This was supposed to be my 25th season covering Winston-Salem State basketball.
In my first season, 1996-97, I was not only introduced to the hot, humid, crowded, loud, rowdy and rather intimidating Gaines Center, I started to love everything about the place.
And it’s been a part of my life ever since, which is why I felt compelled to go see the aging, non-air-conditioned building that is one of the best places to watch a basketball game.
I miss it.
One day this month I went to the Gaines Center knowing that I would find a way in if I tried hard enough. When you have covered WSSU basketball for as long as I have, you learn the tricks on how to get in a building as old as the Gaines Center.
Let’s just say that, because the building is attached to the old Whitaker Gym, it wasn’t hard at all for me to get in, take a few photos and shoot a video amidst the strange quietness. It was too quiet, and the silence that engulfed the building that opened in the late 1970s was eerie.
A small fan blew on one side of the court, moving the air around because it can get hot in there in a hurry. Many games come to mind where players slipped because of humidity of the court, and doors would be opened because it was just too warm, especially on those mild February days toward the end of the season.
Bleachers were pulled out as if a game was going to be played. The floor sparkled, clear of dust, most likely because of a lack of use. The baskets were set up on the court, even though there are no games scheduled.
The Gaines Center is named for the man who built the program, Clarence "Big House" Gaines. Any other year in late January, the Gaines Center would be alive with close to 3,000 students and a few fans from the community jammed inside to watch the Rams play.
During these 25 years I’ve seen four CIAA championship teams – 1999, 2000, 2012 and last season. Each of those teams had that special quality it takes to win the title with the right coaches and players — and a little bit of luck.
In honor of 25 seasons of covering WSSU athletics here are my 25 best players I saw compete …
It's tough to pick individual games when you've seen so many, but those encounters with the schools inside WSSU's division such as Shaw, Fayetteville State, Johnson C. Smith and Livingstone are as tense as any. Even when the Rams have had bad teams through the years, the students never stop coming. The gym sits in the middle of campus, so they can easily walk a few steps from their dorm rooms and be inside to watch the intensity.
More than the basketball itself, the students interacting during timeouts, dancing to the Red Sea of Sound, is part of that experience.
In 2019 I saw a fan rip off his sweatshirt to reveal a referee's shirt. He mimicked the official all the way down the court, and the official never saw it. And security never moved. The fan then sat down, put his sweatshirt back on, and his fellow fans sitting around him seemed jealous that they didn't think of doing something like that.
I could almost hear the ear-splitting Red Sea of Sound knocking red paint off the walls during player introductions. The school's award-winning band is as much part of the show as the players on the court.
This was set up to be one of the most anticipated seasons in a long time before COVID-19 ruined those plans. The WSSU women and Coach L’Tona Lamonte were poised to turn the corner in the CIAA, and the men’s team and Coach Cleo Hill Jr. are the defending champions.
The Rams will still be the defending champions the next time basketball season is played, but it won’t be the same.
It was nice to see the building again, even if it was empty. It's a lonely place.
We can only hope that by next fall the WSSU football team will be able to play again at Bowman Gray Stadium and the basketball teams will follow at the Gaines Center.
Folks complain all the time about how many renovations the Gaines Center needs, but to this old sportswriter, the place never looked better.