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Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2010

A Pair of 60-Somethings Renew the Friendship

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You never forget your first love, even when it comes to sports venues. For one of the Observers, coming to Milwaukee as a Marquette student in 1968 sparked a relationship with a modest building at Fourth and Kilbourn that involved hundreds of evenings and plenty of fun. The Bradley Center eventually eclipsed the building, but not the memories. And Saturday night provided a chance for a reunion, as Frank described the next day en route to Miller Park.

Frank: Unless we see a no-hitter, today's game will only be my third-favorite event of the weekend.

Artie: What's No. 1?

Frank: This morning, for the first time as a swimmer, I reached 10,000 yards for a week.

Artie: Ten thousand? Any NFL running back would kill for that, and Floyd Little just joined the Hall of Fame with 6,000-plus.

Frank: And it took him a lot longer than a week. How about you? Anything you've reached 10,000 in?

Artie: Maybe my 10,000th step up the stairs in my elevator-free building. So what's your other big highlight?

Frank: When I found out the Milwaukee Iron would play an Arena Football League playoff game at the Arena because the Bradley Center was unavailable, I had to be there!

Artie: That's the old Milwaukee Arena, later the MECCA Arena and now the U.S. Cellular Arena, ain'a?

Frank: To us old-timers, it'll always be simply the Arena.

Artie: Which, unlike you, doesn't get much exercise these days.

Frank: Ah, but in its day… I reckon I've been to more than 800 games there.

Artie: All this computation is scaring me. How do you figure it?

Frank: About 20 Marquette basketball games in each of my undergrad years, then about 10 each for 15 years until the Bradley Center opened in 1988. That's roughly 230. With the Bucks, about 150 games over the two decades before the BC. And Admirals hockey games—I was in a group that had four season tickets for the 10 seasons before the BC, and I swear we were at virtually every game! That's about 400 against IHL foes like the Grand Rapids Owls, Flint Generals and Toledo Goaldiggers. Throw in some games involving MU women's basketball, UWM men's hoops, the old WISAA high-school tournaments, and we top 800.

Artie: And now, arena football. 

Frank: I had to see the old place again. And though arena football is kind of goofy—guys running into and over sideboards, kicks caroming off end-zone nets—it was entertaining.

Artie: And loud, I'll bet.

Frank: Yeah, but what sports event isn't these days? The constantly blaring music is the same at the BC, at Miller Park...

Artie: Don't we know it? Who the hell decided that we need six seconds of loud music before every stinkin' pitch?

Frank: Last night I was thinking, "We're a long way from Steve Swedish." Remember his band at Bucks games in the early years, and the team song? "Milwaukee Bucks, that's the name of our team, and they will win with an effort supreme..."

Artie: My musical memories of the Arena are a little livelier. I know I saw the Doors there in late ’68.

Frank: For me, the Arena was strictly sports. But it's kind of sad: You spend so much of your life in a place, but the specific memories are so few.

Artie: Well, give me a few highlights.

Frank: My first Arena experience was Oct. 23, 1968—Knicks 114, Bucks 112, with the decisive shot coming from the little lefty guard, Howard "Butch" Komives.

Artie: And you sat where?

Frank: West side, and I think we poor MU students splurged on mid-priced seats, $4.50 a pop. We spent a lot less for our student tickets to MU games—and were rewarded with George Thompson's senior season and all three of Dean "the Dream" Meminger's varsity career. They never lost a home game in my student years. But as an alumnus I was there that fateful Saturday...

Artie: Refresh my memory.

Frank: January 1973. Notre Dame guard Dwight Clay scores from the right corner at the south end, opposite me, to snap MU's 81-game home winning streak. The Arena played a part in the streak; with a capacity of about 11,000 it was intimate and full of energy. Sports Illustrated named it one of the top "snake pits" in college hoops.

Artie: Other MU highlights for you?

Frank: February 1974. Maurice Lucas' last-second shot from near half-court beats Wisconsin and sends Al McGuire to the top of the scorer's table. I was in the southwest corner, behind Lucas.

Artie: And other Bucks highlights?

Frank: October 1977. Milwaukee's former hero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, decks Kent Benson in the rookie's debut. I was in the last row at the north end and had binoculars on the two centers. Less than two minutes in, Benson elbowed Kareem hard in the belly. Kareem doubled over for a second, then SMACK! I could hear the punch as it broke Benson's jaw and Kareem's hand. After the game, which the Bucks won, I got to Major Goolsby's in time to see Reggie Jackson's third homer in the World Series clincher.

Artie: Benson missed a lot of games and never lived up to expectations as a No. 1 pick. Speaking of Bucks centers, I remember going to one game and thinking, "If they remake the Frankenstein movies, Randy Breuer would be perfect for the monster, but he'll have to work on his speed and agility to play the part."

Frank: Another big memory is April 1987—Bucks vs. Dr. J and the 76ers, who they would soon finish off in the playoffs. One of the biggest cheers came during a lull—it was Brewers fans who had brought radios and heard the end of Juan Nieves' no-hitter in Baltimore.

Artie: One of my vivid Arena memories is taking a bunch of kids to a Disney “Snow White” ice show. I remember thinking the skaters probably trained all their lives, had Olympic ambitions, and now they're skating around as the Seven Dwarfs trying to see with 40-pound cartoon heads on. It was kind of depressing.

Frank: Here's a special memory. December 1978, I was there for the debut of the Women's Professional Basketball League, the Milwaukee Does vs. the Chicago Hustle.

Artie: Boy, were you a masochist.

Frank: It was history! The Does lost, 92-87, but drew almost 8,000 people. A while later I went to a Does game that drew more like 800, and the team lasted only two seasons—one fewer than the league.

Artie: So how did the Arena strike you last night?

Frank: Looking darn good! It's nice and bright now. In the old days, even that first time in ’68, it seemed worn-down. I always liked the south atrium, nice and airy, but inside the colors were kind of dull browns and greens. Now the walls are white, the concourse floors have bright colors and the seats look sharp in red and blue.

Artie: But there'll never be anything as colorful as that wild Robert Indiana court the Bucks and MU played on.

Frank: They've widened some of the main-level areas, but there are still those narrow, wonderful curving ramps to the top level. I always dug ’em.

Artie: No accounting for taste.

Frank: I scoped out the places I sat over the years, especially our four seats for the Admirals. First row in the mid-level, right behind the north goal. No protective netting in those days; a deflected slap shot could zoom up there mighty quick.

Artie: Glad you survived.

Frank: Last night I was on the top level, east side. For fun I moved up to the last row, next to a girder and rivets that must be original equipment. And I remembered the Arena opened in 1950—the year I made my debut!

Artie: That was my grand opening, too.

Frank: So here were a couple of 60-somethings, together again and still functional. Kind of made me feel good.