Behind the Venue: Stories from the sideline at the John J. Lee Amphitheater

Zully Arias, Production and Design Editor, and Anasthasia Shilov, Illustrations Editor

When Payne Whitney, class of 1898, died in 1927, his wife, Helen Hay Whitney, donated six million dollars to Yale with the stipulation that it be used to build a cathedral.

The University, however, needed a new gymnasium more than another church. When Yale completed construction of the building, staff took Whitney on a tour of its exterior. Its gothic architecture and nine-story tower were reminiscent enough of a cathedral to convince her.

Almost a century later, Payne Whitney Gymnasium lives up to its nickname of “the Cathedral of Sweat.” By volume, it is the second largest athletic center in the world. Home to Yale men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and gymnastics, the John J. Lee Amphitheater inhabits the east wing of Payne Whitney.

In 1996, Yale named the gym after men’s basketball alumnus John J. Lee ’58 GRD ’59, and JLA today is the seventh-oldest NCAA college basketball arena still in use — and the third-oldest in the Ivy League, behind Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion and Penn’s Palestra.

The front cover of the News on December 10, 1932 depicts the new Payne Whitney Gym. (Photo: Yale Daily News)

The early days

When the gym first opened to students on December 10, 1932, the then-unnamed amphitheater was Yale’s home for basketball, tennis, boxing, wrestling and fencing. Its state-of-the-art features included a skylight as its primary light source, basketball hoops that could fold away during other athletic competitions and a green canvas that acted like a turf court for tennis matches.

At its opening, the amphitheater could hold 1,600 people, “with a possibility of seating 1000 more in bleacher seats on the floor as the occasion may demand,” according to a 1932 story in the News. JLA’s current seating capacity is only slightly higher, with 1,500 permanent seats and 1,300 pull-out bleachers.

Athletic directors from schools across the country rushed to commend Yale on building the athletic monument.

“The Payne Whitney Gymnasium is undoubtedly the finest athletic plant of its kind in the world,” Major Philip B. Fleming, manager of athletics at West Point, told the News in 1932. “Every facility for indoor athletics both from the participants’ and spectators’ viewpoint is provided.”

A case dedicated to Lee in Payne Whitney Gymnasium. (Photo: Ashley Dreyer, Contributing Photographer)

John J. Lee ’58: The name

The amphitheater’s namesake, John J. Lee Jr., was a standout basketball player in high school, earning All-American awards in his junior and senior years. Of the 65 colleges to extend athletic offers to Lee, he chose to attend Yale because of the career prospects it would provide.

“I didn’t want to be just another college athlete with nowhere to go after he graduated,” Lee told Sports Illustrated for a 1958 cover story.

The chemical engineering major was a force to be reckoned with on the basketball court. He was selected for the All-Ivy First team in 1956, 1957 and 1958. Upon his graduation in 1958, the New York Knicks drafted Lee in the third round. Lee was the second Bulldog to be drafted to a team in the NBA, and only six have been drafted since.

Lee decided an education was more important than the big stage, however. He never played in the NBA after getting drafted and instead decided to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Yale.

As an alumni trustee of the Yale Corporation in 1993, Lee helped to collect over $1.5 billion in funds for the University, the largest such campaign in Yale’s history.

2,706 fans visited John J. Lee Amphitheater for the Yale–Harvard men’s basketball game in February 2020. (Photo: Lukas Flippo, Photo Editor)

Perspectives from the sideline today

JLA houses almost 90 years’ worth of stories, and the News spoke with members of the athletic community affiliated with the arena to hear about their relationships with the space.

Tim Bennett, assistant director of strategic communications at Yale Athletics, has been working in the department for 26 years. Bennett works closely with several varsity…

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