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Empty? The Staples Center was not empty

A GRIP ON SPORTS

Before Washington State's Pac-12 Conference tournament game began yesterday, Christian Caple posted a picture of the empty Staples Center on this blog. Yes, it was a pregame photo for a noon game, so you would expect the arena to be empty. But after the game began, the seats remained unfilled. Either that or they gave out free T-shirts that were the exact same color as the seats. Anyhow, the empty arena, the quiet atmosphere, the ability to hear fans' comments throughout the game – all of which was caught by Fox's broadcast – took me back to a simpler time and a simpler place, when game officials were less hesitant to interact with their fans. Read on.

••••••••••

• It was 1981. Dec. 29, 1981 to be exact. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. For this Southern California boy, the snow on the streets in downtown was as much of a wonder as watching basketball in the arena known as the Mecca (it's now called U.S. Cellular), a then-pretty-stately facility in a stately town. I was covering the UC Irvine Anteaters, coached by Bill Mulligan and led by their All-American center Kevin Magee, for the Santa Ana Register and had followed them across the country for Marquette's Christmas tournament. Also in the tourney: Arizona State, with All-American guard Fat Lever, and East Tennessee State, the host team's designated first-round patsy. Marquette did its part, defeating ETS 96-84 in the opening game while ASU rolled past UCI, 88-73, handing the Anteaters their first loss of the season and their only one in their first 16 games. So that fateful Dec. 29, I walked down the street to the Mecca in the early afternoon to join less than a hundred fans – John Weyler, the Los Angeles Times writer, and myself counted the group and Weyler actually asked a fan sitting alone why he was there. His answer: to get out of the cold – for the consolation game. Now remember, this place sat about 12,000 people, so the echoes during Irvine's 77-75 win over East Tennessee were impressive. And so was one fan's voice.

• As the game wore on, a spectator not more than 15 rows up behind Weyler, myself and the UCI radio guy, Craig Russell, on press row, decided he didn't like the way one young official was calling the game. So he started to get on him. Maybe he was the official's ex-brother-in-law or something, but I don't know. Anyway, the criticism continued well into the second half, causing Weyler and I to start taking notice, laugh at some well-timed lines and to wonder aloud if anything would be done. It was. Let me set the scene. We are on one end of the court, even with the free throw line. The game is going on down at the other end. The official, one of two back then, stops no more than 10 feet in front of us, while the game is going on, mind you, and turns around – his back is now to the action – and starts yelling back at the fan. The line, as I remember it, had something to do with "if you are so good, why don't you come down here and take my whistle and do it yourself." That elicited some sort of smarmy answer and another rejoinder from the official, who turned back around just in time to see his partner call a foul. All this, remember, occurred during the action. The whistle on the court sent the game to a time out, which allowed Weyler and I to explode in laughter. Russell went to commercial, took off his headphones and asked what just happened. We started to explain and, sorry to say, the 25-year-old Vince Grippi (and much older Weyler) used a lot of naughty words to describe it. Words the FCC frowns upon. No problem, except the live feed from Milwaukee wasn't shut off for some reason and everything we said come through over the air – my wife, aghast, was listening back in Fullerton and heard it all. Weyler got up to go interview the fan but the guy was gone, either to get another beer or to head off into the Milwaukee cold. And the official? I always fantasied he grew up to be Joey Crawford.

•••

• Washington State: Christian Caple has everything you need from the empty Staples Center in his morning post today, the day-after WSU's 65-56 loss to Oregon State. Christian focuses on the Cougars' postseason hopes in his game story and adds much more in his post-game blog posts and this one with conference commissioner Larry Scott's thoughts. ... Christian was also at the Galen Center, where the crowd was probably a bit larger than recent USC men's games, to cover Washington State's first-ever Pac-12 tournament win, a 65-56 victory over Oregon State. Here's his story. He'll cover the Cougars game with USC tonight. ... The Oregonian looks at what must be the worst-case scenario in Eugene concerning the NCAA investigation of the football team. ... The best story of the day from my perspective? This one from Ted Miller of ESPN.com on a symposium held at USC yesterday. The subject was the growth of 7-on-7 football and what it means for colleges.

• Gonzaga: Though they haven't played since losing to GU last Saturday, the BYU men are starting to get a bit more worried about their NCAA chances. The reason: upsets in other conferences. ... That shrinking bubble is the subject of Bud Withers' column.

• Eastern Washington: Jim Allen follows up the Eagles loss to Montana, relating how EWU earned some respect for their play. ... The Grizzlies trailed at halftime again last night, but exploded in the second half to run away from Weber State and earn the Big Sky's automatic – and more-than-likely only – NCAA berth.

• Idaho: The Vandal women had to hold off a San Jose State rally but they advanced in the WAC tournament, 67-63. ... The men enter the tournament on a roll as Josh Wright recounts.

• Whitworth: Though the Pirates starters are solid, you don't get to the NCAA Division III Sweet Sixteen without a strong bench, as Jim shows in this story.

• Chiefs: Spokane lost in a shootout, 3-2, to Kelowna. Jess Brown has the story.

• Mariners: Let's see. There are a couple of stories about pitchers, both young and old, and one about the rejuvenated Chone Figgins. ... Catcher Adam Moore suffers a blow in his quest to make the team.

• Seahawks: It may be a while until the season, but the NFL's hot stove league was stoked yesterday by the Colts' release of all-time great quarterback Peyton Manning. The Seahawks are considered major players in the Manning derby and have reportedly already made contact. ... The Hawks also released former Cougar defensive back Marcus Trufant.

• Sounders: In the first of two CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal matches with Santos Laguna last night, the Sounders almost became a victim of Seattle's traffic. But despite the scare, they earned a 2-1 win and will head into the second game of the series March 14 in Mexico with a decided edge.

• NBA: Chris Hanson, Seattle's arena developer, seems to be the patient sort.

•••

• That's what we have for today. No radio the rest of the week, so we'll be back tomorrow. Until then ...




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Vince Grippi
Vince Grippi is a freelance local sports blogger for spokesman.com. He also contributes to the SportsLink Blog.

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