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Closing the Dens doors at SHS
Statesboro gym holds 45 years of memories
W article
Statesboro High wins the 1968 Class A title announces this 1968 clipping from the Bulloch Herald.
      On Saturday night, Statesboro played its last regular season home games in the waning moments of a gym with 45 years of basketball history.
       It's a place where the crowd sits inches from the players' bench - the ‘bench' itself is the first row of the bleachers. You can hear everything - there's no secret play or plan during a timeout.
       It's a place where a player might have to break off his curl just a little short so as not to run over the moseying patrons making their way to their seats or knock over the fan who decided it's time for one of those devilishly red hot dogs at the concession stand.
       It's a place where sometimes the game is stopped so officials can send a toddler who's wandered onto the floor back to her seat.
       It's a place where the rhythmic stomps of the cheerleaders in the stands at center court are so loud it's hard to think.
       It's a place where championships were won.
       Yes, there's no telling what the walls of the old gym would say. So many players, so many coaches, all squeezing through two different sets of two tiny double doors onto the court that coach Lee Hill built, then filing back into a dimly lit hallway to get to the locker room. The stories are many, and everyone has one to tell.
       "This gym's been a good gym," said Hill. "For the crowd to be right on top of you - it's hard (for opponents) to win in this gym. We have great crowds and they're right on top of you. That's one thing we're gonna miss about this little ol' box."
       The sign outside the gym's doors reads, "Maximum Occupancy: 1,200."
       There were some nights the fire marshall would have cringed at the sight of so many tucked into so little.
       In 1991 the house was packed almost every night. The Devils would go on to win a state championship and Keith LeGree remembers every minute of it.
       "My whole senior year was special to me," said LeGree. "We had such unbelievable fan support. If you didn't get to the game by halftime - you couldn't really get in the gym."
       But LeGree's personal success and the Blue Devils' run to a title that year doesn't transcend his admiration for the building that housed it all.
       "Coming up as a kid, just to be able to play on that floor was huge for me," LeGree added. "There's just so much tradition there. Girls basketball, boys basketball - the standards of that gym are what we lived up to."
       It could be said that the tradition started in 1968 under the direction of coach Ray Williams. Pratt Hill was a member of that year's team - another state title winner.
       "I think we were one of the first teams that played in there," Hill recalled. "(The gym) hasn't changed any. It's basically the same gym as what we played in."
       Hill re-envisioned the excitement in the air each night in front of standing-room only crowds. He also remembered recently bringing friends from out of town to watch an SHS game and the culture shock of one of the guests who remarked, "This isn't really where they play basketball, is it?"
       But it's not only a place where "they play basketball". It's also where former players like Jeff Brannen used to return to in the offseason to take on Hill's current squad - friendly pickup games amongst legends in their own right.
       "I put so many hours in practicing and playing there. When other teams came to play us, they knew they were in for a battle in that gym," said Brannen, who played in the early 80s and still visits SHS - when his Portal team comes into town. "Coaching there now is extra special. It's gonna mean a little bit more to me, coaching in the final regular season game there, too."
       Others remembered not only their playing careers, but the pep rallies, balls and dances that created memories of a different brand.
       "When we were in school, we even had prom there and miltary balls and all sorts of other events," said Tara Procter, an athlete recently elected to the Statesboro Hall of Fame for her days as a Lady Devil in the mid-80s. "I remember the rivalries with Effingham and Glynn Academy, but then you had the other side of it, too. I mean, we had some huge pep rallies there for football, too. We had a lot of fun in there."
       The place certainly had its moments of misfortune as well. LeGree mentioned one night when some new polish and the humidity mixed with some South Georgia heat made the floor too slick. The highly-anticipated game with the Academy of Richmond County was canceled before it ever got started.
       For one former player, an errant shot one night trumps all memories.
       "My sophomore year - we were playing Burke County - they were shooting a free throw. I had just gotten into the game," Jeremy Mincey tells the story. "I was young. When you're a young player you don't pay attention to a lot of the things. I got the rebound, ran down and shot at the wrong goal. (The crowd) was laughing at me, but I actually came back and made some pretty big plays in that game.
       Mincey, now with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the NFL and a former Devil at the turn of the century, says his first love was basketball. Staying after practice to work with coach Hill on his footwork when the gym was quiet and restful stood out to him.
       "That was the gym that made me successful today," he said.
       But the nights that had folks talking about the kid who shot at the wrong goal or the floor that was too slippery could never compare to the nights that made history.
       Nights when a coaching legend such as Bob Knight, or Pick Pitino, or Bobby Huggins stepped through the door. Nights when a No. 1-ranked team like Baldwin came to SHS, leaving bewildered after a 20-point loss. Nights when a special player would put on a special performance.
       "It's gonna hurt - I'm gonna miss it," said Eric Ferguson who played his final game at SHS just one year ago. "I was raised in that gym. Senior Night - that was one of the most emotional nights of my life, from a basketball standpoint... I'm gonna miss it."
       Saturday night, fans walked out of that gym for the final time in the regular season. Come November, Statesboro will have a new place to call its own. But nothing will ever compare to the old Devils' Den.

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