After 47 years of hoops history, this weekend will mark the end of an era at Brandon University.
When the Brandon Bobcats battle the Lethbridge Pronghorns on Saturday night, it will be the final university basketball game ever played in the storied history of the BU gymnasium. The venerable old building has been the site of many memorable moments and unforgettable players, a history told through the championship banners that signify 19 Great Plains Athletic Conference men’s basketball titles, one Canada West championship and four national titles.
In the past half-dozen years, the volleyball teams have come to replace basketball as the most successful programs on campus, with the likes of all-Canadians Paul Sanderson and Teagan Hunter stealing the spotlight. But for more than four decades, the BU gym was all about basketball, and legendary former head coach Jerry Hemmings was front and centre. From humble beginnings, Hemmings built the Bobcats into a powerhouse program that won national championships in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1996 — the little school with the big dreams. Hemmings will be there on Saturday night to perform the ceremonial opening tip-off in the final basketball game at the BU gym, which for all intents and purposes, was the House that Hemmings built.
"There are just so many great memories, so many great players came through there, so many great games, so it will be a bit of a sad moment," Hemmings said this week. "But at the same time, it’s time for a new facility and we’ve needed one for a long time now."
History and Hemmings go hand-to-hand at the BU gym, the site of many of Hemmings’ 734 career coaching victories, the second most in Canadian university history. During his tenure as BU coach from 1974 to 2003, Brandon fans had the opportunity to watch some of the greatest players in CIS history, four decades of all-Canadians like Mike Vaira and Keith Streiter in the 1970s, Jerry Abernathy, Fred Lee, Jude Kelly, John Carson, Patrick Jebbison and Whitney Dabney in the 1980s, Joey Vickery, Keith Vassell and Shawn Gray in the 1990s, to Earnest Bell, Tyrone Smith, O’Neil Gordon and Dany Charlery in the 2000s.
While the BU women’s program has now hit rock bottom, it also produced a couple of brilliant Bobcat all-Canadians in Janet Lumsden in the mid-1980s and Sandra Hamilton in the early 1990s.
They all have their own special place in the history in the BU gymnasium. Built back in 1965, it’s cozy confines created a significant home court advantage for the Bobcats, with vocal supporters all but hanging from the rafters during the glory days of Bobcats basketball.
"I can remember in the late 80s and the early 90s, the gym would be completely packed," Hemmings said. "I remember game time would be 7:30 and they would open the doors at 6:30 and I can remember many times going through the doors and people would basically be lined up waiting to get in … We would open up the stage doors and we put bleachers in behind the benches and it made for such a great home court atmosphere and I remember students coming there in the early ’90s, banging garbage lids and we finally had to say ‘no’ to that because we had so many older fans complaining of too much noise!"
I covered my first Bobcats game at the BU gym in the early 1990s when Brandon and Winnipeg were the top teams in the country, with Vassell and Euan Roberts leading the Bobcats in some classic battles with the Wesmen’s all-Canadian twin towers of seven-footer Norm Froemel and 6-foot-10 Jeff Foreman. In the past few years, it’s been volleyball matches with the likes of Sanderson and Hunter that have taken centre stage at the BU gym. And it’s that addition of a second sport, not to mention the wear and tear of 47 years, that has created the need for a new facility, with BU’s Healthy Living Centre scheduled to open this fall.
"You always have those moments when you look up there at the banners and you see a certain year and players flash in front of you," Hemmings said. "I have many players still contact me about how much they miss Brandon and how much they missed playing in the BU gym. It’s not only going to be a sad moment for me when the clock counts down on Saturday night, but I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of players across the country missing it, too.
"But like I said, it’s been a long time coming and we need a new facility."
Perhaps that new building will also usher in a new era of great Bobcat moments and memories.