World’s Largest High School Gymnasium

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on November 24, 2007

Voices roar. Pom-poms swish. The ball thumps down the hardwood floor as hometown fans shout for one last basket before halftime during the opening game of the 2007 high school boys’ sectional tournament in New Castle, Ind., last February.

As the halftime buzzer sounds, players hustle from the court to the locker room while the crowd stands and cheers in the New Castle Chrysler Fieldhouse, the world’s largest high school gymnasium.

“New Castle is a basketball town,” says Chase Stigall, 18, a senior and member of the New Castle Trojans basketball team. “Everyone comes out on Friday nights to watch the game.”

Basketball fever runs deep in New Castle (pop. 17,780). In fact, that’s why the community built a gymnasium to seat 9,325 spectators in 1959.

“We had so many people wanting to see the games that they couldn’t all get in the old Church Street gym,” recalls Bill Lehr, 79, NewCastle High School principal from 1967 to 1979. “So the community pitched in to see that a big enough gym was built.”

Volunteers raised more than $1 million for the 81,000-square-foot fieldhouse, where the Trojans practice and high school sectionals have been hosted each year since the giant gymnasium was built.

“This is a great place to see basketball,” says Ray Pavy, 66, sitting atop the fieldhouse’s upper deck. “There’s not a bad seat in the house.”

An avid Trojans fan, Pavy is part of New Castle’s legendary hoops heritage. During the last game played at the old Church Street gym in 1959, Pavy scored 51 points and rival Kokomo’s Jimmy Rayl shot 49, setting a state scoring record for two players in a single game.

Basketball is a sport that’s at the very core of life in New Castle, says Neil Thornhill, a local dentist and basketball historian. “My family has had season tickets for almost 50 years,” he says. “I played guard back when I was in high school.”

During one memorable 1961 tournament, a blizzard hit during a Saturday evening game, stranding more than 2,000 fans in the fieldhouse. Townspeople were able to drive home, but roads leading out of town became so treacherous they were closed. “Cars were getting stuck everywhere,” recalls New Castle resident Jack Riggs, 75.

Nearby grocery stores and bakeries carried in sandwiches and doughnuts to feed the crowd. On Sunday morning, the sermon of a local Presbyterian minister was piped in and the gym became a church for a day.

New Castle’s basketball heritage is evident throughout the town, from the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, across the street from the fieldhouse, to the Steve Alford All-American Inn, named for a local hoops legend. The two-story motel on the outskirts of town has a pickup-sized basketball shoe in the parking lot and a lobby filled with memorabilia of Alford’s career as a New Castle High School star, Indiana University All-American, NBA player, Olympic gold medalist and current University of New Mexico coach.

Another gigantic basketball shoe is outside the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, the only state basketball hall of fame in the nation. Inside, the beloved sport is celebrated from the days of peach baskets and laced balls through present-day stars and champions. New Castle team jerseys, vintage photographs, trophies and other basketball memorabilia are prominently displayed, along with items from other outstanding Hoosier coaches, players and winning teams.

For the third consecutive year, the New Castle Trojans won the boys’ basketball sectional last March, though they lost in the regional tournament by 2 points. Still, hopes in New Castle are high that the Trojans will win another state championship, adding to the 1932 and 2006 state title banners now hanging in the fieldhouse.

“I’m looking forward to fighting to win a championship,” Stigall says. “Champions never quit.”

Jackie Sheckler Finch is a freelance writer in Bloomington, Ind.