Despite featuring several buildings that date back nearly 100 years, the Baylor School campus has regularly undergone change in recent years.
Newer buildings have been constructed to meet the demands of a growing school that began admitting girls in 1985 and sixth-graders in 2001, and even several of the older buildings have had their interiors greatly remodeled.
However, one building that dates back decades appears to have changed little. The Duke Arena opened shortly after World War II, but it is still serving as home to the Baylor varsity basketball teams in the same way it always has.
In fact, in this era when modernization is generally the norm in sports facilities – even at the high school level – the Duke Arena continues to have a vintage charm that makes it appealing. A movie about the older days of basketball could likely even be filmed there.
It is also still quite useful, as its more compact size is generally able to handle crowds, particularly the Division II Nashville private schools that have to travel more than 100 miles and bring fewer fans as a result. The lone exception, of course, is the highly anticipated annual home game against rival McCallie, when some fans have to be turned away.
The Girls Preparatory School game against the Baylor girls now coached by John Gibson also draws interest.
While the arena is like a cozy den to Baylor players, coaches and fans familiar with its smaller seating capacity and uniquely elevated home-side grandstand, it can still be unsettling for opponents used to a more contemporary gym. However, they sometimes admit that they like its uniqueness as well.
“Everybody that comes in there, they love the gym,” said longtime Baylor boys’ basketball coach Austin Clark.
In fact, he likens the Baylor gym’s appeal to Duke University’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, which opened in 1940 and seats only 9,300 people but is known for its great home-court atmosphere.
“What’s unique about it is the size of it,” he added. “It is really a nice place and handles the crowd well. It’s fine for what we have and creates a nice atmosphere.”
According to one historical source, the gym opened in 1949 and was apparently first used in the 1949-50 season.
The idea for it had its fruition in 1944, when the Baylor senior class that year put aside some money and helped start a campaign for a gym to replace the equally unique 1915 gym, which featured an underground locker room and since 1998 has been used as a music building.
A fund-raising campaign followed, and it was apparently one of the first building projects at the school in which numerous alumni and patrons instead of a single donor or small number of donors contributed.
The building was designed by Selmon T. Franklin architects and constructed by John Martin and Co.
It was originally called Memorial Gymnasium in honor of war veterans from Baylor who were killed, and a bronze floor star that is roped off sits in the lobby, giving the building another unique feature. A plaque in the lobby pays tribute to World War I veterans from Baylor, so that may have been to whom it initially paid tribute.
Locker, weight and training rooms were also built on a wing of the building at the same time that the gym was constructed. After a guest house in the area of the gym was initially envisioned, the Ireland Lounge was also built off the lobby in honor of 1936 class member Barney Ireland, who died in the infamous Coconut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942.
For decades before the Baylor Fieldhouse opened in 1988, Baylor students referred to Memorial Gymnasium simply as the new gym to differentiate it from the 1915 “old gym.”
In a 2000 interview, 1951 Baylor class member John Arney remembered being one of the first players to use the newer gym along with teammate and future Georgia Tech football star Leon Hardeman. To him, it was quite modern and state of the art.
“It was a first-class gym,” he recalled at the time. “When we first got in it, everybody who used the gym was extremely proud of it. We thought it was one of the best gyms in the country. The other schools’ gyms weren’t in the category of the gym that we had.”
The coach at the time was the successful Bob Hill, who reportedly liked to play his varsity games before the junior varsity, or B team, to get home earlier.
Longtime Baylor coach and faculty member Bill McMahan played on some of coach Jack Stanford’s equally successful basketball teams in the gym before graduating in 1967, and remembers it was the scene of some exciting basketball games and wresting tournaments during that time.
This was especially true during the successful basketball season of 1964-65, when he was a sophomore and was fighting for playing time with some talented athletes.
“Rusty Kidd was a 6-foot-3 player from Georgia who went on to UT and signed a football scholarship,” he said. “He also ran the 400 in track. He and Willie Idlette were the best male athletes I’ve seen in my time at Baylor. R.G. Wilson was 6-6 and played at Alabama. Gerry King was 6-4 and played football at Georgia Tech.
“I rode the bench.”
Coach McMahan also remembered when the old Mid-South Tournament for private schools was held at the gym during his junior year, and the McCallie students cheered for Baylor instead of Castle Heights on a rare occasion because they wanted to play Baylor instead in the next round.
The headline in the next day’s paper read, “The night McCallie cheered for Baylor.”
Coach McMahan also remembered when the Mid-South wrestling tournament would alternate being there and at McCallie, and the Baylor students were let out early on Friday afternoons to get a seat. Extra bleachers had to be brought in and placed under the basketball goals, he recalled.
Baylor still wrestles McCallie in the gym and in recent years has also held other marquee matches there, such as against perennial state Division I power Soddy-Daisy, Coach McMahan added. The annual Baylor-McCallie football game pep rally is also there.
The gym’s lobby, hallways, and home grandstand featuring football stadium-like entrances appear to have changed little since well before Coach McMahan played and likely date to when the facility opened.
The visitor side has had newer stands erected in recent years to replace the wooden pull-out ones. The wall on the visitor side was also changed in the early 1960s, when the swimming natatorium opened, and the stands could be reversed when needed.
Of course, a newer swimming facility has since been built, and the wrestling arena is now located there.
A unique aspect of the home grandstand is that countless Baylor sports trophies not currently on display are stored there.
Although the Duke Arena has changed little in its more than 50 years, much about the game of basketball has changed. Originally, set shots, bank shots, hook shots and maybe even an occasional underhanded “granny grunt” foul shot were on display, not dunks and swooshing 3-pointers.
Short shorts have given way to the baggy kind, players with toothpick arms have been replaced with more muscular body frames, and even Converse Chuck Taylors have gone the way of Air Jordans and other designer shoes.
Yet Duke Arena has remained the same. Actually, it has even withstood a change in its own name!
Not long after the death from cancer of the popular former boys’ basketball coach Jimmy Duke in 1987, the gym was renamed in his honor.
Coach Duke’s star player was Jimmy Braddock, who averaged more than 35 points a game his senior year in 1978-79 before playing at North Carolina. A four-year starter at Baylor, his points all came before the 3-point arc began being used.
A star player who played Baylor in the gym at about that same time was future NFL Hall of Famer Reggie White of Howard.
In the early 1970s, Baylor star Nixon Costner averaged more than 24 points a game there. Right after that, the great McCallie guard Greg Keith – the father-in-law of 2012 U.S. Open golf winner Webb Simpson – starred in the gym when McCallie coach Bill Eskridge and Baylor’s Coach Duke had some great matchups.
Another successful coach who walked the sidelines next to the wall of the home grandstand was former Baylor girls’ coach Doug Moser, who made Baylor a team respected statewide.
Austin Clark, who is in his 32nd season as the Baylor boys’ coach and has been there for more than half of the building’s life, has helped preserve the tradition of Baylor basketball as well as Duke Arena itself.
His highlights have included reaching the semifinals of the state tournament in the challenging Class AAA division in 1986-87 before the private and public school split, as well as the Division II finals in 2001-02 and the final four in 1997-98, 2006-07, and 2011-12.
He also told Baylor officials he was fine with continuing to use Duke Arena when he was asked if he wanted a new facility for games when the Fieldhouse was being planned in the 1980s. While supportive of the new Fieldhouse for the growing Baylor sports teams, he simply thought Duke Arena was still an ideal venue for varsity games.
Today, the younger teams also use Duke Arena some for games.
Coach Clark also spent his college years playing in a unique facility – Stokely Athletics Center in Knoxville -- as a member of Coach Ray Mears’ Tennessee Vols. In fact, he was interviewed about those days for the recent ESPN documentary, “Bernie and Ernie,” about star teammates Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld.
Stokely, which was built after the Duke Arena at Baylor, is scheduled to undergo the wrecking ball soon.
But Duke Arena is still going strong, 65 years after the red and gray players first began wearing the sleeveless jerseys and Red Raider fans cheered for them from an elevated grandstand.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” said Coach Clark. “It’s old school.”