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MOMENTS, MEMORIES and MADNESS with STEVE CAMERON: The old days of being close to the action — and part of the story

| December 13, 2020 1:25 AM

It’s a great seat.

I mentioned earlier this week that there’s been one big change for media members covering basketball — college and pro — in this era, as opposed to the good old days when we sat at courtside.

If you want that vantage point now, you need to go enjoy a high school game.

But, back in the day (as we Boomers like to describe it), reporters generally sat right next to the action — normally on the side opposite the scorer’s table and TV/radio crews.

What happened?

I’m not sure where it started, but some bright marketing whiz looked at those media seats and thought, “We can sell those for a pretty nice chunk of money.

“Or give them to sponsors.”

So, that was us gone, banished to spots halfway up the lower bowl, or even (at UNLV when the place was still sold out) up near the roof.

THE GOOD news is that I was gifted a lifetime of memories from my days sitting almost on the playing floor itself.

All sorts of stories pop to mind, but the two I think worth sharing today both involved the Denver Nuggets of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Those were some exciting teams, featuring the likes of Hall of Famers David (Skywalker) Thompson — once described as “Michael Jordan before there was a Michael Jordan” — and high-scoring center Dan Issel.

The Nuggets also showcased an assorted cast of characters that constantly changed because coach Larry Brown was always tinkering with the roster.

The Nuggets had come into the league from the old American Basketball Association, and could have won the NBA title during their first year with the big boys.

After shocking the NBA establishment with a 50-32 record in the 1976-77 regular season, they lost in the Western Conference semifinals to eventual champion Portland (Bill Walton and that gang), with some truly dodgy officiating helping the Blazers make sure there wouldn’t be any new boys from that upstart league playing for an NBA title.

THAT’S THE big picture.

Today, though, I want to focus on a couple of particular moments — things that I was able to experience up close because I was sitting right on the court (and next to the Nuggets bench, in both these cases).

Actually, one of these things couldn’t have happened UNLESS I was sitting directly at courtside.

So…

The first event was a bit frightening, the second hilarious.

Let’s start with the scary one.

The Nuggets were playing the Hawks in Atlanta, and for most of the evening, I felt hugely satisfied because I’d done a good, lengthy interview with Ted Turner — who owned the Hawks at the time — partially before the game, then wrapping up at halftime.

Ted was great.

Things began to change, though, when a drunk sitting about three rows behind the bench kept on ragging Denver’s George McGinnis (yet another Hall of Famer) in crude, racist terms.

The Nuggets played poorly that night, and on top of it all, McGinnis fouled out with about two minutes remaining.

The loudmouth really began howling at that point, and his language was embarrassing.

Meanwhile, McGinnis appeared not to hear a word of these insults.

He never even looked around.

FINALLY, the final horn sounded — and all hell broke loose.

McGinnis, it turned out, HAD heard every word of the racist heckling and decided to do something about it.

Understand, George was about 6-foot-8, around 230 pounds, and chiseled like the proverbial block of granite.

Within seconds of the game ending, he used just one giant leap (almost right over my head) to clear the bench plus a couple rows of seats, to land directly in front of the guy who had been heckling him.

Looming angrily over this suddenly terrified fellow, McGinnis yelled: “Now! Say that to my face!”

The drunk promptly ducked behind his wife, which was briefly amusing.

However…

It didn’t take long for fans sitting in the area to realize what was happening, and pretty soon a fairly large gang of beefy characters came looming down the aisle — aiming to swarm McGinnis.

Except…

A Denver player named Charlie Scott reached over and grabbed my portable typewriter from the media table (this was before the days of laptops).

Scott, who was 6-6 himself, waded into the crowd and began swinging the machine over his head — screaming out that anyone who wanted to lose some teeth was cordially invited.

A COUPLE more players began filtering into the mob, and enough ushers and guards — along with Nuggets trainer Chopper Travaglini — arrived JUST in time to prevent a full-scale riot.

How many reporters can say that their typewriters or laptops were used as weapons by an NBA player?

Which brings me to the second tale, which was a lot more fun.

I think it was two years prior to the Atlanta fracas, but in any event, the Nuggets were hosting a daytime playoff game against the Lakers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

You should know that for several seasons, I’d been part of a running commentary with Issel — a very funny individual who was also an amazing basketball player.

Still the leading career scorer at the University of Kentucky and just as successful as a pro, Issel was a 6-9 center who could shoot from outside — setting up a whole array of fakes and moves around the basket that drove opposing big men crazy.

Anyhow, the playoff series was tied 2-2, so this particular game was critical.

During the pregame warmups, Issel had stopped at the media table, stolen my cup of coffee, and asked: “Who in the hell sets up a basketball game to start at noon?”

Now…

Fast forward to the fourth quarter — inside the final minute, in fact.

TENSION in the building was at the sweaty palms level.

The Nuggets had called a timeout, and would be taking the ball out of bounds.

Trying to draw Abdul-Jabbar away from the basket, they opted to have Issel take the inbounds throw.

So, he was standing there, about 3 feet from me, waiting for the end of the TV break.

Denver’s season was on the line, remember.

An official was alongside, holding the ball, waiting to begin the play that would define the Nuggets’ season.

At which point…

Issel turned and squished a huge wad of chewing gum directly on top of my notebook.

I looked up and said, “Hey…”

Issel was grinning.

“Get a real job,” he said.

And just then, there was a whistle and the ref handed him the ball to resume play.

Time to deal with Kareem.

That exchange with Issel obviously happened a long time ago, but I often think about it and laugh.

Why?

Well, because I’m so, so glad I’ve never had a REAL job all these years.

Email: scameron@cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.

Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is published each Tuesday.

photo

MARK DUNCAN/Associated Press Denver Nuggets center Dan Issel (44) grabs a rebound as Cleveland Cavalier center Paul Mokeski challenges during a Dec. 10, 1982 game in the Richfield (Ohio.) Coliseum.