Effort to refurbish historic St. Stephen basketball court considers next steps

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·3 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
The original gym floor was discovered underneath a carpet. The carpet was removed during cleanup after a small fire in the building. (Canada First Basketball - image credit)
The original gym floor was discovered underneath a carpet. The carpet was removed during cleanup after a small fire in the building. (Canada First Basketball - image credit)

Most people would never think the old building at 4-8 King St. in St. Stephen was anything more than an empty retail space.

But people in the town believe it is the oldest surviving basketball court in the world, where a game was played less than two years after Canadian James Naismith invented the sport.

For Robert Otto, a longtime basketball fan, seeing the tiny gymnasium on the upper floor of the building for the first time was an exciting experience.

"I sort of got chills," Otto said.

"I thought it was amazing. You could almost hear the squeak of the shoes."

Submitted by Canada First Basketball
Submitted by Canada First Basketball

Otto had recently moved to St Stephen, and he agreed to head up the organization trying to turn the building into a museum dedicated to the event.

Canada First Basketball is nearing the end of phase one of its fundraising goal of $1 million for what Otto says is an estimated $10-million project.

That has allowed the Town of St. Stephen to purchase the property on behalf of the organization, an effort that began in 2018.

The building was home to the local YMCA back at the end of the 19th century and housed a number of local businesses over the past 120 years.

Facebook
Facebook

In 2010, after a small fire, the carpet in the upper floor was removed, revealing the original gymnasium floor.

That kicked off research into a local legend that the first basketball game outside the U.S. happened there.

It turns out that wasn't quite true.

In September 1893, a man named Lyman Archibald arrived in town to run the Y.

Hallie Lowry/Library and Archives Canada
Hallie Lowry/Library and Archives Canada

He was a member of James Naismith's YMCA class in Springfield, Mass., and played in that famous first game in December 1891.

And on Oct. 17, 1893, he introduced the game to St. Stephen. It was a big enough deal that the local newspaper reported the story.

But Canada First Basketball soon found out games had been hosted in Toronto and Montreal by that time.

That's when they realized that the venues where earlier games had been played no longer exist.

A gymnasium in Paris, France, a replica of the Springfield YMCA, claimed the title of oldest surviving basketball court, but Otto said its December 1893 game was two months after Archibald's game.

Robyn Miller/CBC
Robyn Miller/CBC

Back then, the game likely barely resembled the fast-paced sport we know today.

"With nine players a side, it must have been pure pandemonium," Otto said.

"The rules were ill-defined … it was predominantly a passing game."

Now that the building is officially in town hands, the work can begin on the refurbishment of the building.

Otto said the building itself is in good condition structurally, and recent roof work ensures it is watertight.

Peter Corby/Submitted
Peter Corby/Submitted

"There's nothing overly pressing," so the group can focus on the job of refurbishing the gym.

"The floor is going to need some work. We have to figure out what's the best way to protect the floor and retain its history."

The plan also includes adding an "experience centre" on the first floor.

It will allow people to "experience the history of basketball and Canada's contribution to the game," Otto said.

That will include another Canadian connection, the hosting of the first NBA game in 1941.

Submitted by Canada First Basketball
Submitted by Canada First Basketball

The New York Knickerbockers came to Canada to face the Toronto Huskies in the first-ever game in a league then called the Basketball Association of America, or BAA.

Otto said the group hopes to have plans in place in six to nine months, which will include more precise estimates on the $10 million price tag.

The fundraising will have to be fast and furious if Otto has his way on a timeline.

"We'd like to be essentially wrapped up with doors open in two years."

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting