The call came a couple of days after Pete Gordon got the West Frankfort boys basketball job last spring.
“A former teammate of mine wanted to know if he gave me 100 dollars, if I’d let him lead the layup line out of the locker room,” Gordon said. “I told him that he gave me a great idea for a promotion.”
Joking aside, it’s also a measure of how much it means – and meant – for Redbird players to climb up the steps and take the floor at Max Morris Gymnasium. The 70-year old, 4,300-seat facility may not be the most modern, but takes a back seat to none in terms of tradition and quaintness.
Named for a former West Frankfort basketball star who played multiple sports at Northwestern and later enjoyed an NBA career in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the building’s most distinctive feature is its balcony. It rings the entire floor and its sightlines are unmatched.
Even in the top row, one has a great view of the court.
“It’s a great place to watch a game,” Gordon said. “I always loved to scout a game there because you could sit in the balcony behind the baseline and see the entire play unfold. It was almost like a football coach watching game tape from behind the end zone.”
From the top of the gym, you go to its bottom to enjoy its other trademark. The locker rooms are just beneath floor level, located in the gym’s corners. Teams come out of their dressing quarters and look up about 5 to 7 steps at the floor before they come out for warmups.
It’s a little bit like going on stage, which is fitting in one way. Locals like to call this place “The Supreme Court.”
“It makes me so proud to coach a team here,” said West Frankfort girls basketball coach Tracy Steed. “It’s one of the nicest gyms around. When you coach, you want to feel proud of your community and the history of the school.
“It makes you proud to have a facility like that for your players to play in and for opposing teams to visit. Our girls talk all the time about how lucky we are to have this as our home court.”
A comparison to the old Boston Garden isn’t inaccurate, although there isn’t a parquet floor or any shade of green in the building. A better comparison is to one of the old Indiana high school gyms used in the movie Hoosiers.
It certainly wouldn’t strain credibility to imagine Norman Dale, clad in sweater vest and dress shirt, standing on the sideline and barking at his team to not shoot until they’ve passed four times. Nor would it be illogical to imagine Dennis Hopper’s character drawing up the picket fence for Jimmy Chitwood.
Steed, who grew up in Indiana, was reminded of one of that state’s basketball shrines when talking about West Frankfort’s unique gym.
“I remember qualifying for a pass, shoot and dribble contest when I was 10 years old,” she said. “And I got to do it at Hinkle Fieldhouse. For a 10-year old girl, that was an amazing experience.
“Max Morris Gym seems like a very nostalgic gym. It does remind you of Hoosiers.”
Some of the best players have made reputations at the Max. Gordon still remembers current Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin and LaPhonso Ellis playing there for Lincoln High of East St. Louis in the late 1980s. Recent West Frankfort fans still have flashbacks to the brilliance of Morgan Griffith, who owns the school’s all-time scoring record – boys or girls – and broke her mom’s records in the process.
No matter your gender, no matter your reputation, a game at the Max is a big moment for most high school basketball players. And for Gordon, every visit to the building is a reminder of how his life has come full circle.
“I played here and now I coach here,” he said. “The other day, I brought my kids in here. They were running around the balcony. It reminded me of my childhood.”
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