May 6, 1978, was one of those freak weather days that happen in Denver or Omaha, but almost never in Tucson. At a time of year when the average high temperature is 85 degrees, the high that day was 64 and even that was measured just seconds after midnight, before the storm rolled in. On that Saturday of a Cinco de Mayo weekend, Tucsonans awakened to the sight of snow down low on the Catalinas and temperatures that would hover in the high 40s all day.
Despite Mother Nature's little prank and the fact that final exams were in full swing on the UA campus, Saturday was an open gym day at Bear Down and there was sure to be a shivering crowd gathered on the north-side steps, waiting for the doors to open at 9 a.m.
There was the usual assortment of players that day, among them members of the Wildcat basketball squad, including Larry Demic, who got drafted (as it turned out, way too high) in the first round by the New York Knicks and Russell Brown, who would shatter all of the UA assist records. At least as high in the hierarchy of respect were the street ballers, led by the legendary Hoegie Simmons, who was once featured in Sports Illustrated for having back-to-back 50-point games in college (and this was back in the day when there were no three-pointers and it was illegal to dunk). And then there were the UA students who could play a decent game of basketball, knowing that if they were fortunate enough to get in a game on the main (south) court, they would spend their time playing defense, setting screens and perhaps gathering in the occasional loose ball.
Even though you could see your breath inside the gym, it was—as it was on all days in dusty, poorly lit Bear Down—heaven for all concerned.
Around 10 that morning, UA men's coach Fred "The Fox" Snowden showed up. He gathered everyone around him and then, because of the extreme weather, offered to open the McKale Center basketball arena for open play. His suggestion was met with stunned silence and a unanimous display of "Are you out of your mind?" stares.
Finally, one of his players stepped forward and said, "C'mon Coach, this is Bear Down. McKale's where we work; this is where we play."
People don't play at Bear Down anymore because the University of Arizona, in one of its most widely scorned bureaucratic decisions of all time (and that's really saying something) has turned the legendary athletic venue into office space. Yes, listed on the National Register of Historic Places is (now) Bear Down Office Space.
When the Arizona Board of Regents approved $13.5 million for a much-needed renovation of Old Main, it was understood that workers in what is the oldest building on campus would have to find new quarters for a while. It was decided that the Office of the Dean of Students would move to the Nugent Building, displacing the Think Tank, which provides student tutoring services. The Think Tank would join the Center for Exploratory Students and the Office of Admissions in Bear Down Office Space.
Anyone who has ever done anything even remotely athletic in that venerable masterpiece of a building will have a visceral reaction when stepping into what is now a brightly lit, carpeted, air-conditioned thing.
Bear Down Gym was built in 1926. It was originally and rather unimaginatively going to be referred to as simply the Men's Gymnasium, but then fate most cruelly intervened. After the first football game of the 1926 season, John "Button" Salmon, UA student body president and quarterback of the football team, was critically injured in an automobile accident. Lying in a hospital bed, nearing death, Salmon reportedly told his football coach, J.F. "Pop" McKale, to "Tell the boys to bear down."
When McKale relayed the message to his football team, the Wildcats went out and won a hard-fought 7-0 game against New Mexico State and a rallying cry was born. The next year—one that saw Charles Lindbergh complete the first solo transatlantic flight, the New York Yankees steamroll all of baseball with their Murderers' Row lineup, and accused anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti get steamrolled by what passed for the American justice system—the student body at the University of Arizona decided to adopt "Bear Down" as the official motto of the school's athletic teams. And so has it been ever since.
That same year, the Chain Gang, an honorary group consisting of junior students, sponsored a dance in the new building, with the proceeds going to paint the words "BEAR DOWN" atop the roof of the gymnasium. And so they have remained ever since.
Bear Down Gym, as it quickly became known to all (first unofficially and then officially), would become the center for athletic activity for decades to come. Besides being the home of the men's basketball team, it also served as the site for P.E. classes in the morning, intramurals in the afternoon and evening, and open play whenever possible.
There were also times when it served other purposes. In 1942 and '43, the UA men's basketball team played at nearby Tucson High because Bear Down was being used by the U.S. Navy for cadet training and was called the U.S.S. Bear Down. (Why the Navy would select a spot that's 400 miles from the nearest ocean is beyond the scope of the nonmilitary mind.) For the first couple of weeks at the beginning of every school year, it would also serve as temporary housing for students until the dorm/apartment/sorority/fraternity house situation could shake itself out. Students would sleep on cots, as in the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds (filmed on the UA campus).
Countless thousands of UA students over the years have called Bear Down their home-away-from-dorm. People would do homework in the upstairs bleachers while games were going on down below. Longtime U.S. Rep. Mo Udall, who was an All-American in basketball as well as student body president back in the late 1940s, said that Bear Down was "far and away (his) favorite spot on campus."
