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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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John Blanchette: These sports memories might not have been big time, but we still miss them

UPDATED: Sat., May 30, 2020

Among the lesser and self-evident lessons from our ongoing limbo is just how much sports can be missed when they’ve been furloughed.

Unless you’ve discovered it’s really not so hard to get along without them. Then never mind.

In any event, they’ll be back.

Maybe in ghost-town stadiums, maybe clustered at Disney World, maybe with the stars sitting out in a salary huff, maybe straight to expanded playoffs … and maybe not until 2021. Maybe altered forever. But already they’re inching their way back in some form, amid a thousand contingencies.

Eventually, those contingencies will become reality here, too. Gonzaga basketball will, at some point, dominate too many conversations. You’ll plod through Bloomsday and hack it up in Hoopfest again. The thriving hockey and baseball franchises will thrive anew, and maybe indoor football can be the big thing it was in a previous incarnation. You’ll get to see what the new Washington State football coach has under his many hats.

They’re all too big not to be back.

Mostly, it’s the little things that go away and are simply lost forever – and what we wind up pining over the most.

Naturally, we’ve made a list.

High school traditions. Funky uniforms. Gyms cavernous and musty. Underappreciated rivalries. Old-time hockey. Old-time journalism.

This is the quaint detritus of half a century or more of sports in Spokane and the Inland Northwest and, man, you should have been here when. It might not have been big time, but we still miss:

The Alpo Classic

Washington State University's Brian Quinnett tries to get by Eastern Washington University's Brian Sullivan in the second game of the Rosauers-Alpo Inland Northwest Classic. (The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State University’s Brian Quinnett tries to get by Eastern Washington University’s Brian Sullivan in the second game of the Rosauers-Alpo Inland Northwest Classic. (The Spokesman-Review)

Such a concept. Take the region’s four NCAA Division I basketball teams, throw them under the roof of the old Spokane Coliseum, play doubleheaders on back-to-back nights and watch the fans pour in.

Alas, this dog didn’t hunt for long.

Maybe it was because Gonzaga wasn’t Gonzaga yet and the city had yet to whet its basketball appetite. Maybe it was because of WSU’s general indifference to the project. Maybe it was because the best team every year was Idaho. Or maybe it was that along with Rosauers, the other title sponsor was pet food.

Hence, the Alpo Classic.

The last tournament, in 1988, was the most entertaining – Gonzaga’s Doug Spradley finding Jim McPhee with a half-court bounce pass with 4 seconds left for the bucket to edge Wazzu in the semis, and Idaho beating the Zags in overtime in the final. But when the sponsors bolted, the game was over after just three years.

A great dog deserves Alpo, but at that time, we didn’t.

Noms de newsprint

Washington State University quarterback Jack Thompson in an August, 1977, photo. (The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State University quarterback Jack Thompson in an August, 1977, photo. (The Spokesman-Review)

Will there ever be another Throwin’ Samoan – that is to say, not another Jack Thompson but a nickname for a player as perfect as that one?

Probably not. At least there hasn’t been lately, and frankly that’s because your servants at the newspaper haven’t delivered. Ditto the broadcasters.

This terrible drop-off in instant mythmaking has siphoned considerable color from our games, and you can pretty much date it from when former Review columnist Harry Missildine left the building. Without Harry’s way with nicknames, Cougar quarterbacking great Thompson would have had great stats but only local cachet. Same for fellow Coug Keith Lincoln (the Moose of the Palouse), Gonzaga’s giant Frenchman Jean Claude Lefebvre (the Eiffel Rifle) and, especially, rotund Oregon State football coach Dee Andros, whose orange windbreaker made him the “Great Pumpkin.”

These days about the best we can do is wait for players like Gardner Minshew and Adam Morrison to sprout a little lip moss so we can call them “the Stache.”

Sunset Par 3

In this 1960 photo, Mayor Neal Fosseen putts for birdie on ninth hole of Curley Hueston's (second from left) new par-3 golf course on Sunset Highway. (The Spokesman-Review)
In this 1960 photo, Mayor Neal Fosseen putts for birdie on ninth hole of Curley Hueston’s (second from left) new par-3 golf course on Sunset Highway. (The Spokesman-Review)

Look, there’s plenty of good golf to be found here, including par-3 options both north and south. But this 9-holer on the corner of Sunset Highway and Rustle had its own charms.

