Cabby O’Neill Gym is Home Again for the Cats
In a perfect world, the Jasper Wildcats would play all their home games at the Historic Cabby O’Neill Gymnasium and many in attendance felt fortunate to once again attend a game at the school’s former home due to a scheduling conflict at its current gym. The Art-Deco building was the Cats' home from 1939-1977 and once again during the 2011-13 season but games have been rare as of late making today’s high school hoops game a rare treat.
The game was almost implausible a little over a decade ago when the building was nearly demolished. A group lobbied to make sure the gym was saved, and the Greater Jasper School Board ended up voting 3-1 in favor of keeping it intact. Public donations and dedicated grants helped save it from the wrecking ball ensuring future use by the community for many years.
“My players enjoyed the experience,” said head coach John Goebel whose earliest memories are from wrestling tournaments when he was in elementary school. “It was a fun atmosphere and an overall very good environment to compete in. I believe playing there helped to give the players an appreciation for the history of our program and Indiana high school basketball.”
The boys took warm-ups wearing wedding gold jerseys with old gold lettering trimmed in black; these could have fit in in almost any era of basketball sans the Nike logo. A thunderous crowd cheered on their home squad with applause that reverberated powerfully throughout the building. A student section on one side sang in harmony decked out in various NBA and collegiate jerseys, while a few visitors donned hammerhead shark costumes to play spoiler for the day.
The gym was built for $100,000 in 1939 as a Work Projects Administration project and seated 3,200 fans. There is a lot to like from the main lobby which furnishes a plethora of memorabilia dating back more than eight decades including trophies, newspaper clippings, game day programs, team photographs, and other collections from the school’s history.
The 1949 Jasper State Championship team photo is the main focal point of the compilation that allows fans to examine and learn about basketball here in town. The gym would be renamed after the O’Neil in November 1983 who coached the Wildcats to its lone state basketball title and would serve as both coach and administrator from 1939-1971
The Cats were 10-9 that championship season and were a small-town-underdog heading into the final game against the Madison Cubs. O’Neill would say in 1989 that “we were like (the movies) “Hoosiers” before anyone thought “Hoosiers” up. The Wildcats defeated the heavily favored Cubs 62-61 at the Butler–now Hinkle–Fieldhouse and a crowd of 35,000 welcomed the state champs when they returned to Jasper.
The team was pretty good during the 1940s and won eight consecutive sectional championships and was nearly unbeatable from 1941-1949 where the team won 8 sectionals and produced a .881 winning percentage at home. O’Neill produced an impressive record of 247-76 during his 12-year tenure and his record was 148-32 at the gym which now bears his name.
Basketball would come to an end when a new Jasper High School was built in 1978 that also included a much larger and modern gym. The last game at Cabby O’Neill Gym was played on February 25, 1977, and it would continue as a middle school facility. The building’s drop ceiling would be removed shortly after in 1978.
The gym was put back into service for two seasons from 2011-2013 after heavy rainfall caused the new gym’s roof to collapse just a day after prom festivities were held in the building. The basketball program would produce a 15-5 record at its former home and would begin to play at a brand new 4,800 gym for the 2013-2015 academic year.
There have only been a handful of games played at Cabby in the past seven seasons and Jasper’s Athletic Director Greg Lewis does not have any plans to play another game at the gym in the future since it is rather difficult for the athletic department to hold the game off-campus that results in a lot of extra hours of work setting up the event.
Almost everything has to be transported to the gym from campus including the popcorn machine, the cheese sauce warmer for the nachos, multiple candy bars, soda pop, and setting up the concession area itself. That does not include setting up chairs, bleachers, electrical equipment for the sound system, and other media areas. Coach Goebel also sees a few more issues with staging a game at the historic venue.
“The only negative would be the logistical issues with holding it there–parking, concessions, restrooms, and seating are just a few of the amenities that our new gym has to offer over the Cabby Gym. It was also difficult for our athletic department to hold the game off-campus, there’s a lot of extra work hours setting the entire thing up”.
The hard work paid off, the freestanding building still looks stoic on the corner of 6th and Seymour and many who purchased a ticket today for $5 were able to either reminiscence about season’s past or finally take in a varsity game for the very first time.
At halftime members of the 1971-1975 sectional championship teams were honored in front of a standing ovation. However, one fan sitting in the visitors’ section yelled out “Who cares?” much to the dismay of the close to 2,000 on hand who serenaded him with boos and jeers.
It’s not certain why he displayed such a truculent tone those Wildcats teams brought back a level of success not seen in town since the 1940s. They also captured two regional championships in 1972 and 1973. The boys’ basketball program has won 8 sectionals since 1975 but never back to back and never five in a row. I believe that is a lot to care about.
“We had a great atmosphere and I was happy to allow those 1970s teams to be honored where they played,” added Lewis.
It is a small tragedy that current Indiana gymnasiums do not look similar in design or aesthetics to Cabby; sure there is the need to bring these buildings up to certain codes and widen particular areas, but for one special day the gym was alive with a near-capacity crowd to enjoy a Jasper Wildcats basketball game. Hopefully, there will be a few more sometime shortly.