mhs happenings

“The best high school basketball arena of all”
5 of 5 starsReviewed March 7, 2015

Growing up in a Chicago suburb and following high school basketball since the 1950s, I had heard many stories about Wharton Field House in Moline. Several coaches told me of their experiences, taking their teams to play in the venerable and historic arena. So when I was planning research for my first book, "Sweet Charlie, Dike, Cazzie, and Bobby Joe: High School Basketball in Illinois," I scheduled a trip to Moline and Wharton Field House. Located at 1800 20th Avenue in the heart of the city, it was built in 1928 adjacent to Browning Field, Moline's historic football facility. The home court for the Moline Maroons basketball team, it has a capacity of 6,000 but has held many more for Moline/Rock Island and Moline/Galesburg and Moline/Quincy basketball games. It retains its old-time atmosphere with a raised playing surface. In 2004, USA Today named it as one of the top places to watch high school basketball. But old-timers acknowledged that fact in the 1930s and 1940s. Wharton was home to the NBA's Tri-Cities Blackhawks from 1946 to 1951. Legendary Hall of Fame coach Red Auerbach was the Blackhawks' head coach in 1949-50 before accepting the same position with the Boston Celtics. Wharton also was home to the Quad City Thunder of the Continental Basketball Association from 1987 to 1993. The 87-year-old landmark no longer is a mecca for show business personalities or politicians or exhibitors. Instead, it continues to fulfill one of its original intended uses--as a showplace for high school basketball. Wharton was designed by William H. Schulzke, a prominent Moline architect. It is named after Theodore Finley Wharton, the secretary-treasurer of Deere & Co. and longtime education booster, who sold $175,000 in bonds to finance the project. Among the entertainers who performed at Wharton were Gene Autry, Bill Haley and his Comets, Johnny Cash and Harry Belafonte. Richard Nixon, Ted Kennedy and Barry Goldwater drew huge crowds, too. But Moline basketball stirs most memories in this town. Former two-time All-State player and longtime coach Whitey Verstraete showed me around the field house, where Earl Lloyd, the first African-American to play in the NBA, once played. Wharton also hosted dog shows, concerts, wrestling and boxing matches, car shows, farm shows and flower and garden shows. But the one event that most old-timers remember is the 1956 supersectional game between West Rockford and Galesburg. West Rockford, en route to its second state championship in a row, won 66-64 in two overtimes. There is so much history to the place. In 1943, Moline snapped Paris' 39-game winning streak at Wharton. Verstraete's team snapped Lyons' 44-game winning streak in 1954. Glenn "Doc" Rivers' Proviso East teams played at Wharton for four years in a row. Other great teams from Quincy, King, Du Sable, Galesburg, Proviso East, Collinsville, Bloom, Lockport and Decatur played there, too. It also is home to the Moline/Rock Island series, the oldest high school basketball rivalry in Illinois. Most of the great old gyms, like Huff Gym in Champaign, are gone or largely forgotten today. But Wharton remains as imposing as ever.

Visited March 2015

 


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