For years, it lay hidden under drab blue carpet on the top floor of a non-descript building that housed everything from a printing press and dance hall to a gym and storeroom.
But in 2010 when a fire swept through the historic structure in St. Stephen, N.B., the cleanup uncovered a buried treasure that’s now at the centre of a transatlantic debate over a little-known piece of basketball lore.
“Upstairs there was carpet all over the gymnasium floor and pulling up the carpet, by God there it was — all hardwood,” said Peter Corby, president of the non-profit group Canada 1st Basketball Inc.
“And that’s the forgotten floor.”
The floor is what Corby and other self-proclaimed Canadian “basketball nuts” claim is the oldest basketball court in the world and where research suggests the first game was played on Oct. 17, 1893.
The assertion has touched off an international tug-of-war with historians who say Paris has the oldest basketball court still in use. It was there, in the basement of a Parisian YMCA, that a game of hoops was played in December of 1893, just a couple of years after the game was invented.
Corby, a former athletic director and teacher who’s heading a group hoping to preserve the New Brunswick court, insists that the St. Stephen YMCA game was played months earlier, giving lie to the Paris claim.
“I guess Donald Trump would call that fake news!” he joked in an interview from his home in Fredericton.
“We were playing basketball months before their claim. We’ve researched it and researched it with our local newspapers and the YMCA …. Our date is way before their date.”
Corby traces the story of the floor back to one of the original players of the game, Lyman Archibald, a Canadian who studied at the YMCA Training School in Massachusetts under James Naismith — basketball’s inventor.
According to Historica Canada, Naismith was looking for an indoor recreational sport when he was teaching at the YMCA in Springfield and came up with a game that used peach baskets, a ball and 13 rules governing such things as running with the ball, tripping and pushing.
Many of his students returned to Canada, helping spread the game across the country.
In St. Stephen, the game took hold when Archibald, who was originally from Nova Scotia, was assigned to be the director of the local YMCA where he introduced the small community to basketball. Corby says it inspired a passion for the game that is still felt in the town of about 4,600 people.
That enduring enthusiasm led Corby and his group to work with the current owner of the building, the St. Croix Vocational Centre, to figure out a way that Canada 1st Basketball could buy it and turn it into a basketball heritage museum.
Under the arrangement, Corby has just under two years to raise enough money to buy the building for an amount that has yet to be determined.
The work is part of a dream for Corby and his group to celebrate both the game and Canada’s critical role in its beginnings, much like Cooperstown, N.Y., has done with its National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
“There is no physical building in Canada that houses a Canadian basketball hall of fame,” he said, adding that there will be a special event on Oct. 17 to commemorate 125 years of basketball being played in St. Stephen.
St. Stephen Mayor Allan MacEachern said being in the space — a court of about 14 metres by 9.3 metres under baby blue walls and an ornate green and white ceiling — conjures up visions of what it was like a century ago when nine players per team squared off against each other.
“When you get in there, you can start envisioning those guys playing ball there and you can feel it,” he said in an interview. “It does not look like a gym — it’s got a gym floor, but it’s got tin ceilings. Those are beautiful ceilings.”
He’s hoping the federal government helps out with funding so Corby and his crew can transform the building into a lasting tribute to the sport.
It could also be a tourist boon for the seaside town, known more for being the home of Canada’s oldest candy company, Ganong.
“Basketball is huge. There are people who would want to walk on this floor or see it or play on it,” MacEachern said. “Not everyone has that opportunity to have the oldest basketball court in the world sitting in front of you!”
- By Alison Auld in Halifax, with notes from Michael MacDonald
The Canadian Press