the longest running site that has hosted high school hoops in Illinois and possibly America. (Photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

Morgan Park Academy, The Nation’s First & Oldest High School Basketball Team

What does a place called “Horse Thief Hollows”, one of football’s greatest coaches, a college known for its brains not brawn, the YMCA, and a military academy have to do with the beginning of high school basketball in America. Well if you put them all-together you apparently get the country’s first high school basketball program.

In 1893 while the game of basketball still had that new horse carriage smell, all those things game together at Morgan Park Military Academy and now 130 years later Morgan Park Academy boasts America’s oldest high school basketball program. Read about their gym and field house here.

Not only is the school the site of the first high school basketball team in the country, its gym and field house are a Prairie Style architectural gem designed by Dwight H. Perkins.

Waukegan’s Dog Pound, The First Gym I Photographed For The Project

While the idea to do a book on Illinois’ more interesting high school gyms popped into my head around 2012, I didn’t actually decide to undertake the project until 2021. Waukegan’s East Campus gym ended up being the first gym I visit solely for the purpose of photographing its gym.

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

Why Waukegan? Many local sports journalists and fans have said it is one of the better high school gyms in the Chicagoland area, and quite frankly they’re not wrong. The gym has a great basketball feel to it, the way most of the more modern gyms don’t. It is worth a visit, especially if your team is playing for a regional or sectional title there.

To be honest though, a lot of how I ended up at Waukegan first has to do with scheduling and location. I managed to not have an assignment that evening for any of the local media outlets and I was planning on doing a double-header in another suburban town, but both games where the team was listed as the home team managed to be played in their secondary gym or as part of a tournament.

Now, over three months into photographing gyms and touring the state, I will say it’s been as fun as it is daunting. Especially with Covid wreaking havoc on schedules in January and my actual paid assignments involving high school basketball, I’ve had to often make some tough calls on whether to take a night off in order to photograph a big game or last chance to shoot a gym ever. See New Trier’s Gates Gymnasium.

Outside of seeing some wonderful gyms and some talented players, two of my favorite aspects though have to be getting to hit-up local eateries and on certain nights dragging my sons to some of these places that are going to be different than 90% of the gyms they’ll see in their lifetime.

Poppy’s in Waukegan, one of many old school eateries I’ve been told to stop at while visiting towns to photograph their high school gyms.

Yeah, they’re often more interested in their electronics than the games I’m at, but they still pay attention every now and again. The little one is a big fan of Lindblom’s gym. (photo by Vincent D. Johnson)

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

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Illinois’ Best High School Gyms updates (pick one)