Tom Kacich: Players, spectators recall 'snake pit' that was Huff

Even in those decades long ago, there was no basketball arena in the Big Ten like Huff Gym.

Most of the rest were big, airy barns like Lambert Fieldhouse at Purdue and the Yost Field House at Michigan, home to indoor track and field sports as well as basketball.

"My friends would come down to see me out of Chicago and their attitude was that this was just unbelievable, this was fantastic," said Bob Starnes of Lake Barrington, who played three years at Illinois, including the last men's game at Huff 50 years ago this month. "The fans were right on top of the players and they were hollering and yelling. It was just so intimate.

"I never played in any building like Huff. Most of the rest were fieldhouses and the court was out in the center and the fans were around it and it was just a big, old building."

In the 38 years they played there, Illinois teams won 81 percent of their games at Huff. Harry Combes, who led Illinois for 15 of those Huff years, had an 87 percent home winning percentage. At the Assembly Hall, the Illini have won 79 percent.

"I think most of them were bigger arenas than Huff. There wasn't anything else that confining," said Ted Beach of Champaign, who played at Huff both as a Champaign High School star and as a member of the Illini from 1949 to 1951. "I think if I was an opposing player, I would have felt that everyone squeezed in there was against me, which was pretty much true."

Although Huff has been home to numerous sporting events over the last half-century, particularly women's volleyball and basketball, it is best remembered as the home to men's basketball and the Illinois high school boys' basketball tournament. The last high school tournament was played there in 1962; the last Illinois men's game was a 89-77 win over Wisconsin on Feb. 23, 1963.

Appropriately it seems, Bob Starnes scored the last basket in the last Huff game. He had been recruited from Gage Park High School on Chicago's south side.

"When I started at the University of Illinois, my father had passed away at a young age (44) and my mom was really sick. They thought she was going to die. So my brother dropped me off at the University of Illinois and I did not know a single soul. The only place I found was Huff Gym, so I went over there and it was closed. I met one of the maintenance folks and I struck up a good friendship and he'd let me in there at night. I didn't have any friends, anyone I knew from the university. So as a result, that became my home. When I felt bad, that's where I went. Every day of my life there, I would go to Huff," recalled Starnes, now a successful developer.

Doug Mills, who preceded Combes as Illinois basketball coach and later became UI athletic director, called Huff "a snake pit to visiting teams." The Indiana student newspaper was less kind, terming it a "flea bin of basketball amphitheater — a cozy little establishment where there are more spectators on the court than players."

That was pretty accurate.

"When you're throwing in the ball there from out of bounds, you're stepping on fans' toes there because the bleachers were right up against the sideline," Beach said. "They crammed every possible seat in there that they could. It was raucous."

Marty Finney of Champaign has been going to Illinois basketball games for about 65 of her 88 years, including the last 15 seasons at Huff.

"We would sit about three rows off the floor and that was like sitting on the floor because whoever sat in the first row, they had to watch their feet and legs all the time," she said.

Dave Downey, a Champaign businessman and Illini legend who also played in the last game at Huff, said referees had to ask fans to move their legs and feet so players could toss the ball inbounds.

"I have a kind of a fun but apocryphal story that was told to me later," he said. "Phyllis Robeson (now a friend, of Champaign) was recently married when I was playing and she sat on the front row. She said that one time I ended up sitting on her lap. When I was trying to take the ball out of bounds, another player kind of gave me a shove and that's where I ended up."

That closeness to the crowd was a huge advantage to Illinois players. One Indiana basketball official suggested it gave the Illini a 20-point head start.

Starnes said burly, intimidating UI football players would sit in the first three rows of wooden bleachers on the west side of Huff "and they were tougher than nails."

"We called it the animal section," joked Downey. "We told the opposing team we were going to shove them in there, and sometimes they might not come back.

"We were so close and we had that nice section where we had people like Dick Butkus and those guys, where we could talk to them. They were great fans and they would usually pick out one player on the other team to get after. I can remember one year we played Creighton and they had a player named Charlie Officer. And they decided to make the siren sound every time he got the ball."

Among the legends of Huff are the tale of an Indiana player who had a lighted cigarette dropped down his shorts as he was standing along the sideline (smoking was allowed in Huff's hallways although not in the arena), or that fans would yank the hairs out of opposing players' legs.

"That was the rumor. I remember that because I was in the band and we would be down in that front row and you could just reach out and touch a guys' leg if you wanted to," said veteran radio and TV newsman Dave Shaul, who grew up in Champaign, attended games at Huff with his father and later broadcast them for student radio station WPGU. "The proximity to the court, that's what really set Huff apart. It was like a big high school gym."

