For 34 years, Horton Fieldhouse sat relatively quiet on the campus of Illinois State University. Students walking by the old barn today had no idea the roar that once came inside her walls.
Last Saturday, ISU held a “Return to Horton” basketball game against SIU-Edwardsville that showed them exactly how it was in the glory days. It was the first game played at the old barn since the Redbirds moved across the street to Redbird Arena in 1988.
It was just like stepping back into time the moment I walked in.
I could still feel the 11-year-old me sitting with my dad to watch All-American Doug Collins play for ISU. “Doug the Jet” was perhaps one of the best players in the country, the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated for his exploits.
I saw him score 56 points in one game to set the school record in 1972 and then do himself one better with 57 points the next year.
That record didn’t last long as Bubbles Hawkins broke Collins’ record with 58 points in 1974, a mark that still stands. Dad and I were there for that one, too.
In its glory days, Horton was loud, very loud. Think standing next to an airplane taking off. It was louder than that.
I was there at Horton during ISU’s upset wins over No. 4 UNLV on Feb. 3, 1977, the first top 5 victory in program history, and Larry Bird and Indiana State on Jan. 21, 1978. You couldn’t hear the person sitting next to you.
Larry Bird couldn’t hear anything either. He got hit with a technical foul dunking the ball after a whistle which he claimed he didn’t hear. I believe him.
I’m sure sitting at those games has caused some permanent hearing damage in later life.
Later on, I got to cover Redbird games for the ISU student newspaper, the Vidette, honing by future skills for today. I wrote about Rick Lamb and ISU slamming highly favored DePaul and had a court side press seat for ISU’s MVC championship game victory over Tulsa to give ISU its first NCAA Tournament berth in 1983.
And I played my share of intramural games there.
ISU did it up right with its “Return to Horton.”
First-year ISU coach Ryan Pedon said he wanted to “awaken the echoes” of Horton’s past and they certainly did. He did his part by wearing a 1980s retro plaid jacket that former coach Bob Donewald would have been proud of.
Retro Redbird banners hung from the rafters to give an old time feel.
Collins, the “goat,” returned to his old playground. He once was given keys to the place by the ISU staff since he always came to shoot on his own. They figured it was much more convenient that way rather than make someone come to let him in all the time.
He gave the current Redbirds a tour of his old locker room and conveyed how special this place was to him and all those players who followed. Deservedly so, he had a front row seat on the court that bears his name.
Collins bought enough t-shirts resembling his famous No. 20 uniform for every ISU student attending the game (Even old students like me got one). They all sat under the basket helping to bring the roar back to Horton.
When the gates opened, fans swarmed in to get the best spots in the general admission. Several former players were in attendance, including 80s star Rickie Johnson, who said sitting in the bleachers for the first time gave him a “feel for the environment.”
The only thing missing were the famous “north bleachers” that seemingly stretched forever into the rafters of the field house. Those bleachers were surely condemned years ago.
Well, my dad was missing, too, but he was really right there with me.
It was a close game that the Cougars led for much of the game. Pedon and the ISU bench implored the Horton crowd of 3,420 to take a page out of the past to rise to their feet and roar.
ISU junior Harouna Sissoko, a 6-7 native of Mali, turned back the clock when he raced down the floor to block an SIU-E shot from behind, much like a roaring dunk by Johnson, to bring down the house and hold off the Cougars for a 77-71 Redbird victory.
My brother, Kent, who sat in the winter cold outside as an ISU student to score tickets for his little brother to the Larry Bird game, summed up the day best Saturday when he said, “It just felt right to be back here today.”
Yes it did.
Kevin Hieronymus has been the BCR Sports Editor since 1986. Contact him at email@example.com