Spring 1977. My Dad works for Western Airlines (Dead Memory), my Mom is behind the jewelry counter at the Rockwood Fred Meyer (also, Dead Memory), and I’m in seventh grade at St. Therese grade school with Mrs. Riggs (first name unknown).
I’ve mentioned in previous stories that my father’s job with the airlines was intriguing. Not only did it allow our family to travel constantly on a straight ahead middle class budget, (often we would arrive at our exotic destination with little or no money to do anything. I remember cheese sandwiches in Hawaii) but also Dad’s job seemed to change every few years or so.
I think that he started out in baggage claim, then for awhile he worked lost and found.
Lost and found was great fun for the family because back then, (I’m sure policies have changed) Dad got to put “dibbs” on any item not reclaimed after two months. Weekly dad would come home with bags of weird foreign candy, a variety of “I-went-to-(insert city name)-and-all-I-got-was-this–lousy-t-shirt” shirts and other cheap travel gifts, but every once in a while he would come home with something really odd.
One day Dad came home with a real ram’s head, stuffed and mounted. Which begs the question, “Who loses a ram’s head in an airport, and then never claims it?” (A question that I ponder each, and every time that I recant this story) With Mom’s stern, “ Michael, you are not bringing that thing into this house!” Dad drove off with it in the Dodge Swinger only to return an hour later ram’s head-less.
In the spring of ’77 dad was working at “the gate”, meaning he helped boarding and arriving passengers. Working “the gate” had it’s own rewards.
Now, before the corporatocracy, the citizen to citizen barter system was more regularly at use. The, “Hey, you bring me a pizza and I’ll stamp your hand at the door” sort of thing. Tit for tat. The personal grift. Dad’s grift was beautiful. He would simply befriend the arriving referees of the National Basketball Association.
The refs would generally fly into town and fly out the same night after the game and they always got two comp tickets which they almost never had any use for. Dad, and the other “gate guys” would agree to drive them to and from the game, saving the refs taxi fare, in exchange for two great seats to the game.
So Dad’s version of “free trade” afforded us, again, the luxury of “livin’ large” with out, of course, the expensive hot dogs and soda.
Those nights out with Dad are what really made me the basketball and Blazer fan that I am today. That is, rabid. I don’t care if they are the “JailBlazers”, the “FailBlazers”, or the (as of late) “FrailBlazers”, they are my team and I get juiced when the season begins every year.
Which brings me, (albeit in a roundhouse way), to my story.
My Dad and I- good lower level seats- Game four- Western conference finals- The Los Angeles Lakes v/s Your Portland Trailblazers.
Jerry West’s Lakers featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a young Adrian Dantly (recently traded from the ABA’s Buffalo Broncos*) and future Trailblazer Kermit “the punch” Washington, had gone 45-37 for the season and had just beat the Seattle Supersonics* two to one in a best of three.
Home team coached by Dr. Jack Ramsey had finished the season 49 and 33. Because of the merger between the ABA and NBA that season, the play-off brackets were skewed causing Portland to play a longer post season, having bested both Chicago (2-1) and Denver (4-2).
The “Ginger Giant” Bill Walton was healthy and on fire, as were the rest of my heroes: Bobby Gross, Dave Twardzik, Larry Steele, and Maurice Lucas. With three wins behind them in this best of seven, Portland was looking at a sweep, and a shot at the finals.
Nearing the end of the second quarter, during a time-out, amidst dreams of victory and maybe a box of popcorn, the announcer began to bellow about the half time festivities and contest.
The NBA was not the circus that it is today. I can’t remember if there were cheerleaders, I think that there were, but every time out and end of quarter was not filled with contests and “entertainments” as it is today. Those “down times” were used by fans to flag down a vendor, or to, (gasp!), talk about the game.
Back then, there was one contest, at halftime.
The Memorial Coliseum holds at capacity 12,000 fans, so the odds of getting chosen for said halftime contest were roughly 12,000 to one. So I wasn’t paying attention to the announcer when he called my seat number.
My Dad heard it and I’m sure that he had to stifle a swear when he realized that they were calling his son’s seat number.
“Kevin! Holy….Crud! It’s you!” Instant terror engulfed me. “Quick Dad, change seats with me!” I pleaded. Before we could pull a switcheroo, a well-dressed attendant was in my aisle shaking his head as if to say, “no, it’s you kid”.
With that, the well-dressed stranger took my hand and led me down back stairways, empty underground hallways, and past numerous doors marked “NO ADMITTANCE- AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY”. I was in heaven. Until, through a tunnel, we emerged to the game floor.
I stood next to the Lakers bench and watched the final minutes of the second quarter.
The contest was this- I would get three chances to make a shot from the top of the tip-off circle at center court. So I’m, basically to make a very long three pointer (the three pointer, of course not as yet, a part of the game), a difficult feat for anyone, but astronomically more difficult for Mrs. Riggs’ seventh grader who hadn’t hit any sort of growth streak and stood all of four feet tall. I looked more like a third or fourth grader than a budding teen. “This contest is rigged”, I thought, “they just picked the smallest guy in the building, so the prize is safe until the next game.”
The prize was the use of a new 1977 Ford Bronco, not a new Ford Bronco, mind you, but a year’s lease of a new 1977 Ford Bronco. Being too young to drive or even to safely reach the petals, the prize was kind of a moot point to me. This wasn’t going to be about winning a prize; this was going to be about not looking like an idiot in front of 12,000 people. No wait, are those national TV cameras? The sweat ran colder. For an added bonus both teams had emerged from their respective locker rooms and stood on the sidelines and were watching.
I was led to center court, the sea of people surrounding me in the stands was dwarfing. Dave Twardzick catches my eye and gives me a thumbs up. I was not comforted.
The crowd quieted some as I was handed the ball for my first shot. And…….Air ball-way air ball-The ball coming down at the free-throw line.
The “Ahs” from the masses were mixed with discernible laughter.
Shot number two was also an air ball, but closer, the ball landing, this time, in the middle of the key.
For the final shot I geared up and threw the ball as hard as I possibly could, over and behind my head, like a caveman throwing a boulder. The ball left my hands clean and strong. The crowd really hushed as the ball arced towards the bucket, clanging at the end, off the front of the hoop’s rim.
The crowd erupted for me anyway and a handful of players from each team walked to center court to congratulate me. Jabbar mussed my hair, Lucas somehow found a way to shake my tiny mitts with his impossibly large hands, and Twardzik said, “Wow! That was really close.”
So I didn’t get the use of a Ford Bronco for a year, but the consolation prize was far better as I was handed about the biggest Hickory Farms gift pack that I’d ever seen.
Back at my seat my Dad actually sprung for cokes as we gorged on crackers, beef stick, weird mustard and cheese, and watched the home team win the Western Conference.
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