A Little Story of Bear Down Gym and Me

by on April 2, 2021 · 3 comments

in From the Soul

by Ernie McCray

This is a little story about a place called Bear Down Gym and me.

I just found out that it’s in the National Register of Historic Places and an historic place is exactly what it is to me.

We were tight. It provided me a space that eventually led to me being in my school’s Sports Hall of Fame and Basketball Ring of Honor.

In between its bleacher-ed walls I’d do my thing to foot stomping cheers and applause that still remain as music to my ears after sixty-one years.

I loved every inch of the building, even the dead spot on its court that no one could apparently fix. But for a relationship to work you have to accept a pimple or a wart or two in the mix.

I can just picture myself, back then, walking to this beloved gym, on a game day, slowly putting on my game face.

As I walk out my front door I’m facing west in the direction of the “Colored” swimming pool which was no larger than rich folk’s backyard pools.

I walk to the sidewalk and turn left, south, towards downtown where there were movie theaters that restricted where I could sit. The balcony was it.

A left at the corner and I’m heading east towards the university in the direction of a skating rink that limited my opportunity to skate to designated hours and days, and in all directions from me there are cafes where I’m not privileged to eat.

But when I stepped into Bear Down Gym, that world was laid aside,

put away. Totally. It was where I could escape reality for a little while, the stage for my “Easy Ernie” hoops playing style.

When the whistle blows, and you win or lose the opening tip, you’re not, in such a moment, a teenage “baby daddy” junior flip holding down more part time jobs than a serial work-a-holic or someone up in Jim Crow’s face as an activist.

No, you’re just a kid showing off in Arizona Red and Blue, doing what you, at that time in your life, were meant to do, going about it, in my case, by hitting the court with a smooth glide I had intentionally devised in my stride, shooting fadeaways and step backs and pull ups and turn arounds that seemed to fall from the sky, bringing down rebounds and whipping outlet passes to initiate fast breaks on the fly…

In these moments you’re not in the aisles of Steinfeld’s or Jacome’s department store companies followed by suspicious eyes, just eyes enjoying the way you play, rooting for you to win the day.

There are no cops flashing their lights in your eyes, on any given day, asking you to prove who you are in the vastness of the Milky Way; no women clutching their purses as you walk down the street, seemingly fearful for both their possessions and lives based on lies a society has spread as a big excuse for a nation’s racial divides…

Oh, what a ride I had inside Bear Down Gym, one that gives me immense pride in having played a part in its lengthy rich history, starting in the late 20’s, as the 1950’s gave way to the 60’s which I faced with a couple of degrees paid for by what I put into that arena’s wealth of stories: records set, the first to do this and that.

Every human being should have a place like that in their life, a place where they’re shown love, a place where they can see glimpses of what a world of beauty and harmony might be made of. A place that ignites a light in them and makes them feel as though, with determination, they have something to offer their nation and, for that matter, all of humankind.

A place where they learn, or have validated, as did I, to never give up the fight, that one has to, in life, continuously “Bear Down” with all their might to satisfy their reasonable wants and needs as nothing is promised or guaranteed.

That, perhaps, is my biggest takeaway from this little story of Bear Down Gym and me.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jerry Wallingford April 2, 2021 at 2:21 pm

Terrific, as usual. Thanks! Jerry


Gary Wonacott April 2, 2021 at 4:25 pm

It was much to my surprise to scroll down and see the title, and then the picture, and then back to the top to check if somehow I had flipped to a Tucson paper. Earnie attended and played at Arizona before I arrived, but I am very familiar of his name and place in Arizona basketball, as well as his picture on the wall as you enter the current basket ball stadium. I had none of the experiences that Earnie mentioned, since I am not black. I think I only experienced blatant racism a few times. I thought I would share one of these times.

I was in a fraternity and each year we recruited new members during what was, and I suppose is still called, rush week. I think it was my junior year, we were having a late night session during which we discussed candidates. One particular candidate resulted in the session lasting for a good three hours. He was an amazing athlete, had a very high GPA, and was good looking, but he had one substantial problem. He was a dark skinned American Indian. The majority of the debate evolved around one question. Who could he date? You can guess which way the vote for membership went. This was the mid-1960’s. That same year, we found out that an active was smoking marijuana in his room. we deactivated him and turned him over to the sheriff. A year later, I came back for home coming. I walked into the fraternity house and could not see 10 feet from the marijuana smoke. Things change. Some quickly, but most, like the kind experienced by Earnie are much slower, and in fact still have a long way to go.


Shirley Sprinkles April 3, 2021 at 8:02 am

Another truly wonderful, richly descriptive piece! Thanks for continuing to document not only your story, but that of the rest of us Black Tucsonans who lived with you during that long, dark Jim Crow era. Thankfully, the outward vestiges of it are behind us—now to address the subtle, less visible ones that still exist—everywhere.


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