Home Sweet Home: The Six Courts of Saint Louis Basketball

In the March 24, 1926, issue of Varsity Breeze, this newspaper’s forbearer, a headline announced that work was beginning on a new superstructure on campus and reminded students to turn in their mandatory $10 donation to Fr. Theo. Schulte, who was charged with directing the fundraising campaign. Students had been clamoring for Saint Louis University to have a place on campus for its varsity basketball team to call home.

The 2,200 seat building opened at the start of the 1926-27 school year; the renowned U.S. Navy Band attended the dedication.

Fast forward 82 years. SLU is celebrating the dedication of their state-of-art, $81 million arena. The new home of the Billikens holds 10,600 fans, hosts concerts and graduations, and gave SLU a home 63 years after vacating their beloved University Auditorium.

With Chaifetz Arena, the Bills again have a court to call their own.

The host of courts begins in 1920 at the 1st Regiment Armory. While the program officially began in 1915, University records do not indicate where the basketball team played prior to the 1920 season. Billiken history tends to designate the Armory as 138th Infantry Armory located adjacent to the main campus. This is probably due to the building’s history of hosting sporting events following its shuttering. However, that building wasn’t opened until 1939, according to the Missouri Historical Society. More likely, SLU held its competitions at the Battery A Field Artillery building, previously located at 1221 South Grand, in a location occupied by a SLUCare health facility today.

But this house was not a home. SLU students wanted an on-campus gymnasium and the basketball team needed a court, so the university agreed to build the University Gymnasium, now known as West Pine Gym. The building opened for use during the 1926-27 season. West Pine Gym served the purpose of hosting SLU basketball, intramural games and community high school games. The NBA St. Louis Hawks also played games at West Pine, for a time.

SLU spent 19 years in the gym, but the growing popularity of basketball at the university and the new auditorium in St. Louis, moved the “Billiken cagers” off-campus.

Following World War II, the city had just completed a $6 million arena, the Municipal Auditorium, and SLU moved in. The auditorium was renamed after St. Louis mayor Henry Kiel and had a unique feature: the front of the building was the Kiel, or Peabody, Opera House.

During their time downtown, the Bills rose to national fame. Hall of Famer “Easy” Ed Macauley took the team to the national championship, which they won, in 1948. The school consistently sold out the 9,300 capacity building; tickets in the 1950s were just $3.50 for seats on the floor and $1.50 for the second deck. Opposing teams hated the Kiel – fans sat close, and the locker rooms were upstairs.

The increased exposure led to a dilemma – SLU basketball was outgrowing the Kiel. Opportunity struck again, however. In 1967, Sid Salomon Jr., the new owner of the St. Louis Blues, opened his Arena to the Billikens. Salomon also believed that a collegiate hockey program would help promote his professional team, leading to his financial help in establishing SLU as a NCAA Division I powerhouse. For five consecutive seasons, the Bills played at the St. Louis Arena, located next to Forest Park, entertaining up to 15,000 spectators at a time. The arena, originally built in 1929 as an exposition hall, hosted the 1973 and 1978 NCAA men’s basketball Final Four.

But following Salomon’s sale of the Blues in 1977, SLU found itself homeless. SLU went back to playing in the Kiel Auditorium, flourishing under Bob Polk. Ultimately, the Billikens occupied the Arena from 1968-73 and 1978-82, but never had a true home. SLU returned to the arena in 1991, following the demolition of the Kiel Auditorium to make way for the Kiel Center, known today as the Scottrade Center. The arena was demolished in 1994.

But the Kiel Center, where the Billikens played from ‘94 until moving into Chaifetz, proved problematic for SLU. Scheduling around the Blues’ hockey schedule, along with the approximately 175 events it hosts, restricted use of the building, and while the team had a locker room at the facility, they continued to practice at the dilapidated West Pine. Under Charlie Spoonhour, the program rocked the Kiel Center, setting attendance records of over 22,000 against Kansas and Louisville in 1998 as fans rushed to see Larry Hughes and Justin Love; the last time SLU met Missouri was in 2001 at the Scottrade in front of 20,600.

Although there was no doubt that fans embraced the Scottrade Center, they clamored for a building of their own. With Chaifetz, finally – and formidably – they have a court to call their own.