Leon Lafaille gazed at the windows high on the walls of his old basketball home. Tiny tears welled up.
He turns 95 in February and attributes his long life to daily workouts on his stationary bicycle 10 miles a day, 17 or 18 miles if he's watching his beloved Stanford Cardinal on TV.
But when Lafaille walked into the Modesto Junior College Gym of his coaching youth, he entered a time capsule.
The memories flooded back capacity crowds on cold winter nights, a referee's whistle during the final seconds, the last shot netted for an important win, the moments that time doesn't wash away.
"I'd stand there and stare at those windows during the good and the bad games," he recalled. "I felt the charisma and the tradition of this gym. I thought it was a temple."
Lafaille had stepped into Dorothy's Ceramic Tile near the corner of 9th and Carver, but Modesto basketball fans know the building for something entirely else.
It's been remodeled several times over the years. The windows, however, are the last remaining connection to the structure's hoops past. Lafaille's still sharp eyes noticed them right away.
Dorothy's is the original MJC Gym, built in 1929, the first home of the Modesto Junior College Tournament. The 16-team event begins its 75th renewal Tuesday, but its roots can be found in the converted office and warehouse.
What it actually is, however, is the first home of the city's longest-running sports event. The tournament was held in this venue from 1938 through '75 before it was transplanted to its current address about a mile from its roots.
"It was a Sunday morning when they moved it in three parts," Lafaille said. "I sat there in my car on Stoddard and Tully by the old ice rink and watched my world roll by."
Lafaille, the son of a French immigrant, was raised in Oakland. Basketball was his passion. He earned a scholarship at Stanford and often subbed for the heralded Hank Luisetti, the creator of the running one-handed shot and the first collegian to score 50 points in a single game.
Later, Lafaille turned to coaching and arrived in Modesto in 1948. Inspired by Luisetti and honed by Stanford coaches John Bunn and Everett Dean, he commanded instant respect in Modesto. Lafaille coached the Pirates to their greatest success during his 10-year run. Lafaille remains the last MJC coach to win an outright league championship.
Close to a title
The Pirates nearly won their tournament in Lafaille's first try. Modesto, 26-3 in 1949, led College of San Francisco until the final seconds, when Dudley Truelson who starred for the 1944 MJC team hit a long shot to win it for CCSF 47-45.
The vagaries of World War II bit the Pirates hard that night. In fact, Modesto never has won its own tournament since 1945.
"People said it would be OK and that we'd win many tournaments," Lafaille said. "How could we know that we'd never win it? It's always been hard to compete against these schools. They're all good. The local kids feel the pressure."
One of the members of Lafaille's first MJC team was Virgil "Pete" Sullivan. Raised in Modesto, Sullivan eventually coached the Pirates during the 1960s and started the Columbia College program a decade later.
"It was a bitter loss (in 1949), but it was a good time for MJC basketball," said Sullivan, 83, who splits his annual schedule between Palm Desert and Sun River, Ore. "Six of our top players got scholarships and all five San Francisco starters got scholarships from that game."
Like everyone else, Sullivan fondly recalled the old gym's nooks and crannies.
"The floor had so much spring. It was just well-made," he said.
Lee Wade, another member of Lafaille's first team at MJC, met his wife Shirley in Modesto. Their first date was a basketball game, of course, and they've been married for 62 years.
Wade eventually transferred to Washington where his Huskies won the Pacific Coast Conference title and reached the NCAA Tournament. A native of Shafter, he and Shirley enjoy their golden years in San Pedro.
"The floor (at MJC) gave just enough," Wade said. "I thought that one and the court at Washington were the best I ever played on."
That hardwood surface eventually was motored to the National Guard Armory near Columbia College. The first Columbia basketball teams practiced on that floor.
Meanwhile, the original MJC Gym located near the tennis courts in the heart of the MJC East campus continued to be a popular meeting place. Lafaille remembered how the fire marshal often was called to turn away standing room-only crowds during tournament week.
The scorer's table of the gym was located in a loft, accessible only by a ladder, above the court. Doug Hodge, the athletic director from 1975 to '96, noted that players checked into the game by pressing a button that would alert the table.
Quite a shock
The loft could be dangerous.
Ralph Bradley, MJC's equipment manager and jack of all trades from 1969 until his death in 1991, kept the scorebook one tournament night until he reached for a wire and was shocked unconscious.
"We got some help up there for him," Hodge said, "and he finished the game."
The gym's intimacy was noteworthy from Day 1. The first MJC tournament (1938) featured a brilliant athlete from Pasadena City College named Jackie Robinson.
Yes, the same Jackie Robinson who would integrate Major League baseball in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But in 1938, he became an instant fan favorite in Modesto. He once hustled past the baseline and disappeared from view, only to return to appreciative applause. His selection to the inaugural all-tournament team has given the event lasting lore.
"I watched Jackie (a four-sport star at UCLA) play baseball against Stanford one day," Lafaille said. "He beat out an infield hit and stole second, third and home. Brilliant athlete."
The "new" MJC Gym, which welcomed the tournament field for the first time in 1976, contains no windows for a reason. Lafaille, the former chairman of the school's physical education department, thought the old court often got slippery due to the overhead windows the result of water condensation when the gym was packed.
"I made sure we wouldn't have windows," he said.
Lafaille still attends Stanford games and continues one of his most rewarding pursuits the aid of senior citizens and the disadvantaged.
As always, he will inspect the basketball talent at the MJC Tournament this week. His memory always returns him, however, to the gym where he made his coaching name.
"It had a personality of its own," he said.
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302.