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Official Review by Marc Viquez, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Kokomo Memorial Gymnasium was dedicated on October 20, 1949 and was named in honor of the men and women from the town who lost their lives in World War II. The 7,200-seat physical education building was one of the largest in the world when it first opened, ushering a new era of bigger and better high school basketball gyms, but subsequent renovations have brought it down to its current capacity of around 5,200 people, ranking it as the 33rd largest high school gym in the world.
The home of the Kokomo High School Wildkats basketball programs cost $680,000 to build. It replaced the venerable Haworth Gymnasium that stood for 21 years before burning to the ground in the wee hours of March 22, 1944. The team would find a temporary home at the Kokomo National Guard Armory for the next five seasons, while the town contemplated building a new facility. Basketball had always been a hot ticket in town and a new gym was constructed in order to convince state officials to host regional tournaments in order to raise revenue.
The opening of the modern and larger gymnasium gripped the town with a fever known as “Hoosier Hysteria.” Fans would line up overnight to purchase tickets. Those who were not able to purchase a seat opted for standing room only, according to a former player who starred for the Wildkats in the late 1950s. He added that when he walked into practice on Saturday mornings, there would be lines of people in the frigid cold bundled up waiting for the ticket window to open. Game nights would be packed and the Wildkats would build off that momentum earning three trips to the state Final 4 championships in 1959, 1961, and 1962. They won it all in 1961.
The Art Moderne architectural building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, complete with a memorial marker on the corner of Apperson and Superior Streets. It was designed by architect Elmer Dunlap who also helped design various schools, courthouses, and parks in Indiana that are now also on the National Register of Historic Places.
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There is a normal selection of menu items that include hot dogs ($1.50), nachos ($3), or fiesta nachos with meat, onions, sour cream, and tomatoes ($4). Pickles, candy, and popcorn cost $1 and all Coca-Cola products are $2. There are two concession stands in the main lobby outside the playing court; however, it is recommended to grab a bite to eat before the game at one of the many restaurants along SR-931 in town.
Memorial Gym is a small, cozy, and comfortable facility that is not your typical basketball gymnasium. It is packed with delightful colors, signage, banners, and other wonderful nooks and crannies. Tickets are taken at the door from workers sitting down at tables at one of the four entrances to the building, conversations are brewing among friends young and old, and students line up to grab a bite to eat at the concession stands.
The bleacher seating is separated by two sections on the south side and into three sections on the opposite end. All upper level sections are reachable by stairs and ramps directly from the lobby. On both ends are two more seating sections that are above the playing court and operate as balconies; one of these section is populated by the band. All of the seats, with the exception of the third level section, are pull out bleachers. The sturdy wooden permanent seats on the third level are cornered off at the ends that makes for a little abnormality of seating style, but one that is welcomed.
All around the gymnasium are banners and signage that celebrate the multiple accomplishments of both the men's and women's basketball programs, highlighted by the 1961 boys state championship and 1992, 1993, and 2003 girls state championship banners. At one end of the arena it reads "Home of the Kats" on the wall, and Kats is spelled out in one of the upper sections of seats as well. A basic scoreboard hangs above center court, while a few more pictures and photos add to the aesthetics of the building.
You'll find a variety of chain restaurants and retail outlets on US-931 in Kokomo, which is not too far from the gymnasium. However, if you are looking for a few interesting sites to see or places to eat, then there are some local suggestions.
Harvey Hinklemeyers features great pizza and sandwiches and is also great for the kids. Half Moon Restaurant and Brewery is a great stop for a bite to eat or enjoy a craft beer after the game. Enjoy a giant tenderloin sandwich at Windmill Grill or Artie's Tenderloin. A tenderloin sandwich is a giant breaded piece of pork that is deep fried and big enough for two. Ray's Drive-In is a funky little place that makes a killer beef Manhattan sandwich. Dan's Variety Bakery is a popular destination that opens at 1 AM featuring hot, fresh baked donuts.
There are many hotel options outside of downtown and along the busy route of SR-931, including Comfort Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn & Suites, Courtyard Inn, and Fairfield Inn.
There is a great abundance of fans who attend Kokomo High School games, but not like the good old days when they used to pack the house to the gills. However, enough fans are out here supporting their local basketball team to easily confirm that there is still a lot of love for the Wildkats in Kokomo. Fans are supportive, dedicated, and interested in the game at hand.
The gymnasium is very easy to get around from the lower seats all the way to the upper section of seating. Signage is posted throughout the building, bathrooms and concessions are located on the main floors of the outside lobby. The only oddity is that the main lobby does not wrap around the entire building, but does extend well enough to provide four entrances to the playing court.
Arriving to the gymnasium is also fairly simple. There is plenty of signage directing visitors towards the historic facility with parking available on the streets or in one of the small lots outside of the gym.
Adult tickets are $5 for all home games which is on par with other high school games in the state. The parking is free, concession prices are extremely affordable, and it makes for a great night of high school basketball hoops in a historic and cozy basketball gymnasium.
The exterior of Kokomo Memorial Gymnasium is noteworthy for a few reasons. The historic building design features photos and headlines from when the team won the state title in 1961 above the main exterior entrance. There is also a bronze statue of a wildkat and a historical marker describing the facility.
The John Turner Memorial Room is located in the west end of the main lobby and was dedicated by his parents, Earl and Ellen Turner. Turner was an All-State basketball player who died during battle in World War II. The room features a portrait of Turner in uniform draped by two U.S. flags, while furniture from that era is set up behind a rope fence. On the opposite wall are three stained-glass windows listing every major battle of the war. Visitors walk through the area to look around and take photos, but no one is allowed to sit in the chairs or couches.
The school features a taxidermy wildkat encased behind a glass cube. It is wheeled out to center Court during warm-ups by a group of students and then wheeled back to the John Turner Memorial Room until it is ready for the next basketball game.
The overall aesthetics of the gymnasium are pleasing to the eyes. The red and blue banners hang proudly from the rafters, the seats are also colored red and blue, and little touches on the walls make it a visually pleasing facility for the first time visitor. It is a truly classic Indiana fieldhouse.
Kokomo Memorial Gymnasium is the perfect sized facility for high school basketball in the state of Indiana. It is dripping with nostalgia, brimming with history, and a wonderful place to watch basketball in the 21st century. If these walls could talk they would have a lot to say about the history of basketball. Fortunately, there are still a few people who have stories to share that still attend games at the gym.
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