About 300 alumni of North Kansas City High School, some of whom traveled hundreds of miles, gathered one last time Thursday night to pack themselves on wooden planks for the Hornets' final girls and boys basketball games at the facility that's been open since 1951.
These days, high school gymnasiums are usually built with retractable bleachers. But when the North Kansas City High School Fieldhouse is torn down and the wooden planked seats removed, the wrecking ball will drop on two giant slabs of staircased concrete.
A new gym on the compact high school campus is scheduled to be ready for next season.
"It's going to be hard to see the fieldhouse go," said Susie Albrecht Hevalow, who played on the Hornets' first girls basketball team in 1975.
But Lauren Jackson (1994-'98), the Hornet girls' all-time leading scorer with 2,124 points, sees the transition from the fieldhouse to a new gym as a sign of progress. Jackson traveled in from Durango, Colorado, where she's a planner for RMBA Architects and studying for her architectural license.
"I'm a big fan of the firm that's doing this project," Jackson said of Kansas City's BNIM. "I think it's pretty cool what they're bringing in, but I certainly have an attachment to the old."
Jackson's attachment to the fieldhouse dates back to when she accompanied her dad, Ed Jackson, a teacher and the sophomore boys basketball coach at the time. Lauren Jackson would arrive at the gym with a key before dawn.
"Coming in early morning, the little light comes in through the upper windows of the fieldhouse," she recalls. "I knew the right lights to flick on."
When the fieldhouse opened in '51, it was a celebratory moment in a somber year for the Kansas City area. Massive floods along the Missouri and Kansas rivers had ravaged the area.
Six years later, in 1957 — the year the Kansas Jayhawks lost the NCAA championship game to North Carolina in triple overtime at Municipal Auditorium downtown — North Kansas City had one of its most memorable moments in the fieldhouse. There was actually a connection between those two events.
For some unknown reason, Wilt Chamberlain, KU's seven-foot center, was a spectator on those fieldhouse planks when Ron Henderson hit a pair of free throws against Lincoln High School to send the Hornets to the state tournament.
"When he (Chamberlain) sat down, his head was still almost as high as the ones behind him," recalls Roger Henderson, whose brother Ron died in 2006.
At Thursday night's farewell event, returning alumni represented each basketball decade. Some people who didn't even graduate from North Kansas City came to see old friends because of family connections. After all, social events like school dances had also been held in the building.
It was clear that after wrecking ball levels the old building, its memories would live among those who gathered at the old fieldhouse one last time.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.