I can’t count the number of times a basketball fan has remarked to me that they wish the OHSAA state basketball tournament could be moved back to St. John Arena, the venerable building on The Ohio State University campus that hosted Buckeye basketball and the Ohio high school state tournament for 42 years.
When St. John Arena opened, in 1956, it was considered a basketball palace. Seating 13,726 spectators, the arena quickly helped jettison OSU into one of the most powerful and successful basketball programs in the country. Within four years the Buckeyes were national champions and reeled off five straight Big Ten titles.
The OHSAA state basketball tournament also basked in the glory of the new arena and its first years coincided with the great Middletown teams led by Jerry Lucas who, along with LaBron James, is considered the most decorated high school player in Ohio basketball history.
St. John Arena is unique in its architectural design. The seating nearest the floor is made up of bleachers on the sidelines and under the basket, creating the atmosphere of a high school gymnasium. But then the seating, all wooden bucket seats, rises straight up to the ceiling. The seats in the upper balcony, towering high above the gym floor, give their occupants the feeling they are sitting directly over the action below. The atmosphere created for basketball in St. John Arena has never been duplicated. I remember the first time I attended the state tournament, I was so mesmerized by the arena itself, I barely watched the game.
Every basketball fan from my generation, and before, has memories of state tournament games played in St. John Arena. I clearly remember a game in the 1970s where Canton McKinley lost a very close game and as its coach, Bob Rupert, walked past the McKinley fans on the way to the locker-room, they began throwing things at him and their anger spread through the stands. The situation got out of control quickly as some of the fans tried to physically attack Rupert. In that moment, one man stepped between the coach and the angry mob. I could hear his voice booming at the group as he chastised them for their behavior and forced them back into their seats. Suddenly, I recognized the hero. It was Woody Hayes, Ohio State’s legendary football coach, who was a big fan of the state basketball tournament and often watched the games from a perch near the court.
I took a team to state for the first time in 1989 and a big part of the thrill for me was the opportunity to coach a game in St. John Arena. For years, as a young coach, I watched state tournament games and dreamed about prowling those sidelines. I was lucky enough to coach six games there that included a couple wins and a few crushing defeats.
One of those defeats actually holds a pleasant memory. When the horn sounded following our loss to Columbus Wehrle in the 1989 state championship game, LCC’s first ever trip to state, the reaction of our crowd was something I’ll never forget. Despite the loss, the massive following that filled one side of St. John Arena, floor to ceiling, rose as one and voiced their appreciation for the ride the T-bird team had provided them. A Cleveland Plain Dealer writer wrote that “it was as if Lima Central Catholic had won the game.” Our crowd’s reaction softened our pain and filled us with pride.
The feature I appreciated the most while coaching in St. John Arena, and missed most when the state tournament shifted to the new, cavernous 18,809 seat Schottenstein Arena in 1998, were the scoreboards. At St. John Arena, there were four scoreboards located above the entrances to the gym floor located in the four corners of the court. They displayed the score and the clock, nothing more.
When I coached in the Schott there were scoreboards in every direction I looked but, for the life of me, I always had trouble finding the time and score. I could find game stats for individuals and for the teams. I could even find what upcoming concerts were scheduled at the Schott. But I struggled to find the time and score. The large scoreboard and screen that hangs over the court is fan friendly but coaches on the sideline have to stretch their necks to get an angle for a good view.
St. John Arena became the home for several athletic teams after the Schott opened, including wrestling, men’s and women’s volleyball and gymnastics. A popular event still held in St John is the ‘Skull Session,” a pep rally scheduled two hours before home football games that includes a spirited preview of the OSU marching band’s halftime program.
For those dreaming that the state basketball tournament may return to St. John Arena, Jerry Snodgrass, the commissioner of the OHSAA, cautions against the prospect. “The schedule of the teams using St John and parking considerations make it impractical and nearly impossible for using it for the state tournament,” he says.
However, the Covelli Center, a new 3,700 seat athletic facility is scheduled to open this fall and will house the teams now using St. John Arena. That may open a small window of opportunity. There will remain obstacles, including parking which is an enormous hurdle, especially when OSU students are in session.
The original plan was to demolish St. John Arena once the Covelli Center was completed but public protest has delayed those plans.
Will St. John Arena survive to play host to basketball games again in the future or is the beloved edifice destined for the wrecking ball?
Reach Bob Seggerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.