Like many high school gyms, Huff lacked the comforts of larger arenas and certainly those of today's stadiums. Not only was it cramped, but it was hot (and cold), there were pillars and steel beams obstructing the views of those in the balcony, the aisles and the wooden balcony seats were narrow, and there were few concession stands and bathrooms.

"Probably today people would think it was uncomfortable, but back then I think we just expected it. We didn't know the difference," said Joe Rank of Urbana, who as a child lived two blocks from Huff.

Jack Troxell of Champaign remembers it was a thrill to go to games with his father.

"To a young kid that was a big place, and at that stage no one cared about concession stands. It was a different time. There weren't pizza parlors or fast-food restaurants. I just remember it being very warm in there."

Sometimes, though, it was cold.

"When we were freshmen they opened all the doors and windows and we played practice games against each other," said Downey, remembering the days when freshmen were ineligible and they would play intrasquad games before the varsity games. "It was so cold, you could see your breath. But by the time the varsity game was being played, it was really hot."

Starnes said it was Combes' idea to chill the gym.

"Coach Combes came up with this great idea one time to open up all the windows at Huff and let the place get supercold so it would affect the opposing team when you had the tipoff. But I'm not sure it worked," he said.

Finney noted "we sat on bleachers and we were jammed in and there were hardly any bathrooms, but you looked forward to seeing your friends for every game. You knew you were going to get squeezed in. That was OK because you were just happy to be there. It was fun."

Steve Shoemaker, who was a 6-foot-8 basketball star at Urbana High School and was recruited by a number of top universities (although not Illinois), sat in the upper reaches of the Huff balcony in the 1950s and '60s with his grandfather, who taught business law at the UI.

"The problem was that my grandfather did not have seats on the aisle. A tall person could get away with it if you could put at least one leg out into the aisle. So my shins would be banging on the back of those little wooden seats up there and it wasn't very comfortable. And of course the person behind me couldn't see at all. I learned quickly not to stand up too much. But it was exciting.

"It was so loud in there. I think there were a lot more students in there then, not so many people who paid big bucks for those seats and then didn't show up. I just remember it was being packed, not with all the empty seats like we have in the A section (of the Assembly Hall) today."

Officially, Huff sat 6,912 fans, but crowds often exceeded that.

"People will say how in the world did they get over 7,000 people in there when they only get 4,000 for volleyball now? But the seats went all the way around," said Beach. "The seats went all the way up from the floor up to the bottom of the scoreboard on the south end and up to the balcony on the north end."

There had been talk of moving the basketball team out of Huff since the 1930s, but a war and a postwar campus expansion delayed that until 1958 when plans for the Assembly Hall were announced. It took five more years to open the place.

"Bill Burwell and Bill Small and I were being recruited and they said they would play in there by the time we were sophomores. And of course, we got to play two games there at the end of our senior years," Downey said.

When it came time to move down the street to the Assembly Hall, the Illini players were reluctant.

"I think there was no question that when the time came to move, we didn't want to. We were trying to win a Big Ten championship that year (they ended up sharing it with Ohio State) and Huff was a very friendly place to play for us. If we had been given a vote, we probably would have voted not to move," Downey said.

"Once we got to the Assembly Hall," said Starnes, "it was horrible."

It was too big, too spacious.

"Everything was wrong because we were so accustomed to coming into Huff and the kids were right on the baseline and they were right for us and it seemed so much easier to play there and you just felt you really had the home advantage. We didn't have it over at the Assembly Hall," Starnes recalled. "When we were first there, they didn't have any seats down close to the floor. I remember Coach Combes talking about how we had to fix that.

"It was beautiful and everything else, but it was like you were playing an away game, like you were playing in some tournament on the road."

In their first game at the Assembly Hall — a win over Northwestern — Illinois made 36 percent of its shots, Northwestern shot 30 percent. An Illinois team that had averaged 92 points a game at Huff that year scored 73 and 69 points in its two games at the Hall.

"It was like a cavernous building and those baskets just seemed to be hanging out in space," Shaul said.

Starnes remembers feeling melancholy after that last Huff game on Feb. 23, 1963.

"It sank in afterward because the guys were talking about it, how this was it, no more games at Huff. We loved Huff," he said. "It was a great place. It kinda sunk in how this was it and we wouldn't be back there. I remember after we moved out I would go back there and shoot around and it was like I had left my home. I really loved that place.

"I raced horses for many years and for me I think playing at Huff was like the horse always wanting to go back to his stall for security."

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at tkacich@news-gazette.com.

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