There in Spirit

i’ve been whining to Maureen for about a month now, maybe longer.

You see, Satruday afternoon, in a magic place far, far away from the Southwest corner, magic took me there again, but not really. A bunch of two classes of my Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers gathered at that magic place of long ago. They call it Memorial Gymnasium. They call it “Memorial Magic.” Saturday, it was both.

i whined to Maureen about my not being there was her fault. She, of course, knew i was kidding. That i was the one who made the decision it was just too hard for my taking off to be there. But i needed to ease my pain. So Maureen caught the brunt of my whining, but shrugged it off.

i don’t think she has yet to appreciate “Memorial Magic” or even college basketball, which has always been my favorite sport to watch, even more than football because that was the sport i wanted to play, not watch, but i did plenty of watching that as well. i tried to make Maureen and Sarah Vanderbilt basketball fans and would have tried with Blythe, but she is not too interested in sport and certainly more for Longhorns than Commodores. With Maureen and Sarah, i actually took them to some games when were back home for Christmas, but the games were against teams like Northern Louisiana, the students were gone, the stands were half empty, the cheerleaders were from area high schools, and there was no spirit band. Hard to get the mojo going in that situation. i don’t think they understood.

Maureen, like today, will sit in the room while the Vandy game is on the air. She’s reading a book and will occasionally look up and ask a question about a play or a player, but more to make me feel good than to get into the game. i even mutter or yell suddenly when there is a great play or a bad play or a bad official call or a missed foul shot (i hate missed foul shots unless it’s the other guys missing). Then i realize i am yelling, muttering, even talking to myself.

Yet today, she got into it. We, over 2,000 miles away, had a whiff of the magic. This was in spite of announcers who think what they think is more important than focusing on the game and the producers who throw a bunch of junk on the side to promote themselves and upcoming events. But it didn’t matter today. We could still get that whiff of magic.

But my brothers were there. Flat, smack dab in the middle of it — i think that word “brothers” is often overused in fraternity talk. i am about as much as a brother to the Kappa Sigma Grand Master as i am to Hogan’s goat. But those guys in my five years of close association became more than friends. They became my brothers. i don’t know how to explain it. It even sounds a little hokey as i pen the words. But that’s what they are.

We were a bit different from the norm i think. We were somewhat a “pocket of resistance.” Like me. We made fun of the pomp and pomposity of the Greeks. We resisted being categorized. We were crazier than hell, and a couple of us, so caught up in all of it didn’t get to the finish line, but we were still brothers, still deeply, deeply enthralled with the magic.

A goodly part of that magic was  in Memorial Gym. Basketball. i didn’t miss a game. Even with exams the next day. Even with papers due, unfinished but put off until the game was over. And they were good back then. “Snake” Grace, Clyde Lee, John Ed Miller, Roger Schurig, Keith Thomas, Jerry Southwood, Kenny Gibbs, Bob Warren, Gene Lockyear, and on and on and on played like wonders.  Like winning the last five games in 1962-63, including an upset over Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats, 69-67, in Nashville. Then, 1964. They beat #3 Duke, 97-92, in overtime and a legendary betting story was born; and they turned around and beat #1 Kentucky 85-83 in a good but not great season (19-6).

Two of the highlights (Well, maybe not “highlights” but i do remember them well) of that 63-64 season was when the South Carolina bench was giving Roger Schurig a real ragging throughout the game. Then towards the end of the second half, a Vandy defender stole the ball and passed to Roger on a snowbird. When Roger hit an easy, unopposed layup at the South Carolina end of the court (because of the elevated court, the teams sit at opposite ends of the court, not on the side as with most basketball arenas), he ran the baseline in front of the Gamecock bench and shot a bird and held it the length of the bench.

The second highlight when Vandy surprised the Wildcats with an upset in Memorial. The Commodore fans gave the Wildcats’ Cotton Nash a razzing throughout the game. When the clock ran out, rather than getting in a line and shaking hands with the opposing players, Cotton walked to the middle of the court, shot two birds, his arms high in the air and slowly turned a complete circle to let the fans know what he thought of them. i still laugh when i think of both of those moments. Maybe bird humor is a favorite of mine.

i should know about those seasons. i went to every home game. i might have had one of those papers due or even an exam the next day, but i wouldn’t let anything interfere with my watching my friends play basketball.

When the next season, 1964-65, rolled around,  i was not in attendance at the “Harvard of the South.” i was the cub reporter, office boy, bowling editor, and figure 8 auto racing editor for Fred Russell and the Nashville Banner  sports department. i managed to see most of the home games and volunteered for one of my favorite weekends ever.

Vanderbilt won the SEC season and was playing in the Mid-East regional. The Banner photographer needed a way to get the game photo negatives of the NCAA Mideast Regional from the new field house for Kentucky in Lexington back to the Banner’s office in time to run in the Saturday afternoon paper. i volunteered to drive up, watch the game, and then drive back with the photos. i had purloined my sister’s 1959 Vauxhall for the year. It could top out at 95 downhill, which was good because the ensuing shaking kept me awake.

Vandy had a close opening round game, but beat DePaul, 83-78. Back then, there were only sixteen teams in the tournament. The major conference season champions (they didn’t have the money-grabbing conference tournaments back then) were given a berth and the other teams of independents and non-major conferences were chosen based on their records. And believe it or not, the regionals were comprised of only teams from that region, the East, the Mid-East (Vandy’s region), the Mid-West, and the West.

