The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

November 17, 2012

There still is life in the old girl yet

ENID, Okla. — It has stood since just after the close of World War I, built primarily as a monument to local boys who had battled the Hun in the fields of Belgium and France.

It once housed the Enid Chamber of Commerce and played host to musicians as diverse as “March King” John Phillip Sousa, “King of Western Swing” Bob Wills and Fred Waring, the man known as “America’s Singing Master.”

Events taking place within its walls over the decades range from the chair-throwing and eye-gouging of professional wrestling to the earnest notes of numerous Tri-State Music Festival grand concerts.

It was the home of Enid’s first and only professional sports franchise, the Oklahoma Storm of the United States Basketball League.

For one season, the Storm’s sidelines were graced by NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who coached the team to the league championship in 2002.

Generations of people in the Enid area have grown up with their own memories of the venerable facility, the results of whose recent facelift will be unveiled to the public at an open house this afternoon.

Here are a couple of mine.

I will never think of Convention Hall without thinking first of basketball.

As a sportswriter with the News & Eagle from 1976 to 1993, I covered what seemed like hundreds of basketball games in the senescent structure.

Convention Hall used to host both the Wheat Capital and Skeltur Conference basketball tournaments, drawing schools from throughout the area, with only a week’s respite in between.

One winter, I found myself covering the Skeltur while fighting through a case of laryngitis.

I spent the week quizzing coaches and players in post-game interviews through a series of gestures and facial expressions.

During one Skeltur Tournament, I had seen so many games that I was dreaming basketballs were bouncing off the arena’s well-worn wooden floor.

But among all those many games, one stands out. It was Jan. 15, 1982, Enid High School hosted Tulsa’s Booker T. Washington.

Booker T. was undefeated and ranked No. 1, and featured a budding young superstar named Wayman Tisdale.

Enid’s roster, meanwhile, featured a future NBA standout named Mark Price.

Long before the boys’ game began, the fire marshall had begun turning away fans. Convention Hall’s capacity for basketball was listed as 1,792, and there were that many people there, or more, long before tipoff.

Fans stared and pointed at the 6-9 Tisdale during pre-game warmups. The taller, more athletic Hornets dwarfed the Plainsmen.

When the game started, the atmosphere crackled like pent-up static electricity.

As the noise level rose, one could almost swear the old building’s roof did, too.

At one point, Tisdale caught the ball at the top of the key, took one dribble and launched himself skyward from the foul line.

Fortunately, there were no defenders in his way. His dunk threatened to tear the old building down, decades before there were threats of taking a bulldozer to the place.

The game shouldn’t have been close. The Hornets had by far the superior talent.

But the Plainsmen had the heart, and the court sense and sharpshooting of Price, and pulled off the upset of the year, winning 68-63.

More than a decade later, the aging building hosted a president. On Sept. 17, 1992, George H.W. Bush made a campaign stop in Enid as he fought for re-election against a Democratic upstart named Bill Clinton.

After landing at Vance Air Force Base and taking an impromptu stroll around the Square, Mr. Bush spoke to some 2,500 people inside the arena. It was an unseasonable 90 degrees outside that day and that hot or hotter inside, since the antique building was not air-conditioned at that time.

For security reasons, the crowd had to be seated long before the president arrived, making conditions even more miserable.

But they were rewarded with a glimpse of a sitting president, and a rousing speech in which he referred to our town as “A bright star on the great plains.”

At one point during the proceedings, someone handed President Bush a fan reading “Clinton Makes Me Hot,” a clever reference to the oppressive temperature as well as a harbinger of sorts for Mr. Clinton’s tendency to get himself in trouble with the fairer sex.

Time finally caught up to the elderly edifice, and it became subject to superannuation because it didn’t comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A couple of years ago, the city was exploring the cost of tearing it down.

A former mayor even speculated which way the key turned on the bulldozer with which he intended to tear Convention Hall down.

Enid once tore down an elegant but aging Carnegie Library in the name of progress.

Thank God we didn’t make the same mistake again.

Convention Hall still is around, with a different purpose, to be sure, no longer housing basketball or march kings, but serving in this iteration as home to ballrooms and host to trade shows.

There is life in the old girl yet.

Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.Я

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