Lights.

So you could tee off as late as 10:30 on Friday and Saturday nights, unless your date’s dad had slapped an 11 p.m. curfew on her. Hey, if you wanted, you could see the Spokane Indians close out Tacoma in the ninth inning and still get in nine holes, with time for a nightcap.

Plus, in the ’60s there was an all-you-can-play special on weekdays until 4 – for a buck.

Built in 1960 by Ken Holt and former Indian Canyon pro Curley Hueston, the lights didn’t go out until 1983 when Fireman’s Fund Insurance bought the land – owned by the Spokane House across the street – to build a headquarters. Fireman’s abandoned ship for San Diego and took 350 jobs with it all of four years later.

Isn’t that par for the course?

Zags’ short sleeves

Gonzaga's Jim Breshanan
Gonzaga’s Jim Breshanan

When Jim Bresnahan – a public school guy from the Bay Area – came up to play basketball at Gonzaga in 1967, he didn’t know what to make of the sleeved uniforms.

“I thought maybe this was a Jesuit deal,” laughed the Spokane financial adviser. “Some modesty rule or something.”

Mostly it was a Hank Anderson deal. Though GU’s opponents had all abandoned sleeves as a fashion drag by the time the Bulldogs joined the Big Sky in the ’60s, the late coach once said, “We hung onto them so long because people got on me about them and that just made me more stubborn.”

The Zags were perhaps the last team on the West Coast to mothball the sleeves – or hand them down to the JVs. Evansville – the school credited with debuting the style in the ’40s – kept sleeves as a trademark until 2002, but Adidas revived them in a one-off tournament model for a few schools in 2013.

Could it hurt the Zags to go retro for a game? Wonder if those sleeved unis come in red.

The AHRA World Finals

Shirley Muldowney drag racing at Spokane Raceway Park in 1981. (The Spokesman-Review)
Shirley Muldowney drag racing at Spokane Raceway Park in 1981. (The Spokesman-Review)

Yes, it all ended at Spokane Raceway Park in a smoky cloud of bankruptcy and bitterness. But one weekend every August, you knew you’d been to a party because your hearing didn’t come back until Wednesday.

Because at the height of its 30-year run, Orville Moe’s baby brought in the biggest slicks in drag racing – Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, John “Brute” Force, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney among them. As you can tell, this was where branding began.

And they’d be idling their nitro ground pounders in staging right behind some guy running a beat-up El Camino on regular gas, because there was a class for even the unclassiest heaps at the World Finals – which, by the way, earned its name because 50 percent of the licenses plates in the parking lot were Canadian.

Also, a suspect legend had it that before the weekend’s cash from tickets and concessions could be banked, it was stashed in a terrarium in the basement of the track office guarded by a rattlesnake.

No, not Don “The Snake” Prudhomme.

GSL tripleheaders

1954: The Spokane Coliseum during its final phase of construction. The bond was approved in early 1953, and the building was dedicated in December 1954.
1954: The Spokane Coliseum during its final phase of construction. The bond was approved in early 1953, and the building was dedicated in December 1954.

It was the small town in Spokane that liked to do things together. So when the old City League grew to six teams and the Coliseum opened in 1954, the tripleheader was born – and lived on for nearly 40 years. It was enough of a success that in time they expanded the concept to football at Albi Stadium, though those 3 p.m. kickoffs were notably short on atmosphere.

There were lots of familiar sights at the basketball games. Pep clubs – remember them? – packing the floor seats. Coaches gathering high in the northwest stands to commiserate and needle. Dick Wright schlepping his radio gear in to call all three games.

And you wonder how many Spokane couples made their first acquaintance cruising the concourse at a tripleheader.

Otis, my man!

Otis Day
Otis Day

Every school and sports franchise has whiffed on a promotion it figured would be a home run. Once the Spokane Indians decided to sell 50-cent beer on opening night when a sellout was all but guaranteed anyway, and then had the kegs run dry after some baseball fans – well, beer fans – had waited in line for three innings

But we implore local sports marketeers to keep trying, at any cost.

