By Ben Rowley
Note: I wrote this piece for Myron Finkbeiner’s “Vanishing Hardwoods.” The book documents historic high school basketball gyms throughout the U.S. Go to http://www.vanishinghardwoods.com/ for more information.
I stared out the passenger-side window, taking in the golden scene. The sun sat low in the west, and yellow cottonwoods were scattered everywhere – casting shadows on miles of pasture. It was a late afternoon in early October 1998, and my mother and I were moments away from our new home. We had departed Hill Air Force Base, Utah that morning and made the seven-hour drive to join the roughly 1,000 inhabitants of Alamo, Nevada in the Pahranagat Valley. I still remember my anxiousness and my first attempts at pronouncing the name (PUH’-ran-uh-get), which is a Southern Paiute word meaning “valley of shining waters.” Pahranagat is an isolated, green oasis in the Mojave Desert, centrally located in sparsely-populated Lincoln County. It features a 40-mile long, one-mile wide, strip of gorgeous, green ranches that are nourished by a number of natural springs and are flanked by rugged, rocky hills on both sides.
My dad awaited us at our rental home in Yoppsville, a neighborhood built in the 1970’s when Union Carbide workers commuted to tungsten yielding mines at Tempiute. Mom turned on 1st Street. My gaze traveled three blocks to the other end of Alamo, where the road meets a white, one-story building with an arched entryway. To the northwest, a church steeple peeked over modest homes and tall trees. The empty road took us passed what I guessed was the high school and its little gym. “This is it?” I thought. “Where am I?”
Three-and-a-half years later, I was a senior, and it was the fourth quarter. I squatted in “triple-threat” position on the right wing, a few feet behind the three-point line. For a brief moment, I stared at the Lincoln County High defender. His Lynx were hanging tough, clawing back to within a point-or-two at that little gym in our own tournament. The moment was tense. This was Alamo’s long-time cross-county rival after all. We yearned to beat them and were mad for a week if we lost.
The Lynx had bottled me up all game, implementing sideline traps every time I caught the ball. But the trap didn’t come this time. I felt the anxiousness of the coach, my teammates and the home fans behind me. A quick burst of energy, and I flew passed the defender. His help came late, and I made a layup – plus a foul. The gym erupted. I turned around and looked at the coach. He was saying something, but I couldn’t hear a word. That end of the floor in that little gym was the noisiest place in the world at that moment. I looked up, surveying the ecstatic crowd. I clenched my fists, and yelled with them.
- Where I was, it turned out, was the greatest basketball atmosphere a boy could dream of, where similar scenarios play out winter-after-winter; where you’ll often find half of the valley jam-packed in the home gym.
The one I played in served Pahranagat Valley High School’s varsity teams from 1959 to 2005. The building’s rectangular cinder block exterior won’t drop your jaw. It’s painted white with the school colors of blue and gold running around the bottom. The front wall features a painting of a large, black cat looking ready to pounce and words proudly stating, “HOME OF THE PANTHERS.” Inside, you find out why many called the place, according to current boy’s varsity head coach and former player Brian Higbee, “the loudest, most intimidating gym in the state of Nevada.”
The intimidation starts with wooden plaques. When opposing teams walked in, they were welcomed by the square, plywood banners hanging high on three of the walls. Former boy’s basketball coach Don Anhder started them in 1985 when eleven stained and glossed beauties were mounted. The gym retired with forty, all reading “State Champions.” The plaques honor baseball, basketball, track, volleyball, and wrestling teams, starting with the school’s first title earned in 1950. By the late 90’s, there was no more room, so the wall next to the main entrance sports a second row of glory.
The floor itself is only a few feet shorter than regulation size, but space beyond the hardwood is scarce. Players are crowded by either walls or fans on every side. Eight rows of bleachers border the north sideline with the front row sitting less than six feet from the court and team benches. The other sideline rests about three feet from the wall; ditto for the west baseline. The other baseline actually has about ten feet of room, but often the area was used as an overflow where spectators stood two rows deep.
