First basketball showplace in Gaston County? It’s remains on a college campus but it no longer used for athletics
By Richard Walker
If you’ve ever visited Belmont Abbey College’s Haid Theatre, it’s hard to believe the building was built to host the sport of basketball.
But that’s exactly what the facility was designed for when it opened to great local fanfare in December 1930.
Called a “beautiful new gymnasium” by The Charlotte Observer in a Dec. 16, 1930 story, the building was named in honor of Abbot Leo Haid, who founded the school as St. Mary’s College in 1876. (Haid announced the school’s name change during the first alumni reunion in 1930.)
The venue was built as the school was building its athletic program under Howard A. “Humpy” Wheeler, Sr. who was the school’s athletic director from 1929 until his death in September 1968 of a heart attack.
And “The Haid” would eventually host to the teams of Basketball Hall of Fame coach Al McGuire’s first teams that included the Abbey’s only two NBA draft picks (Danny Doyle and Joe McDermott) and hosted a school-record 42-game home winning streak from 1957 to 1963.
Since its closure as a basketball gym after the 1969-70 season when the current Wheeler Center (named in honor of Howard A. “Humpy” Wheeler, Sr.) opened, the facility was renovated into and turned into The Haid Theatre. (In 2021, The Abbey Players are planning to hold their 137th year of live student theatre on campus.)
The Dec. 15, 1930 debut saw a 40-8 Belmont Abbey victory over Shelby High behind star player Bill Diamond’s 20 points.
Diamond’s Crusaders were in their second season under Wheeler and in their third year as a junior college after many years as a high school boarding school.
It also came during one of the school’s best eras in the sport as Belmont Abbey won the North Carolina Junior College Conference title in 1929, was a co-champion in 1931 and won the title again in 1932.
The 1930-31 co-title also led to an official restructuring of the N.C. Athletic Conference of Junior Colleges in May 1931 since Belmont Abbey and Wingate both claimed the state’s junior college title after they split their regular season meetings.
The following year, a tournament was held to determine a champion and end such disputes.
Due to the Abbey’s status as a junior college power and its new gymnasium, Gaston County high schools hosted their county tournament at the venue for six straight years from 1932 to 1937. (Gastonia High School won the initial championship in 1932, with Belmont winning in 1933, Dallas in 1934, Cherryville in 1935, Tryon in 1936 and Cramerton in 1937.)
The Haid was known for creating a significant homecourt advantage for the Abbey teams. Benches for both teams were on one side of the gymnasium with all fans sitting on bleacher seats on the opposite side. And the distance from the basketball sidelines to the brick wall were as close as three feet in some areas.
Belmont Abbey had a 128-47 record in 21 years of junior college competition at The Haid. That includes wins in the first nine games at the venue and a record 21-game winning streak from 1937 to 1939.
Once the school became a senior college in 1953, The Haid hosted 143 Belmont Abbey home games and the Crusaders won 65.7 percent of them for a 94-49 record.
The school’s greatest success in the gymnasium came during McGuire’s seven-year tenure from 1957 to 1964. Belmont Abbey went 40-3 at The Haid under McGuire, winning the first 40 games to extend a school-record home winning streak to 42 games that had started the year before he became head coach.
Though the Abbey also played home games at Gastonia’s Wray Junior High gymnasium (now York Chester Middle School) and Groves Gymnasium and Charlotte’s Park Center (now Grady Cole Center) and Charlotte Coliseum (now Bojangles’ Coliseum), the Crusaders went 13-0 at The Haid in the 1957-58 season, 10-0 in 1958-59, 5-0 in both 1959-60 and 1960-61, 3-0 in 1961-62 and 2-0 in 1962-63 before going 2-3 in McGuire’s final season of 1963-64.
The Crusaders’ 1961-62 team won the NAIA District 26 title and advanced to the school’s first trip to the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
Belmont Abbey would go 9-1 at The Haid during the 1968-69 season before going 1-4 in the final year of 1969-70.
The final game at the venue was a makeup game of a postponement from 10 days earlier because of a huge snowstorm. Visiting Western Carolina, with Shelby’s Mal Brown scoring 23 points, downed the Crusaders 83-66 on Feb. 26, 1970.