MIDDLETOWN, Ohio -- Wade E. Miller Gymnasium will be forever remembered as one of the most well-known Ohio high school basketball venues, and the final high school varsity basketball game there lived up to the hype surrounding it Friday night.
A sold-out crowd of 2,600 saw the Middies play rival Hamilton for a final time in a 65-year-old gymnasium slated for demolition in 2018.
"I think people will remember where they were the night we closed this building down," Middletown coach Darnell Hoskins. "It will forever go down in history."
Hamilton defeated Middletown 64-58 in a nail-biting finish in the final minute after the Big Blue led by 12 with 3:24 left.
But more important than the game was the celebration of high school basketball in a gymnasium made famous by Middletown legend Jerry Lucas.
Lucas, 77, named one of the NBA's 50 greatest players in 1996, said he never played Hamilton at Wade E. Miller -- those rivalry games when he played in the 1950s were moved to the Cincinnati Gardens -- but the significance of the rivalry was special Friday night.
"You had two historic basketball programs that really tried to represent their city," Hamilton coach Sean Van Winkle said. "And I think both represented well. Hats off to the (Middletown) athletic administration. This is an incredibly organized night. They did a great job. I know our kids were glad to be a part of it."
With retro '50s-era uniforms, the game attracted the spotlight all week in the two cities. The nostalgia was palpable.
A scheduled 7:30 p.m. tipoff ran 40 minutes late. No one seemed to mind at all.
The pregame ceremony included the introduction of several former players alongside the families of the late Wade E. Miller and the late Hall of Fame coach Paul Walker. (Miller was a Middletown Principal and later a Superintendent who was instrumental in the design and construction of the new high school on Girard Avenue in 1923).
The final pregame introduction was saved for Lucas, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer.
Lucas helped lead the Middies to a 76-game overall win streak from 1955 to 1958 including state titles in '56 and '57.
As a 15-year-old sophomore center, Lucas scored a single-game state tournament record 53 points in the state semifinal win over Cleveland East Tech March 24, 1956 at Cleveland Arena. He had 44 points in the state final win over Canton McKinley just 24 hours later.
The Middies arrived home by train at 6 p.m. that Sunday and were greeted by a large crowd of fans. A giant parade led the team to the school, where a rally was held at Wade E. Miller Gymnasium.
On Friday night, he acknowledged the gymnasium crowd a final time and was greeted with chants of "Jerry, Jerry" from the student section.
"He still looks like he could score 50 a game," Van Winkle said.
The court was named in his honor of Lucas in 2013, and on Friday he greeted visitors and old friends in the pregame and smiled for the cameras. Lucas said earlier in the week he was sad to see the gymnasium go.
"It was just a unique aura that existed then that kind of permeated everything," Lucas said. "You could feel the tingle of it when you walked into the gymnasium. People were expecting some great things to happen, and obviously they always did."
Lucas was accompanied by a host of memorable players from the program over the decades. Purdue forward Vincent Edwards (Class of 2014) wore his college letterman jacket and posed with a photo with Lucas before the game.
There was Bill Edwards Jr. (Class of 2009), Allen Roberts (2009), and Archie Aldridge (Class of 1973). Aldridge's No. 51 is the only other former Middletown player to have his jersey retired by the school along with Lucas (No. 13).
There were also members of the mid-late '50s teams including A.C. Mitchell, Larry Emrick, George Payne, Tom Wiley and Bill Martens.
"To have all those guys come back was so meaningful," Hoskins said. "The level of appreciation that our program has for those coming back -- we are forever indebted."
Middletown senior guard Aaron Jones caught himself looking into the crowd a few moments during the game.
"It was very emotional," said Jones, who had a team-high 19 points and eight rebounds. "It was an historic environment. It was fun for the most part. In the beginning it was more jittery and nerve-wracking. I've never played in front of that many people. It was a good experience though."
Hamilton (3-0) was led by junior guard D'Marco Howard who had 28 points and seven rebounds. Junior guard Jaylen Robinson had 21 points.
After the game, some fans couldn't get enough of the occasion.
Families posed for photos on the ‘M' at midcourt. Others took photos of the upper section where the state championship banners hang from above and the "Middie Magic" mural greets those sitting in the upper bleachers.
The final game was almost 65 years to the day of the first game at the gymnasium. The Middies beat Miamisburg 84-59 Dec. 5, 1952 and went on to win the state championship of 1952-53, their fourth title.
This season's Middletown team (1-2) will continue its emotional weekend when it opens its new 2,130-seat Wade E. Miller Arena on the high school campus Saturday. The Middies have an 8 a.m. shoot-around before they host Lima Senior at 7:30 p.m.
Hoskins knows he has a young team but is emphasizing lessons to his team in December and January.
"The conversation I had with the team tonight was you have to have a short-term memory and thick skin because guess what we are coming back to you again tomorrow night," Hoskins said.
Wade E. Miller Arena has a 94-foot floor (also Jerry Lucas Court) instead of 84 feet at the old gymnasium, will feature many unique amenities such as professional style basketball hoops, four 9-by-12 foot LED video boards, a strength and performance center, spirit store, professional lighting systems and a hospitality room.
The girls' varsity team plays host to Colerain at 2 p.m. Saturday in the first varsity basketball game at the new arena.