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basketball legacy

One of North America's oldest standing basketball courts was discovered in St. Stephen, NB during renovations after a fire damaged a portion of the building. The current user of the building, the St. Croix Vocational Center, held an open house on Saturday, April 30, 2011 so the public could come see the 1892-era hardwood floors and shoot some baskets. Seen here is Saint John Mill Rats player, Modibo Diarra, left, as he lends a hand to Alex Dean as he dunks a ball into a peach basket. (David Smith photo)David Smith-MDS Photography

They can sink the ball easily enough - but getting it out is harder.

The two professional basketball players from the Saint John Mill Rats struggled with a stick to prod the ball out of a fruit basket hanging on the wall of a former YMCA in this town.

The game has changed a lot in the last 120 years. But much else remains the same in this old gym - where a fire led to the discovery of what supporters believe is the original hardwood floor on which basketball was first played in this country.

"It's so humbling to come back and be where it all started," David Cooper, a forward with the pro team in Saint John, said Saturday at the room's public unveiling. "It's puts you in a special place. ... I'm blown away, I'm speechless."

In the late 19th-century, the local YMCA was run by Lyman Archibald. He was a member of the Massachusetts basketball team coached by James Naismith, the Canadian often credited with inventing the sport in 1891, and started teaching the game in St. Stephen as an alternative to calisthenics. He didn't last long in the job, but basketball quickly took off here.

In spite of the town's attempts to capitalize on its claim to being the birthplace of Canadian basketball, this second-floor room's role in that history had been half-forgotten by locals. The space languished for years as a store room and was used before that as a meeting place for a fraternal group and as a dance hall. Somewhere along the line, the wood floor was carpeted over.

But then a fire broke out last year at the building, now being used by the St. Croix Vocational Centre. The fire largely spared the upper room but left the carpet smoke-damaged. And when the floor-covering was pulled up a layer of narrow-slat hardwood was revealed.

"It is original," said Darren McCabe, a local bureaucrat with the provincial government and history buff who said they can find no record of the floor being replaced at the early 19th-century building. "If you look around, it's almost like a time capsule."

At about 15 by 9 metres, the room is smaller than a modern basketball court. The wood floor has faded to grey and there is a lingering firebox smell from the fire. Wainscoting lines the walls and the ceiling is pressed tin. There's a dinner-plate-sized original fixture once used to dim the long-gone gas lights.

The space has windows on one wall and low-hanging light fixtures. But the potential for damage didn't slow down local children gathered for the unveiling and eager to show off their game. They shot into a modern basket set against one wall and a fruit basket, mimicking the original style of the game, hung at the opposing end.

"I never knew this was here," said Alison Higgins, 11, who has been playing ball locally for three years. "I think it should be a museum, but it should be a museum [where]you can play basketball."

Locals are now wrestling with the question of how best to use the space. Ideas range from a classic museum, with a collection of artifacts on display, to more interactive options. Local basketball coach Don Walker would like to see re-enactments of the early game, complete with old-style clothing and the original rules.

Giving visitors the chance to play on the original floor is an obvious selling point. But they won't be able to get too carried away.

"The way the basket is, if you're going to dunk on that it'll take everything off," laughed Mill Rat Modibo Diarra.