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The court was first used in 1893 when Lyman Archibald, a protégé of James Naismith, brought basketball to St. Stephen, N.B. Now, a group of businesspeople and hoops enthusiasts are a step closer to sharing it with the world

Dave Ganong holds a vintage-style basketball at a former gym in St. Stephen, N.B., where a protégé of James Naismith introduced the sport to young athletes in the 1890s.Photography by Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

It was built for calisthenics, not shooting three-pointers or soaring jump shots. But if you use your imagination, you can still hear the squeak of sneakers on the hardwood.

In 1893, Lyman Archibald brought basketball to St. Stephen, N.B., a mill town of about 4,500 people across the St. Croix River from Maine. A protégé of James Naismith, the Canadian inventor of the sport, Archibald was hired to run the local YMCA. He helped introduce many young athletes to the new indoor game that was rapidly gaining popularity across the continent.

While most of the early courts basketball was played on have been destroyed, Archibald’s remarkable gymnasium survived, hidden for decades above a thrift shop that until recently occupied the former YMCA building. And now, a group of businesspeople and hoops enthusiasts are a step closer to sharing it with the world.

Last week, the Canada First Basketball organization passed the $1-million fundraising mark in its effort to build a basketball museum and international hoops shrine that will celebrate the old court, with its low, pressed-tin ceilings and lighting system operated by an iron crank on a wall.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re on our way,” said David Ganong, one of the group’s members and executive vice-chair of Ganong Bros., the oldest chocolate company in Canada.

The gym doesn’t look anything like a modern basketball court. It’s about half the length of an NBA court, and narrow enough that a player chasing an out-of-bounds ball might go flying out one of the second-storey windows.

With its baby-blue walls and hoops made of woven fruit baskets hanging at either end, it feels like a portal to the 19th century. A newspaper account of a basketball game played here on Oct. 17, 1893 – months before a well-documented game at a YMCA in Paris – makes it the oldest existing court in the world, the organization says.

The old court was discovered after a fire in 2010 damaged a blue carpet in the room, which was being used by the thrift shop as storage space.

The building has seen so many different uses since it was a YMCA – including as a recruiting centre during the First World War, a drugstore and a dance hall – that many locals forgot basketball games were once played there.

“After the fire, they pulled back the carpet and said, ‘What the heck is this?’” Mr. Ganong said. “It was kind of lost to local history as to what it was.”

Mr. Ganong unlocks the entrance to the building. Its original tin ceiling and wooden floorboards are still intact, and on the walls, fruit baskets take the place of the now-standard mesh nets.

The project has the support of Canada Basketball, the sport’s governing body. The national organization is providing “ideas, connections and guidance, where appropriate,” according to spokesperson Matt Walker. The project’s organizers hope to get the NBA and the Toronto Raptors on board, too.

Prominent New Brunswick business leaders, including Frank McKenna, John Irving and tech investor Tom Liston, have provided early financial backing. The project may have some competition south of the border from the existing Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in Springfield, Mass. But the St. Stephen group is hoping its own facility will eventually play host to artifacts from the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame, which doesn’t have a permanent home. They also hope to showcase basketball exhibits and even host three-on-three games in the building’s back parking lot.

Mr. Ganong, whose own basketball career ended after high school when he tore cartilage in his foot during a game, wants the basketball shrine to make St. Stephen a tourist destination not unlike Cooperstown is for baseball fans. Among some business owners in town, there are already visions of new restaurants, sports bars and a hotel catering to basketball fans who want to make the pilgrimage.

“When this is up and running, it should bring a lot of folks through town,” he said. “It will become a catalyst to create a lot of activity associated with this.”

The first $1-million is being spent on completing the group’s purchase of the gym building and an adjacent property, and on engineering work to determine how to modernize and preserve the space. The second phase will include another round of fundraising, to an estimated eventual total of $10-million, and efforts to raise the project’s profile among Canadian NBAers, the group says.

Carol Kelly, chair of Canada First Basketball’s fundraising team, said it’s a thrill to see the project move closer to reality after years of planning and dreaming. “It’s inspiring that with this small group of St. Stephen volunteers we have a clear and ambitious strategy for the building moving forward. We are proud to preserve and showcase the town’s rich history,” she said.

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