If you get on Snelling Avenue up by the state fairgrounds, and you drive south, you cross the broad expanse of railyards that slices the middle of the Twin Cities in two. Over in this part of town, it divides the fairgrounds from Midway, and the bridge across the vast train-dotted wasteland has a speed limit of 45mph. If you’re headed south, you have to be on guard; at the end of the bridge, the speed limit suddenly drops to 30, and you go from what looks like an interstate highway to what looks like any other St. Paul neighborhood, in the space of one short downhill stretch. And so at all hours, the key feature of the area is scores of cars, trying to slow from about 55mph to something near 30.
Should you glance to your left, though, what’s tucked off to your left is Hamline University. You can’t see much of the campus from Snelling Avenue; you pass a few stately-looking buildings, back in the trees, and one glassed-in newish building that’s right on a Snelling corner, but mostly the university itself is a bit removed from the traffic, certainly for those who are focusing on the flashing sign that informs southbound drivers that while the speed limit is 30, they are currently going 51.
There’s one exception, one that looms up on your left, as you jam on your brakes going south, a stately brick edifice with a barrel-vaulted roof, looking for all the world - as you try to stop for the sudden red light that’s appeared in front of you, look out! - like a miniature Williams Arena.
This is Hutton Arena. And after driving by it three thousand times, on the way to Loons games or the airport or just somewhere generally in St. Paul, I finally had the good sense to go visit it.
As the NCAA grows ever bigger, it becomes harder to reckon with the early days of college athletics. It’s easy to forget that there was a time when March Madness was not the single biggest non-Super Bowl sporting event of the year, or when college football was mostly a regional activity.
One wall at Hutton Arena bears the slogan, in huge letters, “The Birthplace of Intercollegiate Basketball.” James Naismith invented the sport in the winter of 1891-92, and the first game ended 1-0, presumably prompting the very first smile on the face of a young future coach named Bo Ryan, but that’s neither here nor there.
What does seem clear is that the game spread quickly, mostly due to YMCA teams playing it; Wikipedia says that Vanderbilt University played a local YMCA the very next winter. In February 1895, a team from Hamline played what is now often recorded as “Minnesota A&M”*. Both teams were allowed nine players, the game was played in a basement handball court with a nine-foot ceiling, and Hamline lost 9-3.
*A brief historical detour: Searching for “Minnesota A&M” brings up lots of basketball references. Sports Reference even has a team page for the school, calling them the “Aggies”… but it didn’t actually exist. It is, and always was, the University of Minnesota’s agricultural school; it only existed in the sense that it fielded its own team for basketball in those early days, since “intercollegiate athletics” was mostly not a real thing in 1895.
Other teams in the “league” included State Military Company A and the Minneapolis YMCA, if that gives you any idea what we’re dealing with here. So in modern terms, the first intercollegiate game was between Hamline University and the University of Minnesota, and the University of Minnesota spent most of its first decade of basketball regularly defeating itself, as it were, establishing a tradition of Gopher hoops that has now lasted into a third century.
It’s easy to be surprised with the amount of basketball history that Hamline has. The Pipers sent eight players to the early NBA, including Minneapolis Lakers legend and basketball Hall of Famer Vern Mikkelsen, whose number is retired. If you look back at the first-ever Associated Press college basketball poll, published in January 1949, Hamline - Hamline! - is ranked number 8, four spots behind Minnesota. The Pipers ended the season ranked #19, at 23-3; they won the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball tournament that year.
That the NAIB was the forerunner of the NAIA, now the athletics governing body for colleges that nobody has ever heard of unless they live within five blocks of the campus*, shouldn’t diminish how important it was in the early days of hoops. James Naismith himself organized a National College Basketball Tournament in 1937, a year before the first NIT and two years before the first NCAA tournament; out of that tournament came the NAIB, officially forming in 1940, as a tournament for small colleges and universities. The NCAA’s switch to its current three-division setup was still 33 years away.
*There are no NAIA schools in Minnesota, but there are a number in surrounding states that some of your friends from high school may have briefly attended: Viterbo, Dickinson State, Grand View, that sort of thing.
That 1949 NAIB tournament is delightful simply for the roster of schools that participated, a wonderland of archaic names and schools that have diverged down a different athletics path. It included, among others, Texas Tech, BYU, and Miami (FL); both Iowa State Teachers (now Northern Iowa) and Connecticut Teachers (now Central Connecticut); and, locally speaking, St. Thomas and UW-River Falls (then River Falls State). It also included some of the most made-up-sounding schools I’ve ever heard of, like Waynesburg, Lawrence Tech, Regis (who Hamline beat in the title game), and Peru State.
1949 was actually Hamline’s second NAIB title; they won a third, in 1951, and made it to the quarterfinals six other times before 1960, including losing in the title game in 1953. Their legendary coach, Joe Hutton Sr., is the namesake of the arena; Hutton was very nearly the first coach of the Minneapolis Lakers, but turned it down to coach his son at Hamline instead. Sid Hartman hired St. Thomas coach John Kundla in his place; Kundla is now in the Hall of Fame, as well.
That said, it has been a minute since Hamline’s basketball team has won anything. The Pipers won the MIAC in 1960 and made it to the final eight of the NAIA tournament, losing by three to Westminster (PA); by 1965, Hutton’s last year in charge, Hamline was 3-22 overall and finished last in the MIAC.
64 seasons after that last one, the Pipers have yet to claim another basketball trophy.
