HBCU basketball mecca WSSU at crossroads with tiny, outdated gym

WSSU has one of the best atmospheres in college basketball — HBCU or otherwise. But it has a problem it needs to address.

WINSTON-SALEM, NC — It’s 12:30 P.M. and Alonzo Turner is back at his alma mater, Winston-Salem State (WSSU), looking to catch some intense HBCU basketball action against Fayetteville State. A 2009 graduate, Turner follows the Rams near-religiously while pursuing his PhD in counseling and counseling education at Syracuse University.

He’s made the hour-plus drive from his native Raleigh for the third time in less than a month to watch both men’s and women’s teams compete in the C.E. Gaines Center. So he waits in the crisp January weather in the shadow of the Gaines Center. And waits. And waits.

“I got here at 1230. I was in line,” Turner said after the game. “Got to the lobby/front door gate/entrance at 1:57 — three minutes before the girls game — only to have to wait throughout the entire women’s game before getting in into the men’s game at 4:00.”

Winston-Salem State alumnus Alonzo D. Turner takes in a game at the C.E. Gaines Center.

Turner is one of the lucky ones. Many others have been turned away simply because there is no room left for them. That includes students, who pay student athletic fees to access the games. And many of them lined up before 8 AM, a full six hours before the women’s game tips things off.

Despite being named after a larger-than-life figure, the venerable C.E. Gaines Center holds just 2,600 fans — and even that might be stretching it a bit. For weekday games in December when students aren’t there, that’s more than enough. But when CIAA play rolls around — particularly Southern Division games — getting into a Winston-Salem State game is far from a guarantee. And that includes the 5,000 plus students who are technically paying customers.

“You can go from being hopeful to…like, what is going on?” Turner says with a smile. “It’s kind of like trying to get in Black Heaven. Who is at the gate? Who is at the door today?”

WSSU Basketball HBCU basketball
More than 2,500 fans packed into tiny Whitaker Gymnasium to see Winston-Salem Teachers College and Tennessee A&I.

Historically high demand, historically low supply for HBCU basketball in Winston-Salem

Having enough seats for a basketball crowd has always been a challenge for Winston-Salem State. At least since Big House Gaines showed up and turned Winston-Salem Teacher’s College basketball into an HBCU powerhouse after World War II. Whitaker Gymnasium was completed in 1953, and still stands today. Coincidently, that was the same year WSSU won its first CIAA title — the first of eight under Gaines. With a capacity of anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000, the gym was insufficient for big games. It often led to games being moved to the Winston-Salem War Memorial Colisieum, which sat around 8,500. 

The Gaines Center opened next door in 1978, with a seating capacity of 2,500 — and a student body that was already just over 2,000. Just like its older counterpart, Gaines Center was incapable of accommodating swollen crowds against rivals — which in those days included North Carolina A&T as well as North Carolina Central — meaning WSSU would once again be forced to use the Coliseum at least a few times a year.

When Winston-Salem State attempted to move up to Division I during Turner’s tenure in the mid-2000s, WSSU rarely played games in the Gaines Center. Most of its games were played 15 minutes away at the Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum or at the smaller annex complex, which seats 4,000. After that move failed, the department of athletics moved to almost exclusively playing games on campus in the Gaines Center. 

The shotclock at C.E. Gaines Center went out in mid-January. The last two games were played with a projector in its stead.

The building is now 45 years old, and it has shown its age this season. The bleacher-style seating is less-than-ideal in 2022. The scoreboard went out during the Fayetteville State game, forcing the score to be updated manually with flip cards during that game. A large projector screen was brought out to cover the sleeping scoreboard for the final two home games in the gym. Power was temporarily lost during a television broadcast of the Claflin game —the first ever broadcast in the gymnasium. Not because the games haven’t been compelling, but because the venue is a pain to put on a solid production.

That’s not to say that the building is without its charm. One of the pros of the Gaines Center is that creates an intimidating atmosphere for its opponents. The crowd literally sits right on top of the players, and there are times when the stands are full and the walls are lined with fans hoping to catch the game and soak up the atmosphere. It’s something that many universities may only get once a year — and some none at all.

