Hattiesburg’s old gym burns down, but so many memories will endure

Hattiesburg’s old high school gymnasium, long since abandoned, burned down in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Thankfully, the memories live on. And we will get to those.

The gym, completed in 1937, was home to the Hattiesburg High Tigers for nearly 50 years. The gym never really had a name. Some folks called it Hawkins Gymnasium, because Hawkins Junior High was across the street. Mostly, we just called it “the old high school gym,” no capital letters necessary. It was a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, one of thousands across the U.S. and one of hundreds across Mississippi. Thank you, FDR.

It was both quirky and creaky, that old gym was. It always seemed to me that it might house ghosts. The court was 104 feet long, 12 feet longer than regulation courts. It had humps in the floor. It had dead spots, too, where the ball wouldn’t bounce the way it was supposed to.

“As home court advantages go, it was the best,” said Purvis Short, who led Hattiesburg High to the 1974 state championship, and would go on to score more than 14,000 points in the NBA. “I have literally hundreds of memories of that place, and all of them are good. That’s rare, isn’t it?”

The old gym is where Coach Johnny Hurtt taught Purvis Short how to shoot high-arching jump shots by guarding him in shooting drills with a broomstick. It is where Hurtt often employed a full-court press to run opponents into submission.

“We knew where all those dead spots were and we made sure the other team had to dribble on them,” Short said. “Can’t tell you how many times we stole the ball like that. Plus the court was so long. The visiting teams weren’t used to that. Man, they were huffing and puffing.”

Purvis followed two years behind his older brother, Eugene, who led the Tigers to the 1972 state championship. Both Purvis and Eugene would go on to play in some of the most famous arenas in the country: Boston Garden, Madison Square Garden and the Forum in L.A., among them.

“The Boston Garden really reminded me of our old high school gym,” Purvis Short said. “There were some dead spots in the floor, but mostly it was the baskets — best shooting baskets in the world. Our goals in Hattiesburg and the ones at the (Boston) Garden were the sweetest shooting goals. They were soft, forgiving. Great backgrounds too.”

And both gone now.

The old Hattiesburg gym was the site of so many classic Gulfport-Hattiesburg games, back when Bert Jenkins coached Gulfport and Sam Hollingsworth and then Johnny Hurtt coached the Hattiesburg Tigers. For my money, Jenkins remains the greatest high school coach — maybe coach at any level — in Mississippi history. Hollingsworth and Hurtt should make anyone’s top 10. In 1970, my senior year in high school, Gulfport went 45-1, and, yes, the one came in our old gym where the great Buddy Davenport — and maybe the ghosts — led the Tigers past the Commodores 47-39.

My single greatest memory of that fine, old gym did not involve the Short brothers, Hattiesburg or Gulfport. No, this was in February of 1966, when I was a 13-year-old gym rat who had heard all the seemingly tall tales of a basketball phenom down in Hancock County named Wendell Ladner.

Ladner-led Hancock was to play West Lauderdale and the great Randy Hodges, a tall shooting guard, in the South State championship in our gym, which had a capacity of maybe 2,000.

That night it seemed all of south Mississippi — and most every college recruiter in the country — wanted to be in that gym. Every available inch of seating was taken. Fans stood at either end and in all the doorways. If you needed restroom relief, you were out of luck. Fire marshals had their hands full. Hundreds were turned away.

Most of Hancock County got in before the marshals locked the doors. They all wore red, and they all went absolutely berserk when Wondrous Wendell led his team onto the court. Ladner went straight for the bucket at the far end of the court and slammed the ball through with a windmill dunk that brought such thunderous applause that old gym seemed to shake. Ladner continued his dunk show throughout layup drills. After his last dunk, he stood, grinning, beneath the basket and hoisted his teammates, one by one, so they could dunk their last time through the layup line.

And then Ladner scored 39 points and pulled down 27 rebounds to lead Hancock past Hodges and West Lauderdale in one of the great one-man shows you can imagine. At one point, Ladner kept jumping up and down and bouncing the ball off the backboard, almost like playing volleyball with himself, before finally tipping the ball through the hoop. “Aw, Coach, I didn’t think you’d mind me having some fun,” he told his coach, Roland Ladner, when scolded at the next timeout.

You should have been there. I am so glad I was. I hate the old gym that never had — nor needed — a name is gone. I am glad the memories remain.

This article was originally published on Hattiesburg’s old gym burns down, but so many memories will endure

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