Back in 1986, Washington State decided to book a postgame concert with Fats Domino and Otis Day and the Knights of “Animal House” fame to boost the gate for a dreary nonconference meeting with San Jose State. Alas, Fats had to cancel and the Cougs lost 20-13 – and only 15,000 showed.

Wasn’t the first time coach Jim Walden found himself humming “Ain’t That a Shame.”

SCC vs. SFCC

Spokane Community College's Steve Alexander, right, tries to get past a Spokane Falls CC defender during an undated game.
Spokane Community College’s Steve Alexander, right, tries to get past a Spokane Falls CC defender during an undated game.

It was a rivalry concocted almost out of thin air that flamed brightly and disappeared quickly.

For seven years in the 1970s, the two campuses of what’s now the Community Colleges of Spokane had separate basketball teams. The gyms at the Falls and on Mission would fill – true deal – and the Spartans and Sasquatch would get after it. Or not. In a notable 1973 game, SCC coach Craig Johnson took the air out of the ball – not a shot was taken for 16 minutes at one point – before Jim Jarvis’ SFCC team prevailed 30-22.

And sometimes it got heated before the game.

Johnson once sent Maury Ray, who was both his assistant and his athletic director, to hang by the officials’ entry so he could lobby veteran referee Dan Niksich for, uh, fair treatment. All perfectly innocent, Ray insisted.

“I’m standing next to Dan, but I’m talking to this kid on the other side of me, saying that the Falls is famous for parking their two big guys in the key and they rarely get called for 3 seconds. ‘I hope we get a break tonight,’ I tell him. And Dan tees me up! In warmups! I have to go back and tell Craig the Falls gets to start with two free throws and the ball.”

To which Johnson replied, “Maybe I should do the talking to the refs from now on.”

The SWABS banquet

George Brett, with Greg Riddick and Airion Pein of Shadle Park volleyball at the 1986 SWABS banquet.
George Brett, with Greg Riddick and Airion Pein of Shadle Park volleyball at the 1986 SWABS banquet.

It started in 1948 with an audience of 50 and a keynote speech from The Spokesman-Review’s political reporter. Fifty-two years later, with speakers demanding $25,000 for recycled remarks and the banquet culture kaput, the curtain finally came down.

But at its peak, the February awards event drew more than 1,100 people and brought no fewer than three dozen Hall of Famers in to speak, a few entertainingly. One year’s dais included Jesse Owens, Jake LaMotta, Tommy Lasorda – and O.J. Simpson before he got really famous.

Yes, Wednesday night damned near turned into Thursday some years and Vida Blue shouldn’t have told us he needed to cut his speech short to pee. But there were always laughs to be had, many of the better ones coming Spokane’s own Dick Pratt, a Hall of Fame emcee.

And for good measure …

A line brawl between the Spokane Jets and Cranbrook at the Spokane Coliseum in 1974.
A line brawl between the Spokane Jets and Cranbrook at the Spokane Coliseum in 1974.

  • Hockey enforcers. The Spokane Chiefs haven’t had a player with 100 penalty minutes in two years. That’s an affront to legendary Spokane tough guys like Don Dirk, Connie Madigan, George Talotti, Mugsy McGowan, Mick Vukota and Kerry Toporowski, among others.
  • Herb Hunter’s “hot dog!” call on the radio and the ping of his pencil hitting the mic on recreations of Spokane Indians road games.
  • World class track and field. The Cougars had Henry Rono and Bernard Lagat. Idaho had Dan O’Brien. Steve Prefontaine came and won the NCAA cross country championship at Hangman Valley. Sometimes it was out-of-this-world class.
  • TV sports anchors in matching news-team blazers. Sharp.
  • Apple Cups at Albi Stadium. College football belongs on campus, but it was nice to be a stand-in while the Wazzu administration figured that out.
  • Newspaper column titles. When did these go out of fashion? Missildine’s was “Twice Over Lightly.” Merle Derrick wrote “Footnotes” in a nod to his oversized wheels. The champeen, however, remains supersized Jim Spoerhase of the old Spokane Chronicle whose column was “Heavy on Sports.” Now it’s just some guy’s name.

Fact is, we miss it all.

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