Many HBCU gyms, particularly in the CIAA are relatively small and outdated. But WSSU has a larger-than-average fan base that often helps fill up other gyms in the league. Games in Raleigh and Fayetteville were filled with as much WSSU red as it was the home team’s color. The same will likely be true when WSSU comes to Charlotte. Many of those fans, alumni and parents know that is their best chance of seeing the Rams compared to trying to make it to Winston-Salem and hope to get into the Gaines Center.

WSSU, C.E. Gaines
Winston-Salem State students stand in line to attempt to get into the C.E. Gaines Center.

For every sellout, there are plenty of fans who walk down the steps of the Gaines Center without a chance to cheer for their team in person. And they do so with money in their pocket that won’t make it into the coffers of the home team. And this happens several times per year.

“It just goes to show you that not only is the demand there,” Turner said. “The engagement there from students, alumni and community, but also put some pressure on the university to be able to say, hey, what was first a ‘good’ problem can also be a nuisance for certain alumni like myself who are traveling or even community members who are looking to see the C.E. Gaines experience.”

AD eyeing new convocation center

That’s a problem that Etienne Thomas knows all too well. She’s been the AD at WSSU since 2020 and made the move to switch the home finale against Livingstone on Feb. 18 from the Gaines Center to “The Joel.”

“We’re a little intimate here in the Gaines Center, and a little warm,” Thomas said between the Claflin double-header. “But thanks to a great partnership with John Currie and his team over there and the people of ASM — which is their management company —  they had an open day when we have our last game and we were able to move over there, not to the annex, but into the convention center.”

Playing at the Joel will cost WSSU. The arena is now owned by Wake Forest University, which means the school will have to pay a rental fee. Just like it does when it stages graduation and other important events that require more than the Gaines Center can give. Thomas is hoping for a big crowd to not only give WSSU a morale boost, but to make it profitable to move the game off campus. 

“Really the goal is always to get as many of our students in the building, our alumni in the building, our donors in the building, our supporters, season ticket holders. And that’s so critical. We hate to turn anyone away. That’s never exciting. You can imagine the people at the door. So when we have that opportunity, now we need to pack the house. We need the Rams to come out.” 

WSSU, Cheerleaders, HBCU
Winston-Salem State cheerleaders perform amongst a crowded C.E. Gaines Center.

Turner won’t be able to make that game as he’s back in Syracuse. But the game in the Joel will give many of his classmates and other alumni a rare chance to make a drive to Winston-Salem from nearby cities like Charlotte, Greensboro or Raleigh and know that they will be able to get a seat and bring their families if they’d like to. That’s something that just doesn’t exist at the Gaines Center right now. 

“I know people that drove from Greenville, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, just to get the Gaines experience,” Turner said. “So again, you talk about it being a perfect problem. Sometimes it can be a nuisance and it gives us something to look forward to, something to build on and expand on.”

Looking beyond Saturday’s game, Thomas has visions of a convocation center dancing in her head. A place where WSSU could host events year-round, including athletics events. 

“We don’t need a 20,000 seat venue, but we do need to — on a regular basis — be able to have our home court advantage and all the Rams that want to be in the building, in the building and not have people have to be here at 9 a.m.,” Thomas said. “It’s amazing and I love it. But this environment, it really weighed into our decision to move senior day in such a critical game because this environment is second to none.”

WSSU, C.E. Gaines, HBCU basketball
Winston-Salem State students wait to get into the C.E. Gaines Center for a basketball game.

The proposed convocation center is something that outgoing Chancellor Elwood Robinson has had backroom conversations about during his eight-year tenure, but no concrete plan or pathway has been revealed. Robinson is retiring following the school year and Thomas expects incoming interim chancellor Anthony Graham to push things forward. 

“It is the best college environment in the country, and so being able to be at home is so important. But we do need a bigger venue,” Thomas said frankly. “But we have the C.E. Gaines Center, such a historical value, so much tradition here as we protect the legacy. So it’s important, but our supporters are so critical to that. So our Horns (WSSU’s booster club) members thank them and appreciate their contributions and support.

“We need donors, we need corporate sponsorships that want to put their name on a building here and not only an HBCU, but an institution of higher education, where we enter to learn, depart to serve so that we keep that vision going.”

HBCU basketball mecca WSSU at crossroads with tiny, outdated gym
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