July 8, 2009

Home Court Advantage

Cousens Gymnasium renovations open the door for NCAA tournament basketball on campus

By Paul Sweeney

At the height of the Great Depression, Cousens Gymnasium opened to great fanfare on February 9, 1932, when the men’s basketball team gritted out a 28–24 overtime victory against Brown University in front of 1,600 spectators. “Certainly this plant is second to none in New England,” the Tufts Weekly crowed about the new physical education building.

Tufts President John Albert Cousens operates a steam shovel in 1931 during the construction of the gymnasium that bears his name. Photo: Tufts University Digital Archives

With its high, vaulted roof and bench seating, the gymnasium, named for Tufts’ sixth president, John Albert Cousens, was indeed New England’s premier physical education and athletics facility until Harvard built a new fieldhouse in the 1960s.

Now, 77 years later, during the throes of a Great Recession, the venerable gymnasium is undergoing a major renovation, work that will give the men’s and women’s basketball teams true home court advantage during National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament play.

In 1995, two years after the New England Small College Athletic Conference lifted a ban on NCAA tournament play by its teams, the Tufts men’s basketball team earned its first-ever NCAA berth. The celebration was short-lived, however, because an NCAA mandate issued that same year required tournament games to be played on courts that were 94 feet long. Built to high school specifications in the 1930s, Cousens fell short. The Jumbos had to play their big game at a neutral site, in this case Bentley College, and lost to Salem State, 86–80.

“I felt like an ogre having to enforce the rule,” says John Galaris, chair of the NCAA regional selection committee that season. “At that time, the regulations on how to run an NCAA tournament were getting a lot more sophisticated.”

To get back in the game, the basketball court is being rotated 90 degrees to lengthen it to NCAA standards. Handicap accessibility both into and inside the gym will be significantly improved. Repairs to the roof and lobby, renovations to the bathrooms and a new sound system are among several other enhancements that will bring the arena up to modern standards.

The work is scheduled to be completed in time for the volleyball team’s home opener against Wesleyan University on September 18.

Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow takes the controls of a backhoe this past spring, during the renovation of the 77-year-old gymnasium. Photo: Joanie Tobin

“Cousens first opened in the depths of the Great Depression,” Tufts President Lawrence S. Bacow says. “Its construction then reflected Tufts’ commitment to its students and to sports and fitness. Our decision to go ahead with its renovation now, in difficult economic times, reflects the same commitment.”

For the past two years, the Tufts women’s basketball team has enjoyed outstanding regular seasons that would have brought NCAA basketball action to campus. Instead, the Jumbo women had to play on the road.

“I think all of us on the team are really excited about the gym renovation, not just because it’ll be nice to have newer and updated facilities,” says Vanessa Miller, A10, tri-captain of the 2009–10 women’s team. “We’re all looking forward to the possibility of actually being able to play some of the biggest games of our season in front of a home crowd, and the advantage that comes with that.”

Cousens Gymnasium has a storied history. When it first opened, it was the most expensive building ($500,000) on the Medford/Somerville campus, funded with proceeds from the Austin B. Fletcher estate as well as by alumni who wanted to honor President Cousens’ tenacity in advocating for top-flight physical education facilities for Tufts students. The volleyball team gave the gym an appropriate send-off last fall by hosting its conference and NCAA Regional tournaments there.

“We are extremely grateful for the commitment to athletics that the university has shown by backing this project,” says men’s basketball coach Bob Sheldon. “I speak for both basketball teams and the volleyball team when I say that it’s inspiring, and we look forward to continuing the success of our programs in the new gym this [coming] season.”

The charming old gym also has had its moments in the national spotlight. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame acts such as The Band and Simon and Garfunkel played concerts in the gym. Singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was a no-show for a March 1964 concert at Cousens, sending 2,000 mightily unhappy fans home. Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird filmed a commercial for a Massachusetts company there in the late 1980s. And when Hollywood needed an old-school gym for a high school prom scene in the 1994 movie The Next Karate Kid, starring Academy Award-winner Hilary Swank, Cousens fit the bill.

More recently, in 2005, the NCAA called the gym a “one-of-a-kind” facility. The renovations will retain the unique character of the building surrounding the basketball court. The rafters, which are often rattled by Jumbo fans during basketball games, will stay, as will the long stairways at the front of the arena that tower up to the locker rooms. Those narrow stairs have intimidated many opponents over the years.

“The views of challenge were always looking down from the fourth-story precipice leading from the locker room,” says veteran Colby College coach Dick Whitmore, a visitor to Cousens since 1971, “first as a young coach filled with emotion and vigor, going too fast and tripping more than once. Now in advancing years it is the look up the stairs to see if I can make it!”

“Cousens Gym is one of the truly distinctive basketball and volleyball facilities in the nation,” Director of Athletics Bill Gehling says. “We believe that these modifications will enhance the playing and viewing experience while maintaining the feel of this historic venue.”

Paul Sweeney, Tufts’ sports information director, can be reached at paul.sweeney@tufts.edu.

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