That's probably understandable, considering that he was part of a then-national-record 81 consecutive home victories between 1945 and 1951.
Through the passage of time, a place that is home to so many highlights must almost certainly have a low point. For Bear Down Gym, that was the night of Jan. 9, 1970. Back then, the UA competed in the Western Athletic Conference, an eight-team league that consisted of Arizona and Arizona State, Wyoming, Texas-El Paso, New Mexico, Brigham Young, Colorado State and Utah.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which operates BYU, had long ago traded away polygamy in exchange for statehood for Utah, but it stubbornly clung to its policy of banning blacks and other minorities from holding positions inside the church. After a decade of hard-won civil rights advances throughout America, attention began to be cast in the direction of the Mormon Church. Students at the other WAC universities began to protest their schools' association with BYU. Fourteen black football players at Wyoming lost their scholarships after protesting against BYU and complaining about the treatment given them by the all-white Wyoming coaching staff.
The protests finally reached Arizona. On Jan. 9, BYU was in town to face the Wildcats in basketball. At lunchtime, a rally was held with protesters dressed in KKK garb. A huge banner decrying the UA's affiliation with BYU dwarfed a small poster wishing President Richard Nixon a happy birthday. The NAACP asked for permission to hold a demonstration on campus, but was denied.
Fearing trouble, the school's administration arranged for a large contingent of plainclothes and uniformed police officers to be at the game. A crowd of 100 protesters gathered at the north steps of Bear Down and shouted anti-BYU slogans. The plainclothesmen waded into the crowd with fists and chemical spray flying. The UA student body president was seriously injured when he was thrown down a flight of stairs.
Some of the students broke through and ran onto the court. They locked arms at midcourt and refused to leave. Adding to the circuslike atmosphere was the fact that most of the UA team members were black and the coach, Bruce Larson, was a member of the LDS church. A couple of the black players prevailed upon the protesters to leave the court and play was resumed.
As often happened in those days, there was plenty of overreaction to go around. The UA filed felony charges against the protesters. (The faculty backed the students and charges were eventually dropped.) The head of the campus chapter of the LDS church wrote a piece in the Daily Wildcat recycling the bilge about black skin being the biblical Mark of the Beast. He claimed that something happened before they were born that disqualified black people from holding the priesthood in the LDS church.
BYU called on the other WAC schools to condemn the protests, but they got even worse. A later protest at Colorado State was especially ugly. Things eventually calmed down and the Mormon Church changed its official policy toward blacks in 1978.
When McKale Center opened in 1973, some people thought that Bear Down would become an afterthought. Such was hardly the case. Over its history, it has served as a venue for tournaments for everything from bridge to baton twirling, chess to pingpong. For a long time, there was a shooting range in the basement for ROTC members. Bear Down was the site for quilting bees, school dances and haunted houses. The school's club volleyball teams practiced there and the National Youth Sports Program (which gave a very young Sean Elliott his first taste of full-court basketball) used the place during the summer.
When the changeover to accommodate Old Main renovations was announced, Campus Recreation director Lynn Zwaagstra estimated that as many as 50 campus groups used Bear Down. While intramurals have been moved to the shiny new (and quite sterile) Rec Center, many of the other groups that used Bear Down are out of luck.
And always there was the pickup basketball. Even before Lute Olson put the UA on the national map for good, Tucson was a basketball town, and Bear Down was the epicenter of Tucson basketball.
One of the Bear Down Gym traditions now lost forever is the faculty-staff game at lunchtime. Admission to the game was closely guarded—no civilians, no visitors, no students (unless they were, you know, well known). Assistant men's basketball coach Jay John, known for his stoic demeanor on the bench during Wildcat games, would go nuclear during the faculty-staff games. "He'd get all red in the face," recalls one longtime competitor, "and he'd throw the ball down to the other end of the gym. He was on constant stroke watch."
Current American League Manager of the Year Terry Francona and teammate Dwight Taylor would sometimes stop by. The two were in the process of helping to lead Arizona to its second of three College World Series titles in a 10-year span and were certainly welcome in the game. The unwritten (but well-understood) rule for everybody else in the game was "Nobody fouls these guys!" Taylor had so many uncontested layups, he had to believe that he had somehow magically achieved Baller Maximus status.
Best-selling author and darling of the Christian media machine Kevin Leman used to play in the game back in the early 1980s. In every pickup game, there is always one guy who yells out the score after every made basket (which count one point each). The score is yelled out thusly: "Seven-two-Shirts." Leman would wait patiently, sometimes for days, for the team without shirts to take a lead of five to four. He would then yell out, "That's five-four-Skins. Hey! Five foreskins!"