- Visiting opponents not only felt trapped, but trapped in a furnace. Coach Higbee recalls the heat being cranked for games. I never put it together until he said that, but I do recall cotton mouth coming awful quick playing in the home gym. Higbee said the Panthers were also aided by the west rim being about an inch shorter than the other. The feature wasn’t created on purpose, and the Panther players and coaches didn’t discuss it or count on it as an advantage. Yet it is true the home team always took the west end in the second half, and rallies often occurred while the visitors scratched their heads to why their shots were suddenly falling short.
Home-court advantage culminated in the gymnasium’s deafening noise, which always made you feel like you were in more than a gym with eight rows of seats. “It looked like there were 10,000 of them, and it felt like it,” Coach Higbee said. “It was so loud at times, it was like static.” Screaming voices bounded off un-muted walls, and the tight confines allowed the sound to bounce quickly. “The fans were just right in your face,” Higbee said. “Talk about an atmosphere for high school basketball – just incredible.”
Of course, the key is there were butts in the seats and anywhere else you could squeeze in a spectator. Alamo fans have never had an off year, caring long before the plaques accumulated. The valley values its youth. It supports its youth. It stands up for its youth. Often that support is misinterpreted by other schools. I have a co-worker who played in the late 90’s for The Meadows, a private school in northwest Las Vegas. The Panthers and his Mustangs enjoyed intense battles, but he always remembers being a little afraid when playing at Pahranagat Valley. “It was tiny and loud,” he said. “And you felt like you might not get out of Alamo alive.”
The support for the youth translates in less threatening ways outside the lines. For example, Coach Higbee’s grandmother, Ev’y Higbee, has compiled a comprehensive history of the valley’s schools and teams. As the stories contained in her brimming binders unfold, you discover that a different building carries the distinction of Alamo’s first gymnasium. That white building my mom and I saw at the end of 1st Street was home to Alamo’s high school students starting in 1936. The building was long-awaited, coming after a half-century of education evolution. Before James Naismith invented basketball, one-room elementary schools dotted the valley in the settlements of Hiko, Crystal Springs, Ash Springs, Richardville, and Alamo. But for years, completing high school required uprooting to Lincoln County High in Panaca – 70 miles away, and many families made that sacrifice. Then in 1921, Alamo introduced a two-year high school, allowing students to stay home a little longer, but they still had to finish at Lincoln. In 1931, the valley’s schools consolidated into one Alamo School District, and finally in 1933, Alamo was approved for a fully accredited, four-year program. In the fall of ’36, a brand new high school building was finished, complete with science and home economics rooms and the gymnasium.
- Today, the building is subdivided into a courtroom and administrative offices for the Alamo Annex of Lincoln County, but back then it housed a similar atmosphere to its successor, though the dimensions were much smaller and even more cramped for the players. It was about two-thirds the width and half the length of a regulation court, and both baselines were inches from brick walls. Thankfully, there were pads under the baskets, because a drive to the hoop meant a slam into those walls, according Ed Hansen, who played for the Panthers in the late 40’s. On both sides, rows of chairs went all the way to the sidelines. “When you took it out of bounds, you were standing on people’s toes,” he said.
But the marquee feature of the gym was low-hanging, wooden rafters, with beams perched not much higher than the hoops. Frequently, visiting players would forgetfully attempt long shots or passes that would ricochet off, inside, and between the rafters like a pinball. The beams were considered in play, so a mad scramble followed as players guessed what direction the ball would fall. “People would come play in that old cracker box and curse,” Hansen said. Meanwhile, the “Alamo quintet,” as reporters often called them, became pretty good at judging the rafters and shooting high arching shots over and through them and into the net. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Higbee said few teams ever beat the Panthers on their home floor, and Joe Higbee, her husband of 65 years and a former player from 1939 to 1943, recalls Dee Stewart especially being “a pretty good shot through those rafters.”
The memories piled up, first in the “cracker box” for 23 years, then in the loud, cramped furnace for 46. There are thousands of stories deserving mention, which is one major problem with writing about Panther athletics. Anywhere you dig is a billion-dollar goldmine. But in all the stories, from every generation, are common themes.
First, the spirited, protective fans have always been there. When asked if they were as rowdy back then as they are today, Hansen just grinned. “They were worse.”
Mrs. Higbee added it was always a challenge to keep the crowd in line. “They would get pretty excited.”
That is more than an understatement. Why anybody would ever want to referee a game in Alamo is beyond me. You miss a call, you hear about it for a month. Don Anhder remembers several occasions when he had to escort the officials out of the building, getting them away from fans who wanted to have a few words. Anhder said he doubts the fans wanted to go to blows, but they surely were ready to share a spirited lesson on proper officiating.
Other gems are told on how Alamo teams faired away from their friendly confines. For the Panthers, an away game means at least a two-hour bus ride, and a trip to a northern town like Reno, where state tournaments are often held, is a seven-hour journey. Ed Hansen remembers one such trip during his senior year in 1949. The Panthers were in the state tournament at Reno, and Hansen recalls easily beating their semi-final opponent. That night their coach put the team up in an old downtown hotel, where traffic noise easily penetrated the walls. Instead of blocking out the noise and going to sleep, the boys stayed up all night shooting each other with water pistols. Hansen is disgusted as he tells the story now, but the next day the team was exhausted and was blown away in the championship game.
Mrs. Higbee recalls one of the few road trips she had as a girl’s basketball player. The girls weren’t privileged to go on many trips, especially during WWII when gas was scarce. However, in 1944 a friend of the school who played for Dixie College in St. George, Utah arranged for the Lady Panthers to come play both the high school and college. With gas rationed, each player brought her family’s gas coupons. The team gassed up the athletic bus (which was really about the size of a minivan) and then filled 20 gas cans. They put the cans in the bus, put a blanket over them, and sat on them for the 332-mile round-trip. Thankfully, the bus didn’t explode, and the Lady Panther’s had a successful outing, beating the high school and giving the college players a run for their money.
Another theme has been a deep-seeded rivalry with Lincoln County. Joe Higbee’s fondest basketball memory is beating Lincoln twice in 1943. His wife added “if we could just beat them, we didn’t care.” Hansen said there was so much animosity between the schools that they refused to play each other for years. The reason? There doesn’t seem to be a valid one, other than they are the county’s two schools, and Panaca has just as much history and pride as Alamo. Whatever the reasons, when the schools finally found the heart to play each other, it made for a fun brand of basketball. Everyone spoken with claims when the teams met, the venue was absolutely bursting with spectators. Through the years, congregational boundaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have required the communities, each heavily LDS, to worship together. This has probably simmered the rivalry down a tad, but things can still get heated. And it makes life quite interesting as respective community members go after each other on Saturday, then strive to love one another on Sunday.
One final theme has been the Panthers’ championship success. Most of the state titles didn’t come until after the late ’70s. However, Alamo teams have almost always been competitive and a state title has always been the goal. So one can imagine the decades of agony as the Panthers would come up painfully short in the state playoffs. The first state title since 1953 came in 1979 under long-time coach and former player Vaughn Higbee. The coach happily stepped aside after a decade-and-a-half of struggling to reach the pinnacle. Rob Hansen, who played on that championship team, said “I’ve never seen a coach more happy in my life.”
From there the floodgates opened. Boy’s basketball earned titles in 1980, ‘81, ‘86, ‘91, ‘94 ‘98, and 2006. Today, it is tied for the 6th most state championships in Nevada history. The school has a well-oiled system of player development, starting with pee-wee, then the middle school program, and other sports have followed suit. The Panthers own 10 titles in girl’s basketball (tied for 1st all-time), 12 in girl’s volleyball (2nd), 11 in football (5th), three in girls track, one in boy’s track, one in baseball, and numerous individual championships in track and wrestling.
This unprecedented string of success, coupled with the loud gym and spirited fans, has made Alamo the Nevada 1A equivalent of Duke University. It’s a triumph in itself to defeat the mighty Panthers. Last volleyball season, Lake Mead Christian Academy defeated the Lady Panther’s for the private, Henderson school’s first volleyball state title. Afterwards, an Eagles fan commented on Nevadapreps.com that “it is always good to see Alamo go down.” A few years ago, a talented team achieved a rarity – beating the Panthers in their own gym. When the final buzzer sounded, a triumphant player knelt down at center court and kissed the floor.
I began this piece by sharing some of my memories moving to and playing for Alamo. At first, I cringed to do so, because the tradition, history, dedication, and camaraderie of the place are bigger than any one person, especially me. Yet I have an added perspective that I believe shows the greatest aspect of Pahranagat Valley’s hardwoods and the community at large. In 7th and 8th grade, I was one of hundreds of serious ball players looking for that shot. I could play, but so could a lot of my peers. Tryouts were three days and consisted of two cuts. Both years I was a victim of the second cut. When I came to Pahranagat Valley in 9th grade, I found myself the starting point guard for the junior varsity squad after a two-hour tryout featuring zero cuts. The next year, I was on varsity and joined the battle for another one of those wooden plaques.
We won that Lincoln game by-the-way. That night, I lay in bed thinking about my drive to the hoop and the crowd’s reaction. Ringing in my ears was evidence the moment had actually happened. It was a boyhood dream realized, one that millions of young people reach for but so many can’t grasp. I’m not just talking about making a big play and hearing the roar of the crowd. I’m talking about having the opportunity, the shot to put on a jersey, compete, and represent a community.
Thanks to Alamo, I found solace from the dog-eat-dog world of big-school athletics in the confines of a loud, little gym, and I take this opportunity to thank my parents for moving us to “the valley of shining waters” and thank the community that allowed me to bask in the game I love for four precious years.
It is a shame education so often is turned into an assembly line. It is a shame that our economic policies have squeezed rural communities. In doing so, America is hurting its own heart.
The 2005-2006 school year was the start of a new chapter for Pahranagat Valley High School. A new gym was completed and sits a hundred feet to the west of the old one. It dwarfs its predecessor. Inside, there are bleachers along both sidelines and plenty of room on every end of the floor. High on the walls, all the championships are accounted for. The banners are neatly divided by sport and are in a similar format, but the powers-that-be opted for blue and gold cloth instead of stained plywood. They look nice.
The new gym is pretty, and it has a lot more sitting and playing room. But we still remember that old gym. Vaughn Higbee said every time he walks in it, he has a million different thoughts. “I think about all those kids whose voices are still bouncing around in that old gym.”
“It was bitter-sweet to leave such a great atmosphere to a bigger, nicer gym,” said Coach Brian Higbee.
But such is progress, and memories have already started to accumulate on the shiny, new hardwood. I was leery of the new gym for a while, but then I attended a game last year when Alamo hosted Mountain View Christian, a private Las Vegas school. In the boy’s JV game, an Alamo guard hit two free throws with just seconds left in overtime to seal a victory for the Panthers. It was loud.
In the girl’s varsity game, two technical fouls were called on Mountain View. It was loud.
In the boy’s varsity game, a Mountain View player made the go-ahead bucket with 10 seconds left. It was very loud.
And when there was 0.4 seconds left and the game all but over, both the home and visiting crowds chanted their team names at the top of their lungs. The noise level was close to what was provided in that old gym, now sitting quietly close by. That night, as I was writing about the games, I noticed a slight ringing in the ears.
- I smiled. I knew there were kids staying awake that night thinking about the misses and the makes, proved by the ringing in their own ears. The community lives on, and with it another generation of dreams are being realized.