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Tar Heels Firsts: UNC’s first basketball gym

Carolina basketball’s first home was quite different than anywhere the Tar Heels would play today.

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NCAA Basketball: Western Carolina at North Carolina Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team’s current home at the Smith Center is one of the largest arenas in all of Division I. At a capacity of 21,750, only Syracuse’s Carrier Dome and Louisville’s KFC Yum Center can get more people in the building. Between the massive crowds that file in and the history that’s been made on the court over the years, the Smith Center has become one of the more prominent gyms in the sport.

The gym the Tar Heels began play in definitely cannot be described as such.

The sport of basketball was first brought to UNC by Dr. Robert Lawson, a former MLB pitcher, in 1906 when he began playing the game in physical education classes. A team representing the university wouldn’t come for another five years, however. One of the main reasons for that was a purported lack of place to play.

The Bynum Gymnasium was seen as the best place, but was being used for other purposes, like just being a regular old gym. The Tar Heel, now known as student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, pointed out that the gymnasium was unoccupied at night and could theoretically be used then. Eventually, it would be decided that Bynum would be used as the first home of the UNC basketball team.

North Carolina played their first ever game on January 27, 1911, beating Virginia Christian 42-21. The team went 7-4 in their first season, and Bynum became the team’s regular home for more than a decade. However, reviews for the place were not kind.

In “Carolina Basketball: A Century of Excellence” by Adam Lucas, the gym is descibed like this:

It was not a show place. Early Carolina players complained that backboards were “a good deal livelier” than they had been accustomed to in high school, the floors were too slick, and the lighting was bad. The facility also has its quirks, as a second-floor running track hung over the playing surface.

Needless to say, it was a bit different than where the current day Tar Heels team would have to practice, never mind play a game that counts.

It wasn’t always the best experience for viewers either. In one game, a parallel exercise ladder, which was described as the best place to watch from, collapsed, leading to injuries to several students.

Even as bad as the descriptions say it was, it did provident a home court advantage. Over the course of their team in Bynum Gymnasium, UNC had a .803 winning percentage at home. It was Carolina’s home court for the 1923-24 season, in which they were named national champions by the Helms Foundation. On the other hand, that’s actually just the fourth best winning percentage of the venues the Tar Heels have used. Even as good as .803 is, that’s out of five venues.

The building itself still exists today, where it houses offices.

As legendary as the Tar Heels’ basketball program is today, it’s funny to think back that there was a time that they were having a hard time finding a place to play in.


“Carolina Basketball: A Century of Excellence” by Adam Lucas

“University of North Carolina Basketball” by Adam Powell