AYER -- Fifty-years ago, Ayer resident Bob Gardner, 65, was a sophomore at the then brand-new Ayer High School.
The now Clinton District Court judge remembers seeing the state-of-the-art Ayer High School gymnasium for the first time like it was yesterday.
On Sunday night, like he has done for much of his adult life, Gardner took to the hallowed Ayer Shirley Regional High School hardwood and played pick-up games with other locals. Gardner, with his old-school matching headband and wristbands, still can hit the turn-around jumper with precision. As the old saying goes, "age is nothing but a number."
Gardner is living proof of that.
"When I came here in 1963, the building was brand-spankin' new," Gardner said. "The floor wasn't even down yet -- It was the last thing they were going to finish. Our first half of the year, we had gym class in the cafeteria."
This past weekend, the old gym was already starting to be gutted for its demolition on Tuesday. The basketball team's equipment has all been moved to storage, the banners stripped from the wall. A light coating of sand and dust covers the creaking hardwood floor that has been left untouched for half a century.
A few modern upgrades were made since the gym opened with the addition of an electronic scoreboard and glass backboards with breakaway rims, but for the most part, it was left virtually the same.
As the sharp squeak of basketball shoes filled the gym one more time Sunday, Gardner still remembered how the gym was arranged on game-day. He recalled watching the girls' basketball team play with six players -- two players in the back-court, two in the front-court and two were rovers. Ayer High School was one of the first in the area to start a nonwhite line-up in 1964-65.
"It doesn't sound remarkable now," he said. "Ayer has always been integrated because of the military. Growing up in a small little town in North Central Massachusetts, you normally would not have those types of experiences. Ayer has helped me grow coming from an integrated high school.
"If you look at the yearbook, you can see the gleaming floor. That picture was taken underneath one of those baskets. The home bench is right where I am sitting now. Coach Hickey had me working with coach Barrett down under the basket. Frankly, when this gym opened in 1964, it was a state-of-the-art gym. It was just a beautiful facility."
As much as it pains him to see the old gym torn down, Gardner is excited to see what the renovated gym and school will look like when completed. Gardner has a lot of memories from physical education classes and game nights inside the historic "barn-style" gym.
"I can still remember the dividers in the middle coming down during gym class to separate the boys and girls," he said. "When I look out across the floor, I can see my mom and dad sitting over there watching me play ball on those old wooden bleachers. Pretty much everything is the same. A lot of the money used to make the gym was owed to the federal government."
Last year, Gardner suffered a lateral meniscus tear in his knee and was sidelined from the court, but it did not deter his spirit to make a comeback.
"I did the physical therapy for 12 weeks," he said. "The physical therapist at the local hospital asked my expectations, and I told her I would like to get a 20-year-old knee. She joked and said 'I will go out back and check, but I don't think we have any left.' She told me I was her hardest worker. I used to go in early and workout so I could come back and play basketball."
Gardner's young nephews, Ben Hebert and Collin Breault, are students in the Ayer Shirley Regional School District.
"I voted for the override because I figured my nephews would benefit from the improvements to the school," he said. "It's been gratifying for me to still get out there on the floor and run with them a little bit.
"All of the judges I work with say I am crazy for continuing to play," said Gardner. "I have this passion for basketball where if I didn't do it, I probably wouldn't get out and exercise. When I get too old to play basketball, I will take up golf or bowling. The bottom line is that I have been awfully lucky to be able to put on all of this gear and play hoops."