by Greg McKee
In 1905, when Greenville icon Pete Hollis obtained a copy of James Naismith’s rules of basketball (from Naismith himself), he set in motion a tsunami of energy, whirlwind talent, hustle and leadership in Greenville County that still resonates today. The gymnasiums that sparked the many hoop dreams that have characterized our county are the symbols of this passion.
Basketball in Greenville is enmeshed in the city’s social fabric. Three of the most significant developments in Greenville’s history — the development of the textile mills that brought the community into the modern era; the desegregation of public schools to include all citizens in the county; and the rise of women to positions of leadership and importance in the Greenville community — saw basketball as a powerful partner that kindled the spirit of the players, coaches and fans who elevated the game to mythical status.
Some of these gyms are long gone; others survive in a variety of surprising locations; but each adds a richness of stories and memories to Greenville’s history. These eight great basketball venues serve as worthy symbols of Greenville County basketball.
So here’s to all those who played, whether in a textile tournament, church league, summer basketball camp, school team or outdoor court. Y’all are gym gems too! And I’d say Pete Hollis would approve.
Monaghan YMCA (1904-1917)
across from Monaghan Mill, near Ravenel Street, Greenville
The granddaddy of them all. Mill co-owner Thomas Parker chose wisely when he selected 22-year-old Pete Hollis to direct the Monaghan YMCA in 1904. The building, the first industrial YMCA built in the South, also contained a gymnasium. Hollis went to Springfield, Massachusetts, got a set of rules from Dr. Naismith and brought basketball to South Carolina. The first basketball game in the state was played at the Monaghan YMCA in 1907. Guided by professor/coach Warren Steele, Furman University played its home games there beginning in 1908. The building burned down in 1917, but its legacy is secure.
Textile Hall (1917-1992)
West Washington Street, Greenville
Textile Hall was an important site for showcasing Greenville as the self-proclaimed “Textile Capital of the World.” It also became the site of the Southern Textile Basketball Tournament in 1921. Eleven men’s teams participated in the tourney, with the Monaghan Mill team taking home the trophy. The tournament quickly became immensely popular with mill teams from South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia, and players such as Earl Wooten from Pelzer, South Carolina, made the tourney a quality event.
Even more noteworthy was a concurrent women’s tournament, which put Greenville way ahead of its time. One of the iconic female tournament greats, Eckie Jordan, also came from Pelzer. Jordan, who grew up playing playground basketball with the likes of Wooten himself, led Pelzer High School to a 1942 state championship, then was a Pelzer Mill tournament standout until she brought her talents to Hanes Mill in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A female member of the extended Jordan family played in every Southern Textile Basketball Tournament from 1926 to 1957.
Textile Hall was also the scene of one of the most illustrious offensive displays that college basketball has ever seen. On the night of Feb. 13, 1954, during the first televised basketball game in South Carolina, Furman’s Frank Selvy tallied 100 points over Newberry College.
Parker High School Gym, a.k.a. “The Pit” (1924-present)
Woodside Avenue, Greenville
This remarkable facility wins the award for longevity in Greenville. The gym has been renovated countless times and is currently the beautiful home of the Legacy High School Lions. The Parker Golden Tornadoes won the state basketball title in 1959, and the Legacy Lions, under the leadership of coach B.J. Jackson, continues this winning tradition today, with USA National Prep Titles in 2016 and 2019.
Parker High boasted one of the great basketball talents in Ronald White, who averaged 31 points and 17 rebounds during the 1977 season. One of the unique features of the Parker gym was a vertical jump platform that would measure your leaping ability. White set the record at 11 feet, 2 inches. The platform is no more, but the memory of this fantastic leap remains.
