I've spent many nights in the old Putnam High gym.
It was hot.
It was generally packed with people sitting on top of each other, hoping that the fire marshal wouldn’t notice the double occupancy. Just 275 seats — give or take — didn’t go very far when Putnam hosted any local team.
To get to your seat, you became part of the game by walking on the court to avoid the feet of people sitting on the bottom row of bleachers — those feet were just about touching the playing surface themselves.
Fans usually waited for a timeout to move and the game had to be held up as people scrambled to and from the bleachers.
It was dark. Just ask any of my Bulletin photographer friends.
No opposing team wanted to play in it, no official wanted to ref in it.
It was just the way Tony Falzarano and Pam Childs wanted it.
It was home.
But all great things must come an end.
The bandbox has officially been retired, replaced by a shiny new gymnasium, the centerpiece of a $36 million renovation at Putnam High School.
The community was welcomed by Putnam superintendent William Hull, the Putnam Board of Education and the building committee to view it for a first time on Tuesday night.
“I think it’s like a shiny new car,” Putnam boys basketball coach Shawn Deary said. “It’s beautiful. It came out really nice and I’m very happy with it. I have a lot of memories about the old gym, but it’s time to make some new ones.”
Today, the Putnam boys basketball team will get its first opportunity to practice on the new gym floor.
“The floors are much nicer, the hoops are brand new and so are the lights, everything is nice,” said Putnam player Dan Porcic. “There is some pressure (to win in the new gym), but this is our year to shine.”
The new gym has a capacity of 501, meaning the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference won’t complain about Putnam hosting state tournament games. The distance between the baseline and wall is several feet rather than several inches and fans will be able to trickle in and not have to worry about catching an errant pass or player. High-arcing 3-pointers will no longer be hindered by a light or, in some cases, the ceiling.
But those on hand couldn’t help but remember what was.
Falzarano, now the mayor of Putnam, immediately noted something that was missing from the gym much to his dismay — the legendary emblem of the Putnam student section.
“I don’t see in that corner (pointing to the far wall) a huge, blue Z,” Falzarano said to the crowd, his comment greeted by laughter. “Section Z in the 1980s and 1990s dominated and other teams were fearful to come in here. You had Ross Sward and his pep band going. You had nutty kids in that section pulling the other team’s shorts when they were trying to inbound the ball. That’s teamwork.”
Falzarano spent 33 years as head coach at Putnam High School and racked up 535 wins, including a Class S state championship in 1986.
His counterpart, Pam Childs, led the Clippers’ girls basketball team to 411 victories.
“You really had the home advantage in the old gym. I don’t know. I don’t think these new bleachers will take my heel kick as well,” Childs said with a laugh.
She promptly tried a couple. It just didn’t have the same decibel level as the old wooden bleachers did.
Is it worth it?
That depends on whom you talk to.
“I think our kids deserve the best and this is just one step in that direction,” Hull said. “Putnam will be ready for the 21st century, ready for the next 50 years, that’s pretty neat.”
Falzarano wasn’t so sure.
According to Falzarano, when he walked in the door at Putnam in 1973, more than 600 students roamed its hallways. That number is now below 300.
“Hopefully, the enrollment will fill in a little,” Falzarano said.
The new gymnasium and a new weight room should help.
“As the great (former Alabama) football coach Bear Bryant said, ‘Chemistry departments are not bringing people in. The football team brings in people and millions of dollars and that’s the bottom line. That’s what people understand.’ ”
Falzarano thought back to the 80s and 90s, the pre-Eastern Connecticut Conference era, when Putnam was winning state titles in not only basketball, but football, baseball and softball and the community was united like it never had been and hasn’t been since.
“The historical part of it is gone,” Falzarano said. “It’s not like people don’t care and you don’t want to dwell on the past, but to have a good future, you have to understand the past and you can’t let those guys just fly away.”
It’s a point that’s well taken and one that should be heeded before people like Falzarano and Childs do fly away.
By the way, the gym needs a name.
“I’ve been so busy getting this thing together, that it has not crossed my mind,” Putnam High athletic director Adam Mielniczuk said about naming the gym. “But I agree, it should be named.”
There were two former coaches in attendance on Tuesday who amassed almost 1,000 wins between them.
The Falzarano-Childs gymnasium at Putnam High School has a very nice ring to it.
And a big “Z” on the wall wouldn’t hurt.