This summer, I embarked on a quest to find Montana’s best high school gyms. I toured some of the best – based on feedback I received on Twitter and other channels of communication – and have now begun the process of ranking the very best of the best. The countdown started with No. 5 on my list last week and will continue every Thursday until No. 1 is revealed Aug. 8.
The Snake Pit.
When you utter those words, chances are basketball fans across Montana know that you’re talking about Memorial Gymnasium in Anaconda.
“The Snake Pit, you say it anywhere around Montana, (people) know where the Snake Pit is,” said Blake Hempstead, the Anaconda High play-by-play announcer for KANA radio. “It looks like a dungeon. It’s drab. It’s dreary. But it’s just … there’s something about playing here. It inspires people.”
As one of the older gyms in the state, the Pit has stood the test of time and brims with character. The concrete structure hasn’t undergone any major renovations, so what you see now is basically what you saw in 1949 when it was built as a multi-use facility.
The community used it for basketball, wrestling, and gymnastics. There was even a swimming pool downstairs that has since been removed.
“It is well-constructed, like everything was back then,” Hempstead added. “Other than modernizing it, it’s pretty much the same.
“When you walk into this place, there’s no denying the aesthetics.”
The walls are a plain, off-white color, and Anaconda Blue highlights any edges. “Welcome to the Snake Pit” is painted in the school’s colors of silver and blue on one end wall, prominently displaying behind the basket. The backboards attach to the wall with steel standards.
Exposed steel rafters emphasize the overall rigid theme of the dimly lit facility, which captures the hard-working, blue-collar nature of the Anaconda community.
The court itself sits down a couple feet from the first row of the old, wooden bleachers that run along either sideline. Spectators are separated from the court by a sturdy barrier.
“Coaches hate to play here, because typically it was a tough place to play,” said Hempstead, who grew up in Anaconda and has spent the bulk of his adult life in the town. “But they love it, because – like in some of the newer facilities – you don’t have people bumping into you.
“You’re set away from the fans, but you’re close enough to where you can feel the atmosphere. You’re sunken down onto the floor, so you’re set apart. But you still have that unique feel of a basketball gymnasium to where you’re pretty close to the action if you’re up in the stands.”
Over the last 63 years, fans in the stands have been witness to a robust history. From Ed Kalafat and Wayne Estes to Ali Hurley and Torry Hill, Copperhead athletes have cemented their legends at the Snake Pit in front of raucous crowds of 3,500 fans.
“As people from Butte, Anaconda – even some Missoula schools – can tell you that when this place gets rocking, it’s unlike any other,” Hempstead said. “(The walls) don’t breathe, so when you get in here, it’s so humid and misty it’s just dripping. It drips with intensity.
“As far as history goes, I don’t think you could beat this. The things that have happened in this gym, it just sets it apart. It’s a unique experience for any basketball fan to be able to come in and be a part of the history.
“It’s really a unique place, unlike any other.”