UT's Stokely Athletics Center closing down

December 14, 2012

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- The building that served as Tennessee's basketball court during the program's glory years in the 1960s and 1970s is about to close its doors.

Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld, two of the greatest players in school history, performed at the Stokely Athletics Center.

So did Elvis Presley, Elton John, Janis Joplin and plenty of other famous recording acts. The Tennessee women's basketball team won its first national title in 1987, its final season using Stokely as its home court.

This old venue now is being prepared for demolition.

The bookstore located in Stokely is closing Saturday. All the university departments that have offices in Stokely are moving out by the end of the month, and the building will be demolished at a date to be determined.

A full use for all the land occupied by Stokely hasn't been decided, though Tennessee athletic department spokesman Jimmy Stanton said an extension of the football practice fields "will be a component of that."

"It's just a museum if you leave it up now," said Bill Justus, a two-time all-Southeastern Conference guard who played at Tennessee from 1967-69. "The memories will never be lost."

Those memories include plenty of victories.

The facility opened as the UT Armory-Fieldhouse in 1958, but its name changed after William B. Stokely Jr. helped fund a $2.6 million renovation in 1966.

The Tennessee men's basketball team played at Stokely from 1959-87 and went 321-69 in home games during that stretch for an .823 winning percentage. The Tennessee women's basketball team went 137-18 at Stokely from 1976-87 for an .884 winning percentage.

Tennessee had outstanding basketball teams during that era. The men's team finished lower than third place in the SEC just one year from 1963-64 to 1976-77.

Pat Summitt took over the Lady Vols in 1974-75 and wasted no time making Tennessee one of the nation's premier programs.

But the Stokely atmosphere also played a part in Tennessee's home-court advantage. That was particularly true of the men's teams under Ray Mears, who coached Tennessee from 1962-77 and posted a 278-112 record.

Mears fired up the fan base with unique pregame ball-handling drills that featured as much showmanship as you'd see at a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition.

"At most places, people would get there maybe five or 10 minutes before the game," said Grunfeld, a four-time all-SEC selection from 1974-77 who is now president of the Washington Wizards. "At Stokely, a half-hour before the game ever started, all the people were in the seats."

The proximity of the stands to the Stokely court made the arena particularly friendly to the home team.

"If you went out of bounds, you could almost touch the people," said Larry Robinson, who played at Tennessee from 1971-73. "You got to know them over a period of time, through the games. They got to know you. You could sit there actually before a game and communicate with them."

Tennessee women's basketball coach Holly Warlick experienced Stokely as both a player and a spectator.

Warlick, the first Tennessee athlete in any sport to have her number retired, was a three-time All-America guard for the Lady Vols from 1976-80. She also remembers attending Elvis Presley, Elton John and Whitney Houston concerts at Stokely.

"They used to seriously have the best-smelling popcorn," Warlick said. "You walked in the door, and all you could smell was great popcorn."

Although both basketball programs left for the Thompson-Boling Arena after the 1986-87 season, Stokely served as the home court for the women's volleyball team from 1998-2007.

More recently, Stokely has been a training facility for the track and field teams while also housing offices for the athletic department and ROTC program. Those offices will be moved to other campus locations by the end of December.

"It served its purpose in its time," Justus said. "It was a great place to play and a great place to practice. ... It's got its place in history."