“For a number of years now, Kankakee High School has been known for its fine basketball teams and its poor basketball facilities,” wrote Kankakee Daily Journal Sports Editor Herb Jannusch on Nov. 22, 1950.
In his weekly “Sports in Spurts” column, Jannusch noted, “It’s taken a public referendum and a few hundred thousand dollars to eliminate the less flattering part of that reputation, and Kankakee fans may learn tonight in their spacious new East [Junior] High School gym whether they can hold on [to] the other part. Peotone should provide a good initial test.”
The “poor basketball facilities” mentioned by Jannusch referred to the gymnasium in the Kankakee High School building at 240 S. Warren Ave., which opened in 1927. The gym had room for barely 1,000 spectators (for a number of years, the high school’s band was exiled from basketball games at the gym — their seats were needed for paying spectators).
The new facility, with space for up to 3,250 spectators, was located directly north of the high school, across Merchant Street. It was part of the newly opened East Junior High School (in later years, when the Junior High building was renamed to honor the assassinated Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the facility was popularly referred to as “King Gym”).
Kankakee’s Wednesday evening inaugural game at the new gymnasium would be against a smaller, but highly regarded opponent, the Blue Devils of Peotone High School. The game, and the facility, generated considerable interest in the community.
“The two teams are likely to stage their little skirmish before the biggest crowd ever to see an indoor sports program in this community, judging from the advance sale of tickets,” reported the Journal. “As of this morning, a total of about 725 season tickets … had been sold. That’s, roughly speaking, not far from five times as many as had been sold in any previous year…. there appear to be as many persons coming out to see the gym as to see the game.”
Expectations for a record crowd were fulfilled, as 2,800 spectators packed the seats from the main floor level to the top rows of the balcony bleachers. From its new home in the south balcony, the Kankakee High School band, for the first time in years, serenaded basketball fans … and the Kays team met the expectations of the crowd by soundly defeating the Blue Devils, 48-37.
“The Kays, displaying surprising poise and adroitness for their first game, won with unexpected ease,” Jannusch reported in the Thursday edition of the newspaper. He speculated that Peotone, “which had won impressively in three previous appearances, was apparently a little awed by the new gym, the record-breaking crowd and the prospects of a victory over the far bigger school.”
Kankakee coach Earl Jones was “pleasingly surprised” with his team’s performance. “I didn’t expect them to look as smooth as they performed,” he told the newspaper. “I was afraid that we’d be throwing passes up to the balcony of our new gym.”
Earl Smith, the Blue Devils’ coach, expressed his disappointment: “I thought we might give you a better game, but I guess my boys were just plain scared,” he said, “… the added tension of being the first team to play in the big new gym in front of a huge crowd didn’t do them any good.”
In a follow-up story in the Journal on Sunday, Nov. 26, Jannusch captured the reaction of fans to the new facility.
“John Q. Fan, the man who pays the freight, rates Kankakee’s East Junior High School gym with superlatives,” he wrote. “The average fan was extremely pleased with the gym, but occasionally one heard a complaint about the seats, which some felt aren’t as comfortable as they might be.”
Complaints about comfort apparently were due to the narrowness of the folding bleacher seats.
“The designers had to sacrifice some comfort to make the sections ‘telescope,’” Jannusch explained. “When not in use, the seats roll back into the wall, both on the floor and in the balconies, adding many square feet of space for gymnasium activities.”
A number of Kankakee fans quoted in the Sunday article commented on the difference in the old and new basketball facilities: “We haven’t missed any home games for several years,” noted Mrs. Marvin Seedorf, “and after cramming into those bleachers in the old gym for so long, the accommodations in the new one seemed wonderful.”
“We had to wait a long time for a new gym,” commented R.M. “Duke” Kerst, “but now we have one built the way it should be. I’ve never seen a more beautiful gym anywhere, even for colleges.”
The spacious gymnasium that opened in 1950 would serve as “home court” for the Kankakee Kays basketball team until 1966, when Eastridge and Westview high schools were opened. For the next 17 years, the Westview Kayhawks and the Eastridge Raiders had their own basketball facilities. In 1983, when Kankakee reverted to a single high school housed in the former Westview building, the Kays nickname was restored.