Hamline will tell you that its arena is the second-oldest in the state, but any review of which college basketball arenas are the oldest should come with a lot of caveats.
You can find lots of arenas that claim near-100-year histories, but most of them have been extensively renovated. Williams Arena is still “The Barn,” and still old and uncomfortable, but inside it looks basically nothing like its 1928-era incarnation as the University of Minnesota Field House. In 1950, it was split in half, with the northwest portion first serving as an ice arena, and now as a home for volleyball, wrestling, and gymnastics.
Hutton Arena, too, has undergone some changes. There used to be a raised floor, like Williams Arena; that’s gone now. The current parquet court was installed in 2000. The wooden bleachers date back to the 1960s. But I suspect the arena itself would be mostly recognizable to someone who’d watched Hutton’s teams in the mid-1940s; I’m not sure you could say the same of someone who watched Ozzie Cowles’s men at Williams Arena in 1948.
Court or no court, two things are still true at Hutton Arena: it is both terrifically loud, and terrifically hot. It’s warm right now, for December, but the staff still had to crack the windows that face Snelling Avenue, just to try to keep the arena’s temperature down under 90 degrees.
The crowd for Hamline and St. Olaf wasn’t huge, but every shout and sneaker squeak and bouncing ball echoed. I assume the arena volume can become almost unbearable, which - along with that barrel-vaulted roof - seems to be a feature of every arena built in this era. Williams Arena, Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Palestra - they’re all skull-crushingly loud, and Hutton Arena would be too, if you added a thousand more fans.
On this night, the Pipers and the Oles were playing what I can only imagine is a pretty classic MIAC basketball game. Both teams were fiercely physical, and playing exceptionally hard, and without almost any variation in style or physicality. Every player on both teams seemed to be between 6’3” and 6’6”; most of them could handle the ball well, could make hard and fast cuts to the basket, and had extremely let’s say bespoke jump-shot styles.
It was not a game for fast breaks or three-point shooting or play at the rim. Hamline’s offense involved a point guard passing to a wing, who then looked to work the ball inside; St. Olaf tried to set screens for a couple of fast guards, who would then take the ball to the basket. There was one attempted dunk in the entire game; the ball rolled around the rim twice before falling gently through the net, and the attempted dunker looked abashed, shrugging his shoulders in the universal gesture for “oh well.”
No one handed me a program on the way into the arena, and the PA is heavily distorted by the arena’s acoustics, so I didn’t have much in the way of player information. One of St. Olaf’s guards is named Kobe, and the name of Hamline’s Bradley Cimperman sounds like “Superman” when it’s broadcast through the old Hutton speakers, so by the second half this is how I was thinking of the game: Kobe vs. Superman. Beyond that, I had to simply invent my own back-stories for the players, to try to keep them straight; this guy is a future assistant D.A., that guy cheats at golf for sure, et cetera.
Without TV timeouts and other broadcast interruptions, the game proceeded at a furious pace. The first half ended at 7:35pm, after a 7pm start. Both teams rotated nine or ten men, and the beleagured scoreboard operator gave up on any hopes of having the player-foul-points portion of the scoreboard matching the players on the floor, so watching the game was even devoid of the normal sub-plots of which player is nearing 20 points or which might be close to five fouls.
Thankfully, basketball is just exceptionally enjoyable to watch, even at lower levels. The game was played with tremendous competence and speed, and without anything to activate the sportswriter what-is-the-narrative-here portion of my brain, I just got lost in the whole experience - the delightfully antique arena, the feeling of being immersed in basketball history, and two evenly matched teams playing pretty much the same game at each other, a sporting representation of two Spidermen pointing at each other.
I’m not sure either team ever opened more than a five-point lead. St. Olaf eventually won it, 73-71; the Oles scored on their final possession, and Hamline’s potential game-tying shot rolled out at the buzzer.
I don’t want to try to pivot here and try to tell you something absurd like this is what basketball should be. This game happened to be played the same evening as the Gophers were playing Nebraska at home, and the Timberwolves were playing against San Antonio at home; it’d be silly to watch the extraordinary players on display at Target Center, or the Williams Arena crowd’s undiminished joy at Minnesota finally winning a game, and try to tell you that watching Hamline and St. Olaf on a warm December evening is the place to be for basketball.
But the visit to Hutton did give me what I really wanted, after all, which was a chance to visit basketball’s past. To sit in an arena built before the words “amenities” and “luxury” or even “design” would be considered, in constructing a place for hoops.
There is something beautiful about this, to be surrounded by ghosts while firmly planted in the present day. It’s a reason that we reach for sacred terms when we describe stadiums; it’s impossible not to feel the same sense of awe and wonder, whether in the cathedral or just a cathedral of basketball.
I like going to sports for lots of reasons, chief among which is that I want the home team to win. But to be able to spend an evening with that entirely set to one side, to immerse myself in basketball-for-basketball’s-sake, is a different kind of joy entirely, like eating in a favorite old restaurant instead of standing in line at a trendy brunch spot.
They’ve already come for most of my sports memories. The Metrodome is gone. Met Center is gone. Mariucci Arena, the old one, is gone. Soon, Target Center will be gone. They’re about to gut the Xcel Energy Center, which killed the St. Paul Civic Center; you know that you’re old when they start tearing down the places that replaced the ones that held your memories.
So, to the people who remember the Hutton years at Hamline, when it was still possible to have a foot on Snelling Avenue and another in the NBA - forgive me for borrowing your ghosts for one evening. Mine are departing now, and I need places like this one, so I can go there and I can sit and I can remember.