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Column: Dirt courts produced prime players
Johnny Vardeman

March Madness will be concluding in a few days with college and women’s basketball tournaments, along with the National Invitational Tournament. High schools in Georgia already have crowned their basketball champions for this year.

Basketball scoring these days is much higher than when the sport was in its infancy. The pro teams routinely score more than 100 points, often more than 120. College men’s teams score more than 100 occasionally, not so much in the tournaments.

Even high school teams sometimes score more than 100. That’s a far cry from the early days of basketball when scores were low for both boys and girls. Gainesville High School lost to Fulton County girls 16-3 in the state championship in that era.

In a game in 1915, Gainesville beat Cornelia 14-8. Gainesville girls beat College Park 9-3 in 1919. Defense must have reigned in the boys’ games, too. Gainesville boys beat Commerce 25-16 in a 1916 game and lost to Oglethorpe 24-18. The score at the half of a Gainesville-Athens boys’ game was 8-8, with Gainesville eventually winning 14-8, giving Athens its first loss of the year.

New Holland fielded basketball teams back then. The girls team beat Cumming 13-11 in a 1922 game, and New Holland boys won their game by the same score.

Sometimes teams couldn’t score a single point. Gainesville girls beat College Park 12-0 after leading 4-0 at the half.

Scoring improved as the years rolled by. The late Don Parks, playing for the old Sardis High School, scored 88 points by himself against Gillsville High School in 1953. He made 35 of 36 field goal attempts and 18 foul shots, missing none. The game was played at the old Gainesville High School gym, now an office building called the Gym of ’36, because both teams had to use outdoor courts.

Most schools in the area during that time played on outdoor dirt courts. Before its gym was built in the mid-1930s, Gainesville High had somewhat of an advantage as it played on a dirt court inside the old Fair Building on the fairgrounds off Shallowford Road. The Fair Association installed a floor just for the games in 1922.

The late Phil Jackson, in his book, “50 Years of Cheers and Jeers,” wrote that you could tell where high school players came from by looking at their shoes. The shoes of those who had to play on outdoor clay courts were dusty or muddy. Players were used to shooting at homemade baskets, sometimes without nets or backboards, but were often the better teams in tournaments.

There were a few gymnasiums, including a storied one at Candler in South Hall. New Holland had a “bandbox gym” in its historic recreation building that Pacolet Manufacturing Co. provided for the community. There were only a few feet between the goal and the wall, causing players going in for a layup to slam into it sometimes at full speed.

That building remains in use, and the floor of the former gym is used by Lanier Therapy in Motion. The floor dates to the 1950s, when the original floor was flooded and replaced.

Fighting words

Gainesville High School had three “fight songs” in 1918. They weren’t for basketball or football teams, but for the debate team. They took debates seriously back then.

“We Win for Old Gainesville” was the title for one. “We win it now for old Gainesville High; Red and White we win tonight,” is a line from one. “Victory” was the title of another, sung to the tune of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” “Oh, here’s a toast to GHS, to GHS forever,” read the first line.

School a prison?   

Gainesville High School’s newspaper has been known as “The Trumpeter” for many years. Perhaps that was an improvement over the former name, “The Mured.” Definition for the word “mured” is “imprisoned” or “up against a wall.”

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or His column publishes weekly.