Greenville Memorial Auditorium (1968-1996)
East North and Church streets, Greenville
Memorial Auditorium (also known as “The Brown Box”) served as the cultural center of Greenville. It hosted music concerts (including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kiss, Hootie & the Blowfish and the Marshall Tucker Band), pro wrestling, the circus, Miss South Carolina pageant and roller derby events. It also was a great basketball venue. Furman University played its home games there from 1958 to 1996 and won several Southern Conference championships during that time. The Wade Hampton Fighting Generals played key home games and regional tourney games at Memorial during their state title runs in 1970-71. Greenville High School also used The Brown Box for home games during this era, and the Southern Textile Basketball Tournament played many games there, utilizing the 7,000-seat capacity to allow spectators to watch the likes of Billy Cunningham, Tree Rollins and Pete Maravich hold forth.
The Brown Box was the venue of play of three remarkable men who dominated the men’s high school ranks in Greenville. Clyde Mayes was the immovable force in Wade Hampton’s state championships in 1970-71; Clyde Agnew anchored strong Greenville High School teams at the same time; and Butch Taylor paced J.L. Mann to a Class 3A title in 1970 — the same year that Wade Hampton won the 4A title. Their duels at Memorial Auditorium must have been amazing.
Also, by all accounts, the popcorn at Memorial Auditorium was legendary. It alone made trips to The Brown Box worthwhile.
Peg Leg Bates Gymnasium (1942-1952)
Fountain Inn Rosenwald School, Duckett Street, Fountain Inn
The Fountain Inn Rosenwald School was built in 1930 to address the critical need for a decent educational facility for African Americans in the area. Funding came from the Julius Rosenwald Educational Fund (which helped build more than 5,300 rural Black schools in the South from 1912 to 1932) and contributions from the local community. The school expanded quickly in the 1930s, becoming a high school for the area.
The school lacked a gym — and national celebrity Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates stepped in to help out. Bates grew up in Fountain Inn, lost his left leg in a textile mill accident at age 12 and taught himself to dance using a peg leg. He led the move to build a gymnasium, performing in local shows in Greenville to fund the project. The building was completed in 1942.
The gym was one of the finest in Greenville and was the first gym at a Black school in the entire Upstate. It hosted basketball tournaments for both young men and young women, just like at Textile Hall. The gym closed when the Greenville schools consolidated in 1952.
The Slater family constructed a textile plant — and an entire mill community — in 1927. One of the key parts of the Slater community was Slater Hall, a multipurpose community center overlooking Slater Mill. It served as an activity center for the three churches built in close proximity to “The Building,” an educational and recreation center for the mill village, a movie theater for the community and an iconic basketball gymnasium serving both men and women. In fact, the Slater women won a record 10 Textile League titles in the 1950s and 1960s. Slater legend Sue Vickers scored a record-setting 53 points in one Textile League match. Slater Hall was also the home of the Slater High men’s and women’s high school teams until 1951.
Bryson High School Gymnasium (1954-1970)
S.C. Highway 14, Fountain Inn
Bryson High School was constructed in 1954 and in effect replaced the Fountain Inn Rosenwald School, which closed as part of the Greenville County school consolidation in 1952. A chief aim of the consolidation was to delay the desegregation of the Greenville school system. Gov. James Byrnes developed a plan of “equalization,” designed to improve the quality of Black schools, and Bryson was one of four Black high schools built between 1954 and 1965, joining the iconic Sterling High School as segregated schools.
Full integration would not occur until 1970, but the equalization did provide facilities and opportunities for the Black community, which made the best of a poor situation. The Bryson High School gym was a quality facility that played a vital role in the Golden Strip community. Under the capable leadership of A.J. Duckett, the Bryson High boys’ teams won the S.C. Black High School Championship in 1965 and 1966. In 1965, Bryson played in the National Black High School Tournament, losing in the semifinals to a team from Greenwood, Mississippi.
This spirit of excellence and community was evident in all of these “equalization” gyms. They assumed the role as education and community centers that the Rosenwald and other Black schools had done before 1952.
