Former players know where to sit at Hamline University’s venerable Hutton Arena, the historic and often-overlooked venue in St. Paul, because they know the one enduring quirk of the place: It’s stinking hot, even on the coldest nights. Bleachers on the side opposite the benches press up against the windows, which Hamline staffers keep cracked to counteract the hard-to-regulate heat from the building’s antiquated steam boiler system. That helps. A little.
“A lot of teams complain we turn the heat up in their locker room,” said Hamline assistant coach Ed Cassidy, who played here in the late 1970s. “I said, ‘Come over to our locker room. It’s the same. We don’t like it any better.’ It can get stifling in here.”
Wednesday night, as light snow fell outside along Snelling Avenue, Dan Holjie, Don Bulger and Gary Fridell — Hamline teammates in the early 1960s and still close friends — settled in atop the window-side bleachers to watch the Pipers tangle with Gustavus Adolphus. At halftime, the storytelling began. The arena, they said, had a raised floor and protective netting at each end until a mid-1960s renovation. Otherwise, the layout remains much as it was in 1959, when the Minneapolis Lakers, with dynamic rookie Elgin Baylor, beat the Detroit Pistons in an NBA playoff game here.
That’s right. An NBA playoff game in a venue that seats maybe 1,800. Different time, different league.
“I remember sneaking in a window to watch the Lakers,” Fridell said. “Baylor was the best I ever saw.”
But that’s only a piece of what makes Hutton Arena, and Hamline, more notable in basketball history than the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena. On the same weekend that U.S. Bank Stadium, the $1 billion monstrosity downtown, will host two days of college hoops as a prelude to April’s NCAA Final Four, it’s worth revisiting what Hamline and its toasty arena used to be: the capital of college basketball in Minnesota.
In 1895, just four years after Dr. James Naismith invented the sport in Springfield, Mass., Hamline hosted the first intercollegiate basketball game, ever, in the basement of the old Hall of Science, a three-story red brick building that was torn down in 1971. Hamline lost 9-3 to the School of Agriculture, which was then connected to the University of Minnesota.
Iconic coach Joe Hutton Sr. arrived at Hamline in 1931. The Pipers sent seven players to the NBA in the 1940s and ’50s, an astounding number in any era. All are among the dozen former players and coaches — 11 men and one woman — whose numbers hang in the Row of Honor along the arena’s north wall. It’s a group that includes Minneapolis Lakers Hall of Fame forward Vern Mikkelsen and two-sport standout Howie Schultz (NBA and MLB).
Holjie, Bulger and Fridell played for Hutton, who retired in 1965 with 591 career victories and three national titles in the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB), the forerunner of today’s NAIA. Hamline also won or shared 19 Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAC) crowns under Hutton.
The arena opened in 1937 as Norton Field House, nine years after Williams Arena. Built for $100,000 — a significant sum in the Depression — the field house was originally named for Matthew Norton, the second chairman of Hamline’s Board of Trustees and an avid financial supporter of Hamline athletics. Other than The Barn, it is the oldest college arena in the state still in use.
College basketball was hugely different in those days. Television was in its infancy. The NCAA Tournament wouldn’t begin until 1939, one year after the National Invitation Tournament, which for two decades held more prestige. And Hutton, though coaching at a small school, was an influential figure nationwide.
Hutton and Stanford Coach John Bunn were friends, and Stanford was on a nationwide road trip when it stopped in St. Paul to face Hamline in the inaugural game at the Field House, winning 58-26. Hamline was such a big deal it played at least twice at New York’s Madison Square Garden, in 1944 and 1950. And a January 1945 game between Hamline and DePaul, led by future Minneapolis Laker great George Mikan, drew 15,752 to Chicago Stadium. At home, Hutton’s teams attracted such crowds that the school installed balconies with additional bleachers in the 1940s. Those bleachers remain, darkened with age.
Hutton, who died in 1988, was a stern taskmaster who hated when players took shortcuts. At practice, Holjie, 76, a Piper from 1960-64, preferred kicking loose balls into the netting behind the baskets and grabbing the caroms instead of picking them up, which annoyed Hutton to no end.
“I got in trouble for that with Hutton,” Holjie said. “Before practice or warmups and so forth, he complained, ‘Holjie, he’s so lazy he kicks the ball against the net and it bounces back to him. He can’t bend over to get it.’ But I was in good company, because that’s the same thing Lee Hopfenspirger used to do. He was that lazy, and he was All-American. So where was I?”
Fridell, 78, and his identical twin brother Lane were teammates from 1958-62. Hutton, he said, couldn’t tell them apart. “In ’62 we’re up at Minnesota Duluth, playing for the [MIAC] championship,” he said. “We were in second place. We had to win. We’re behind. My tongue is dragging on the floor, and I tell him, ‘I can’t do it.’ Joe said, ‘Sit down, rest, you’ll be alright.’
“Monty — Harold Montgomery, the assistant coach — says to my brother, ‘Get in there.’ I sit down. My brother checks in, plays defense, steals the ball and goes in for a layup, and Joe turns to Monty and says, ‘See? I told you that kid wasn’t that tired.’”
Like The Barn, Hutton Arena has undergone multiple renovations. An $800,000 makeover in 1967 introduced a Tartan floor, new floor-level bleachers and fluorescent lights. Some former players were sorry to see the old floor go. “The floor had really good spring to it,” Fridell said. “You could jump forever on it.”
The Tartan floor was replaced once before a new wooden parquet floor was installed in 2000. With electronic scoreboards and other modern touches, Hutton Arena still functions just fine these days, except for the heat. Meanwhile, the spirit of Hutton Sr. still permeates; his great-grandson, Hamline freshman Ryder Hutton, works on the game night stats crew.
Fans enter the arena through three sets of double doors off Hewitt Avenue. Walking through the lobby, one can turn left or right before descending down into the wooden stands. Turning left takes you past the photo gallery of Hutton’s teams, across from the trophy case. Turning right leads you to the Athletic Hall of Fame wall behind the east bleachers. Though only 316 fans watched Hamline win Wednesday night, 79-62, the place was plenty loud.
“Last year when we played St. Thomas, you couldn’t hear yourself think,” Cassidy said. “However old it is, it really hasn’t changed much. It has that nice atmosphere in here. When they have high school playoff games, the place will be it packed and rocking.”
The Minneapolis Lakers most often played at the Minneapolis Auditorium before leaving town in 1959, but twice shifted games to Norton Field House because of scheduling conflicts. The Lakers beat Philadelphia 100-94 on March 12, 1957, the next-to-last game of the regular season. Then the playoff opener on March 14, 1959, with Baylor scoring 14 points in a 92-89 victory.
The boxscore on basketball-reference.com does not list attendance. Whatever it was, add one, for the future Piper who snuck in a window.