Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Blizzard and Three Baskeball Games

The Blizzard of 2011 brings tales and anecdotes about the last big one in 1967. I’ll confine mine to a few.

The January 1967 was preceded by unseasonably warm weather. I remember because six days before the storm hit, I was in a minor fender-bender with a young woman making a left turn. She was driving a VW Beetle . . . with the convertible top down.

Our biggest concern during the blizzard was the fate of the big college basketball tripleheader at Chicago Stadium, which was scheduled for Saturday, two days after the 23-inch snowfall. Friday’s doubleheader was postponed until Sunday, making Saturday the Chicago debut of the most anticipated player in college basketball history, Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Months earlier, we purchased four tickets at $4 each in the first balcony next to the organ loft. A phone call to the stadium reported the games were on and no refunds would be paid.

The roads had been cleared sufficiently to allow driving into the city. My friend Michael picked up my brother and me, and we squeezed into his Chevelle Malibu with Bennie and two late additions, John and Chris, who figured to pick up tickets at the arena. The fit was tight, as John was the shortest of the six at about 6 feet tall. We left early in the afternoon in plenty of time for the 6 p.m. opener. Michael drove a steady 35 miles per hour on the Edens and Kennedy expressways, and we were passed only by former Bears wide receiver and Channel 2 sportscaster Johnny Morris. 

Because Michael’s father owned a number of downtown parking garages, we planned to park free next to the Northwestern train station on Madison Street and take a bus to the stadium. Parking at the garage turned out to be free for everybody, since nobody was working there. We waited for a bus – one was always in sight because it was stuck in a snow bank – but eventually took off walking the two miles to the stadium. One could see a single-file line trudging down Madison clear into the distance. We arrived in time to see one of the evening’s main attractions.

The first game pitted defending NCAA champion Texas Western (now Texas at El Paso) vs. defending NIT champion Brigham Young. Texas Western was the first to win the championship with an all-black starting line-up. Brigham Young would not integrate for several years. Front-liners David “Big Daddy D” Lattin and Nevil “The Shadow” Shed were complemented by speedy sub-6 foot guards, Bobby Joe Hill and Willie Worsley. Texas Western went on to finish 22-6, losing to Pacific in the tournament semifinal of the West regional. 

The second game featured the main attraction, number 1-ranked UCLA and sophomore center Lew Alcindor (freshmen were not eligible then) against hometown favorite Loyola. Loyola, who finished 22-3 in the previous season, had a much shorter line-up, with a 6’5” center, Jim (nicknamed “Ajax” by radio announcer Red Rush because “he cleans the boards) Tillman. An extraordinary leaper, Tillman blocked one of Alcindor’s shots, possibly by knowing his moves from playing together on New York City playgrounds. The Ramblers held their own before falling by 15 points. UCLA finished 30-0, easily winning the NCAA championship. In a rather futile move, the NCAA banned the dunk after the 1966-1967 season.

The final game, Illinois vs. Notre Dame, was anti-climactic. Both teams would eventually finish at .500 (12-12 and 14-14, respectively), and several Illinois players, including Rich Jones and Ron Dunlap, had been suspended by the school for taking small amounts of money for trips home and the like. The burden fell to Jim Dawson, a graduate of York High School in Elmhurst, who eventually won Big Ten Player of the Year honors. Years later I became friends with Jim; he plays in our basketball games when he returns home for family visits.

We left the Illinois-Notre Dame game early in the first half. Three of us decided not to chance walking back down Madison and opted to wait for a bus. One came in due time; even so, our friends actually beat us to the car.

My father missed the blizzard because he was out east on business. With the airports closed, he spent a few days at the company’s Washington and Baltimore plants before heading home by train. A second snowstorm hit shortly thereafter, and my brother and I were shoveling the driveway and sidewalk when we saw him trudging up the middle of the street, suitcase and briefcase in hand. After arriving in Chicago, he took the Northwestern to the Hubbard Woods station and, rather than calling for a ride, walked the seven blocks home.

The snow has just started falling in earnest.  I don’t expect any stories from this storm.  At least I hope not.