Piedmont Community Center (two gyms, 1943-present)
Main Street, Piedmont
The Piedmont Community Center gyms were built as part of the Piedmont Textile Mill complex. Mill basketball had become a community passion, and the two gyms served the mill team (the Rangers) as well as the boys’ and girls’ teams (the Blue Devils) from Piedmont High School. The consolation games of the Southern Textile Basketball Tournament were played in Gym 1.
Facility superintendent Johnny Cantrell recalls that both gyms were in play on Friday nights for Piedmont High School. “The women’s teams would be warming up in Gym 2 while the men’s game would be going on upstairs,” he remembers. “When the men’s game ended, the women went upstairs and started their game… and no one left the building.”
On one of those nights, Pete Maravich, playing for the Seneca Mill team, lit up the Piedmont Mill team for 48 points before an overflow crowd. The gyms were a second home for the great Earl Wooten, who both played for and coached the Piedmont Rangers in Textile tournaments. Thanks to support from the J.P. Stevens Company and Piedmont Public Service District, both the gyms and their basketball history have been wonderfully preserved.
Five additional gyms were remarkable for unique characteristics — and for what they became.
Greenville High School gym (1936-present)
Vardry Street, Greenville
This rather small gym had a capacity of about 500. One of the most memorable games took place in 1959, when Choppy Patterson of tiny Piedmont High scored 53 points in upsetting the Red Raiders in Greenville. The gym is now the school library.
Case Field House (1958-2003)
Outdoor gym (2005-present)
Bob Jones University, Wade Hampton Boulevard, Greenville
Case Field House was the second gymnasium built on the Bob Jones University campus. The majority of the building was demolished in 2003, to be replaced by the state-of-the-art Davis Field House. However, the arches of Case — made of sturdy Douglas firs — were kept in place, and a large concrete court, enough for two full courts and grandstands, was laid underneath an arching roof. Honorable mention for best use of historic materials!
Phyllis Wheatley Gym (1925-1950)
Broad and Spring streets, Greenville
This gym receives mention because of its history — the first gym for African Americans in Greenville — and its dimensions. The gym had a stage at one end of the court, and it was not even close to regulation, as there was no center line. But it saw a great deal of use by both boys and girls.
Cleveland Park Gym (1963-circa 1975)
Cleveland Park, Greenville
The gym’s historical importance and previous use make it a natural icon. In 1963, the NAACP won a court order integrating both the Cleveland Park swimming pool and the roller rink across the river from the pool. Many are familiar with the story of the city fathers closing the pool and replacing it with a seal attraction. The roller rink was converted to a gymnasium that was used by the entire community. The gym had a low roof, which altered many a player’s shot. Several remember having to shoot over the rafters with any shot over 25 feet.
Dunean Gym (built 1925-1926)
Emery Street, Greenville
This Dunean Mill village gym — nestled between the Baptist and Methodist Churches — makes the list because the stands jutted out over the court. The picture of the 1950s exhibition game between Furman University and Dunean Mill shows this unique feature.
One final story…
Recently, the recreational facility in Fountain Inn was re-christened the Emmanuel Sullivan Recreational Center. It honored Emmanuel Sullivan, who was a coach/mentor/role model for countless young men and women in the Fountain Inn area. When it came time to speak, Sullivan brought up members of his family and members of some of the teams he had coached. Then he took out a plaque, which read: “This plaque honors individuals who played on the basketball court at Sanctified Hills.”
Sullivan explained that these young men had played basketball on this site, but for one reason or another, had died at a too early age. When one of their number passed away, the group wrote his name on the court. The tradition continued for several years into the mid-1970s, when the court was repaved.
The names had been erased on the court, but not in Sullivan’s heart. The plaque commemorates these men and their all-too-short lives. Sullivan said he would bring his Hillcrest High School teams to the court to urge them to make good choices in their lives.
The court was not one of the “gym gems,” but it is a fitting example of the impact basketball has on so many lives. It also underscores the importance of “gems” such as Emmanuel Sullivan, who saw value in these young men and chose to honor their memories.