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A Final Curtain Call For The Cincinnati Gardens

The Cincinnati Gardens will soon be just a memory. The Cincinnati Port Authority has closed a deal for the building that in 1949 was the seventh largest indoor arena in the US. Inside, there is a deafening silence.

In the near future there will be the noise of demolition followed by construction and a swelling chorus of hoped for economic revival for an area that might be considered blighted.

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Credit Michael Keating / WVXU

I saw many events there over my nearly 40 years in Cincinnati.

Rodeos, boxing (Aaron Pryor, particularly), concerts, hockey, and of course, basketball.

I saw Xavier, led by an ambitious coach, Bob Staak, whip up on Ohio State and then Nebraska in 1984 NIT games. It was the first big step for the XU program and their march toward national prominence as a Division 1 basketball program.

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Credit Michael Keating / WVXU

In following years, there was the Pete Gillen influence and his workmanlike practices. I once took my dad with me to the Gardens on an assignment at a Xavier practice. Gillen took time out to come over and talk to me and my dad. Gillen told stories about a couple of my exploits involving Xavier basketball to get unique photographs. My dad would later say, "That made him proud."

I won’t soon forget Xavier and UMass, a John Calapari-coached team, ranked No.1 at the time and the OT loss in 1996. In 1999 XU would take down a No. 1 ranked University of Cincinnati team.

And the unforgettable pregame moment in the XU locker room with head coach Skip Prosser. In his best "Professor Prosser" tone, Prosser knelt with his team and offered depth and perspective on the game of life.

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Credit Michael Keating / WVXU

Basketball provided the majority of my memories of the Gardens. My linkage to the place reminds me so much of the basketball themed project in Indiana I have pursued over the past three years. Photographer Chris Smith and I have travelled the state in an effort to document the high school gymnasiums, so important to the pride and history of communities.

Indiana is place where basketball is a religion and the gymnasiums are treated like places of worship.  Nine of the nation's 10 largest high school basketball venues are in Indiana. The largest, Newcastle, seats just under 10,000. Nearby rival, Anderson, home of the legendary Wigwam, used to be ranked No. 2.

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Credit Michael Keating / WVXU

There is a kinship between the Wigwam and the Gardens. The Wigwam is closed and the high schools of Anderson are consolidated into one. The game and its memory have left the building. The Gardens and the many games and other events have left the building as well. The Robinson family, former owners of the Gardens, made a valiant effort to maintain relevance but economic reality stalled those efforts. 

In Anderson and Cincinnati there is restlessness about the future of these buildings, given the pride and history important to communities. Basketball is no longer played in the Wigwam. In the Gardens, the hardwood court and freestanding goals were sold off years ago. For these two places the clock reads 0:00. Game over.

So with that in mind, I recently made photographs inside the Gardens. It is deserted now. There are empty rows of wooden seats and a dusty haze fills the air.

Oh yes! There's one more thing… the deafening silence of memories.

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Credit Michael Keating / WVXU