The trip between Nashville and Lexington back then was about 250 miles and took a little around five hours (at the speed limit). During halftime of the DePaul game, i walked down to the sports reporters table on the other side of the arena to talk to the photographer and Waxo Green, who covered the Commodores. As i walked to the corner of the end court returning to my seat, i looked back at the photographer while the teams were warming up. i turned around to head up the stairs, and i was staring into a clothed belly button. Cazzie Russell (it was his belly button), Oliver Darden, and Bill Buntin, the Michigan stars had come out to see what their opposition might look like on Saturday. They seemed to be gargantuan. i thought i was going to have to circle the field house to get back to my seat, but they were courteous and let me sidle through the mass of humanity to take the more direct route.

After Vandy won in what was a surprisingly close game, i grabbed the envelope of negatives from the photographer — i do wish i could remember his name: he was a great sports photographer, a great guy, and took me under his wing — and took off in my sister’s trusty Vauxhall. Except for through the towns (i took US 62; interstates didn’t go between those two cities yet), i had my foot down to the floorboard of the chugging British bundle of bolts. i left the field house around 9:00 p.m. EST, arriving at the Banner office before 2:00 a.m. CST. Had the trip not crossed from Eastern to Central time, i might not have made it, but i did.

Being a glutton for punishment and basketball, i turned in the negatives, got about two hours sleep, went back to the office to see if all was okay and help Bill Rogers, the managing sports editor with the makeup. i caught another two hours and then headed back to Lexington, arriving in time for the championship game between the Commodores and the Wolverines.

It was an incredible game with Vandy losing, 87-85, on one of the worst calls ever. Many experts said (of course, there was a slight Vandy bias), the Commodores would have matched up better against the Gail Goodrich UCLA team, which easily defeated Michigan, 91-80, and had a better chance of winning the championship than the Wolverines.

i believe, i believe.

i also know, as in really know, the refs blew it. i think i have written of how i know earlier, and i will pass on that story for now.

But i was not required to bring the negatives back that night. The Banner was Nashville’s afternoon paper with no Sunday edition. i spent the night in Lexington (funny, i don’t remember where, but i’m pretty damn sure i didn’t pay for it as i didn’t make enough to pay for it). i headed back at a much slower race on Sunday morning. When i hit Bardstown, Kentucky just after noon, i decided to take a tour of the Jim Beam distillery. This was a long time before it was a chic thing to do.

A portly old man with white hair for what was left of it, finally opened the door. He took me through the distillery explaining the process. We were the only two souls on the property. i think he was the janitor.

As we neared the end, he stopped and looked at me.

“Be careful, son,” he admonished, “That stuff can do some bad things to you.

“I know,” he continued, “You see, I started out as a youngster, younger than you are, drinking white lighting, corn whiskey. Damn near killed me.

“In fact, have you ever heard about folks who drank too much seeing pink elephants?”

“Yes, sir,” i replied.

“Well, they are out there. I see them all the time. Not just pink either. All kinds of colors, these big elephants in my head. I see them all the time in my head. Terrible.”

As we neared the door, there was a small souvenir shop. i bought an ashtray etched with a bucolic scene with the Jim Beam logo across the scene. i kept it until i quit smoking almost forty years ago.

Just before the old man closed and locked the door behind me, he once more warned, “Be careful with that stuff, son.”

Of course, i didn’t pay too much attention, but i haven’t seen any elephants in my head…yet.

But that was long ago. A magic time. College basketball at its finest before it became a money game. Memorial Gym magic.

Yet Saturday, i sat almost 2500 miles away and watched my Commodores win a thriller with a Memorial Gym fandom raising the roof with “Dynamite” like yesteryear a half-century ago. i was there.

i kept looking for my friends wishing i could experience Memorial Magic again first hand. i never found them. Analysts and ads cut into the possibilities. No matter. They knew. Shortly after the ‘Dores had put the game away in the final minutes, i got a call. My friends were on the floor with the student body still celebrating.

It was magic, Memorial Magic, once again.

My friends included Alexis as one of the attendees. Alexis Stearns is the daughter of one Bill Stearns, one of our gang. The boys believe she brought them and the Commodores good luck. i got to thinking about it. Every time i have gone back for a game with my friends, my team took it on the chin. Yet this pretty young lady brought them luck.

Maybe next time, i should give her my ticket, stay 2500 miles away and watch on my flat screen. That should give Vandy double luck.

Regardless, the magic was there one more time Saturday.

From left: Cy Fraser, Mac Koch, Don Bouldin, Jim Hicks, Larry Creekmore, Alan Hicks, Alexis Stearns, and Bill Stearns. Great game. Great magic.


3 thoughts on “There in Spirit

  1. By the way Jim I bet you meant Nortwestern Louisiana State as a game you saw..We used to play them back in the day when I played for Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette-Ragin Cajuns) when we were part of the now defunct Gulf States Conference… We played some of the SEC teams also-LSU, Tulane , Mississippi State…..

    1. Howard, i miswrote without looking it up. It was Southeastern Louisiana at the time. But i understand. One of my best friends at Vandy, Bill Oliver, lives near there. He’s a Texan who tranferred to UT Austin after his sophomore year and got his degree in Petroleum Engineering. He is a huge baseball fan of the Ragin’ Cajuns and will be in Houston for the Shiner’s Baseball Class to watch his team, the Ragin’ Cajuns play his team, the Commodores among several other real good teams, the first weekend in March. i wanted to join him but couldn’t justify that trip when the next weekend i’ll be in LA for a Vandy four-game series.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *