I am, friends and family constantly remind me, quite elderly. So old, in fact, that I have witnessed a large percentage of the greatest teams, athletes and events in Inland Northwest sports history.
Now that the coronavirus has silenced the sports world for the most part, it seems like a good time to look back on some of the best times in the long and impressive history of sports in our region. We’ll limit our trip down memory lane to the past 65 years because, well, I’m 65 years old. A retired sports writer like myself struggles to remember what happened 65 minutes ago, never mind 65 years ago.
• Sports in our region experienced an unprecedented upgrade when Pacific Coast League baseball and the original (pro) Western Hockey League came to Spokane in 1958. The PCL and WHL were just one notch below the big leagues and loaded with talent in ’58, when major league baseball consisted of only 16 teams and the National Hockey League had a mere six teams. Future MLB All-Stars like Maury Wills, Frank Howard, Steve Garvey, Bill Buckner, Willie Davis, Bill Madlock, Tommy Davis, Davey Lopes and Ron Cey starred for Spokane PCL teams. In 1961-62 alone, the WHL Comets produced longtime Boston Bruins goaltender Eddie Johnston (a two-time Stanley Cup champion), league scoring champ Max Mekilok, 44-goal scorer Gerry Brisson and famous minor league tough guy Connie Madigan.
• The Spokane Coliseum in its prime, long before it not-so-lovingly became known as the “Boone Street Barn.” In the early 1960s, when that big marquee at the corner of Boone and Howard read “PRO HOCKEY TONITE LOS ANGELES VS. COMETS” or “PRO HOCKEY TONITE SAN FRANCISCO VS. COMETS,” you could not help but think our li’l town was semi-big time. And yet, the Coliseum was small enough and unimposing enough to be the perfect home for all the little farm towns that sent teams to the State B high school basketball tournaments.
• Have too many of us become rather numb to the wondrous accomplishments of Gonzaga men’s basketball? Absolutely. This does not, however, make the ongoing miracle any less remarkable.
• It never ceases to amaze that a city of Spokane’s size pumped out, in short order, Basketball Hall of Famer John Stockton (Gonzaga Prep), Baseball Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg (North Central) and Super Bowl MVP Mark Rypien (Shadle Park). Try matching that, New York City.
• While we’re on the subject of amazing feats: Washington State distance runner Henry Rono set world records in four events in 81 days in 1978. Records fell in the 10,000-, 5,000- and 3,000-meter runs, plus the 3,000 steeplechase. Human beings are not supposed to perform in such a manner.
• Who lays claim to the greatest season in Inland Northwest college sports history? Since some of Romo’s 1978 world records took place outside the college season, we’ll nominate John Olerud, the 1988 College Baseball Player of the Year. As a WSU sophomore, Olerud went 15-0 (!) on the mound and only batted .464 (!!) with 23 home runs. Our No. 2 pick is Adam Morrison, the national co-player of the year in men’s basketball in 2005-06. Morrison, a Mead High grad, averaged 28.1 points per game as a junior at Gonzaga. We peg Ryan Leaf at No. 3. The WSU junior quarterback finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 1997. He passed for 3,968 yards and 33 touchdowns – spectacular numbers at the time – to lead the Cougars to their first Rose Bowl since 1931.
• So many marvelous head coaches. A sampling: Mark Few, GU men’s basketball. Bobo Brayton, WSU baseball. Linda Sheridan, Shadle Park HS girls basketball and volleyball. Dennis Erickson, Idaho and WSU football. Tommy Lasorda, Spokane Indians baseball (manager). John Chaplin, WSU track and field and cross country. Don Monson, Cheney HS boys and Idaho men’s basketball. Ed Cheff, Lewis-Clark State baseball. Rolly Williams, North Idaho College men’s basketball. Jud Heathcote, West Valley HS boys basketball. John Owen, NIC and Central Valley and West Valley HS wrestling. Tracy Walters, Rogers HS track and field. Irene Matlock, Sandpoint HS and Community Colleges of Spokane volleyball. Don Anderson, Gonzaga Prep football. Tony Bennett, WSU men’s basketball. Marv Harshman, WSU men’s basketball. Cash Stone, Mead HS wrestling. Bill Frazier, Gonzaga Prep football and baseball. Dwight Church, Lewiston HS and Lewis-Clark American Legion baseball. Jack Mooberry, Rogers HS and WSU track and field. Beau Baldwin, Eastern Washington University football. Kermit Davis, Idaho men’s basketball. Kelly Graves, GU women’s basketball. Buzzie Welch, Rogers, Ferris and Lewis and Clark HS volleyball. Todd Shulenberger, WSU women’s soccer. Mike Babcock, Spokane Chiefs hockey. Pat Tyson, Mead HS and GU cross country and track and field. Don Owen, Coeur d’Alene and University HS wrestling. Dan Fitzgerald, GU men’s basketball. Dick Zornes, EWU football. Jenni Hull, CCS volleyball. Rick Giampietri, Central Valley HS football. Nick Menegas, Post Falls and Lewiston HS football. Jon Schuh, Central Valley and University HS fastpitch softball and U-Hi slowpitch softball. Van Troxel, Lake City HS football. Dave Holmes, Eastern Washington State College (pre-EWU) and Rogers and University HS football. Al Rollins, Spokane Jets hockey. John Drager, Mullan (Idaho) HS football. Jerry and Janet Skaife, CCS softball. Larry Schwenke, Coeur d’Alene HS slowpitch and fastpitch softball. Ron Jackson, Spokane American Legion baseball. Mitch Santos, St. Maries (Idaho) HS volleyball. George Lynn, Shadle Park HS and Spokane Sliders fastpitch softball. Bob Everson, Spokane Falls CC (pre-CCS) football. Dean Lundblad, Coeur d’Alene HS boys basketball. Did we miss anyone? Of course we did!
• Spokane has played host to NFL, NBA and NHL exhibition games, but perhaps no local exhibitions generated as much buzz – initially, anyway – as the (almost) annual baseball games between the Indians and the parent Los Angeles Dodgers. The big league club’s top stars typically saw little or no action, but Hall of Famers like Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Duke Snider and former Indians like Maury Wills, Willie Davis and Frank Howard usually dropped by long enough for pregame introductions. Back in the day, before the arrival of cable television and the internet, the mere sight of a star like Koufax sent fans’ hearts soaring in minor league cities like Spokane.
• Speaking of Willie Davis: Has any athlete in any sport generated more excitement than Davis – one of the fastest players in baseball history – blurring his way from first to third? Or legging out a triple? Or tracking down a fly ball that no one else on earth could have reached? Outside of the fact that Davis has been my favorite athlete (other than my daughters) since I saw Davis play for the Indians when I was 5 years old, I’m certain I am in no way prejudiced. (Wink, wink.) Davis, just 20 years old, led the PCL in a boatload of stats to win the Minor League Player of the Year award with the 1960 Indians.
• There was a time, before speaker costs became prohibitive, when Spokane’s annual sports banquet attracted some of the biggest names in sports. We’re talking Walter Payton, Jesse Owens, Rocky Marciano, Red Auerbach, Bo Jackson, Tommy Lasorda, O.J. Simpson (um, sorry), Gordie Howe, Gale Sayers, Steve Largent, Johnny Bench, Tony Dorsett, Bart Starr, Bob Uecker, John Madden, Jim Plunkett.
• Albi Stadium when it was young, vibrant and filled with thousands of high school football fans on brisk autumn evenings. NFL and WSU players Mark Rypien (Shadle Park), Jason Hanson (Mead), Steve Gleason (Gonzaga Prep) and Gail Cogdill (Lewis and Clark) performed at Albi in high school.
• We will not soon forget Central Valley’s national girls basketball title run in 2017-18, when Stanford-bound twins Lexie and Lacie Hull led the Bears to a 29-0 season. Likewise, area sports fans still cherish memories of Eastern Washington’s 2010 national title in football. Unfortunately, few of us remember that Spokane Community College (pre-CCS) won three consecutive national championships in junior college women’s gymnastics from 1980-82.
• The 1969-70 Spokane Jets were the first U.S.-based team to win the Allan Cup, emblematic of senior amateur (read: semipro) hockey supremacy in Canada. Spokanites, many of whom could not tell a hockey puck from a manhole cover prior to the season, rallied behind a bunch of Canada-raised players who worked 9-to-5 jobs or attended college when they weren’t packing the Coliseum to the rafters. Seth Martin, Ken Gustafson, Tom Hodges, Tom Rendall, Dave Cox, Charlie Goodwin, Gail Holden, Buddy Bodman, Gordie Turlik, Larry Palanio, Don Scherza, Vince Collins, George Talotti … lots of talent, lots of character, lots of characters. Probably in that order.
• Who could have predicted that lightly recruited WSU guard Klay Thompson would develop into one of the greatest 3-point shooters in NBA history? Or that Spokane Indians center fielder Mike Humphreys would steal home to score the winning run in the final game of the 1988 Northwest League playoffs? Remember when Tom Sneva, a Lewis and Clark High and EWU grad, won the 1983 Indianapolis 500? What about Gerry Lindgren, the tiny distance runner from Rogers High and WSU, running down the world’s best in the mid-1960s? How about Dan O’Brien flunking out of Idaho, rejoining the Vandals after a junior college stint in Spokane and later winning the decathlon at the 1996 Summer Olympics? Let’s not overlook Rod Funseth’s sterling performance at the 1978 Masters. The former North Central High standout finished in a tie for second, one shot behind Gary Player.
• Gardner Minshew, the mustachioed quarterback who shot to fame at WSU in 2018, is just one of countless fun-loving sorts who have added spice to the area sports scene over the years. WSU baseball coach Bobo Brayton never saw a microphone or camera he did not love. Ditto for basketball coaches Dan Fitzgerald (GU men) and George Raveling (WSU men), football coaches Jim Sweeney (WSU) and John L. Smith (Idaho), baseball managers Tommy Lasorda (Spokane Indians) and Tim Flannery (Indians), boxing promoter Moe Smith (Coeur d’Alene Casino), basketball players Tia Presley (Gonzaga Prep and WSU) and Josh Perkins (GU), football players Connor Halliday (Ferris High and WSU) and Joel Thomas (Idaho), baseball players Jim Connor (WSU) and Tom LeVasseur (Indians) and hockey players Eddie Johnston (Spokane Comets) and Troy Gamble (Spokane Chiefs).
• Wonderful memories just keep flowing. The 1970 Spokane Indians, guided by future Baseball Hall of Fame manager Tommy Lasorda, are widely regarded as one of the greatest minor league teams of all time. Flashy point guard Courtney Vandersloot helped Gonzaga women’s basketball go big time on the court and at the turnstiles from 2007-11. WSU’s Rueben Mayes ran for 357 dazzling yards (a major college record at the time) on a rainy day at Oregon in 1984. The 1990-91 Spokane Chiefs, led by scoring machines Ray Whitney and Pat Falloon, won the city’s first Memorial Cup as the major junior hockey champions of North America. Horse racing at Playfair. Unlimited hydroplane races on Lake Coeur d’Alene. Big names and big crowds for drag racing at Spokane Raceway Park. Stock car racing at Spokane Interstate Fairgrounds. Bob Robertson handling the radio play-by-play for WSU football. Ed Sharman’s nightly sports reports on KHQ television. Colorful Harry Missildine, the longtime sports editor of The Spokesman-Review, covering sports like no one in our region had done before.
• The community celebration that is Hoopfest and Bloomsday.
Wonderful memories just keep flowing. Wait – did I already say that?
Well, it bears repeating. The memories are that good.
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