Gary Harrison was one of the members of Fred Snowden's second recruiting class at the UA. Over the years, Snowden's first recruiting class, with Eric Money and Coniel Norman (the Kiddie Korps), got most of the ink, but it was Harrison and his cohorts who lifted Arizona onto the national scene. His junior year, they reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament before falling to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion. (Back then, teams were allowed to play on their home courts in the NCAAs.)
Harrison, who works at Superior Court in Tucson, is one of many who can't see any logic in what is being done to Bear Down.
"I don't get it," Harrison says. "I don't care how big the screen is at the football stadium or how many people can crowd into McKale, Bear Down is the most famous place on campus and it should be treated with respect."
Harrison's face lights up when he recalls playing ball at Bear Down. "Man, that was the place to be. It was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. I remember in the summer, we would go outside into the blazing sun to cool off after a game. They had these big blowers that were supposed to be like swamp coolers, but they would just blow the sweat off you and leave your clothes covered with a layer of salt. It was dim in there; I don't think I ever saw it where all the lights were working. There were dead spots in the floor, but that's the place where the best ball in town was played."
Harrison recalls that the older guys might have lost a step, but they were bigger and stronger and they played a smarter game of basketball. "You know, the young (UA) players would strut in like they owned the place and they'd get taken down a few pegs. It happened to me (when I was a scholarship player) and when I got older, I tried to carry on that tradition.
"Young kids would come in, like David Vann from Tucson High, and they'd want to test themselves. We'd say, 'Come on, young man, let's see what you've got.' There's no place for interactions like that anymore. It's a shame."
When Sean Elliott, who remains the best basketball player in UA history, was a kid, he would take the bus to the old YMCA that was on the space now occupied by the Party Central Apartments, just west of the Dairy Queen on Fourth Avenue. When Elliott got to the point where he realized that his future did not lie in soccer or baseball (two sports in which he had dabbled), he moved on up to Bear Down.
Elliott recalls, "The great thing about playing with those older guys—the older guys, not the UA players—was that your weaknesses got exposed really quickly. You knew right away what parts of your game needed work."
Of course, that kind of interaction can't take place on the UA campus anymore. Entry into the Rec Center is closely regulated and with the increased demand for intramurals, the amount of time allotted for open play has dwindled.
Pima County Sheriff's Detective Derek Ogden graduated from the UA in 2002 and has nothing but fond memories of Bear Down. "If you had to study for a big test, you'd go to Bear Down to get a run in before studying. Or you could go there after studying to wind down. Or, sometimes in my case, you could go play ball instead of studying. It was truly the center of campus."
The University of Arizona celebrated its homecoming a couple of weeks back. I stood outside Bear Down and watched a steady stream of alumni from over the past half-century or so walk up the steps, peer inside and then walk away, shaking their heads and muttering one version or another of "That's a shame." By my count, the final vote tally of those who think that what's being done to Bear Down is a travesty is EverySinglePersonWhoLookedInside-to-zero.
It's no secret that the construction-happy UA is always looking to grow to meet increased demand. And the restoration of the treasured Old Main building is probably long overdue. Peter Dourlein, UA assistant vice president for planning, design and construction, has announced that while the occupation of Bear Down by the aforementioned school entities is indeed temporary, the facility will not go back to being a gym after the renovation of Old Main is done. A four-story office building will be built just south of Bear Down for new office space, after which the gym will be renovated and turned into classroom space.
Dourlein, for what it's worth, cares about the space ("I and the alumni (and others as well) in my office," he said, "certainly all have a great attachment and reverence for Bear Down."), even if his plans for it may not be terribly popular.
I really, really tried, but I could not find one person at homecoming who didn't absolutely hate that plan.
Dourlein says that the plan is to extend the useful life of the building, stating that it had deteriorated physically and functionally to a point where "mostly it was being used for pickup basketball." Like that's a bad thing.
Both Harrison and Ogden had strikingly similar things to say. Basically, a university is about tradition as much as anything. It's like that scene in Dead Poets Society where the young students look at the faces of those who had preceded them decades earlier. Being able to step onto the floor in Bear Down Gym and take part in an activity in which others had participated generations earlier ties everyone and everything together. The UA without a Bear Down Gym is ... well, ASU.
The bust of Button Salmon was recently relocated from its spot in front of McKale Center to a spot near the fancy new football facility. At first its orientation seems odd; Salmon faces southeast and doesn't even face the football stadium. Then, it makes sense. Salmon's back is turned in such a way that he won't have to see what is happening to the grand old building, the name and legacy of which he inspired nearly a century ago.