McKale at 50: Guest Column — Lee Shappell

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lee Shappell, a Tucsonan who graduated from Amphi High School and is a product of the Arizona journalism school, is an award-winning communications professional. He has been a writer-reporter, author, copy editor, copy desk chief, content editor, managing editor, executive editor and editorial director. Most of his newspaper experience was with the Arizona Republic although he wrote for the Tucson Citizen while attending Arizona. He also created his own public relations company. He is Editorial Director for InMaricopa.com. He was a student at Arizona when McKale Center hosted its first game on Feb. 1, 1973 – Wyoming vs. Arizona. He writes about his fond memories of that time in this column.

Lee Shappell in 1973
Lee Shappell in 2023

In 1973, Tucson was still trying to figure out what kind of sports town it was, and at that point the brutal truth was it was not much of one.

The Tucson Toros were good occasionally. They might get 3,000 out on 10-cent beer night. The Tucson Open put the city on the map nationally for a week in January. There was a PBA bowling tournament that was attended by perhaps dozens.

UofA football had been terrible for several years, although Coach Jim Young’s arrival in 1973 began to change that.

Wildcats hoops also had been in decline for years, largely because Coach Bruce Larson wasn’t given much of a recruiting budget and the facility, while venerable, really stunk. Looking back, it was cruel what the university did to him. He’d campaigned for years for a new arena, it was finally nearing completion and then – bam! – they fired him. It was like leading a horse to water in the desert only to discover it was a mirage.

I lived at home as a UofA undergrad. In those days, we had what were called “X” parking stickers, good for a few lots scattered on the perimeter of campus, most of them on dirt lots. I usually parked in one just southeast of campus and walked past the construction site at McKale Center every day.

One day, during my freshman year, a year before it opened, I braved it and walked up toward the building through construction equipment. I was stopped by a burly construction foreman. I told him I just wanted to get a look inside. He got a construction hat for me and told me to make it quick.

I was blown away by what was taking shape. I knew it was going to be a great facility, but this was before Fred Snowden and certainly before Lute, so I couldn’t begin to imagine what this building would house over the coming half century.

Coach Larson was a good man and a good basketball coach, and he doesn’t get enough credit for McKale Center. I wish they had given him a couple of years in the new building to make his point.

Fred Snowden’s first recruiting class at Bear Down Gym early in the 1972-73 season before McKale Center opened (Arizona Athletics photo)

That said, wow, how can you argue with what his successor, Snowden, brought to Tucson with his Kiddie Corps, in his first recruiting class? There were times when he had five freshmen on the floor together at Bear Down Gym: Eric Money, Jim Rappis, Coniel Norman, Al Fleming and John Irving. They brought an entertaining, up-tempo game that was defense optional. But they won from the beginning and soon many of us students camped out overnight to get tickets to games in Bear Down Gym, which suddenly was the toughest ticket in town after “crowds” of about 600 were common the season before. I was among those who camped out along Sixth Street in front of the ticket office in the football stadium.

The quick success of the Kiddie Corp and how the community received it only heightened the excitement over the coming of McKale Center in the second half of the 1972-73 season.

I initially did not have a ticket for opening night. A friend at work managed to get her hands on a pair and she invited me to join her. When the building opened, there were four levels of seating, color-coded. Yellow was court level, then the red level and then blue. Those all were theater-style seats with backs and armrests. There also was a fourth level, the gold level, in the rafters. Those were bench seats at what seemed a half-mile from the court. But we were young, and we didn’t care. We were just thrilled to get in.

The playing surface was known as Tartan, a spongy, synthetic surface that supposedly was friendlier to ankles, knees and low backs than hardwood. I remember Snowden calling it “The Cadillac of playing surfaces.” It was gone after three years, I believe.

I’ll never forget on opening night after the introductions and the Wildcats coming onto the court for the opening tip how the crowd spontaneously just rose as one and cheered. They were celebrating not only a new era and style of UofA basketball but also a first-class facility they’d awaited for years that would come to be among the most difficult for an opposing team in the country.

Opening night was nip-and-tuck, closer than it should have been. Arizona was the superior team but seemed to be playing tight (Wyoming’s defense no doubt contributed to that), but the Wildcats pulled it out. All I remember is Norman couldn’t miss and the Cats stretched it out at the end to take the suspense out of it.

People talk about the top games played in the building, and most of them are during the Lute years, not only because those teams were great but also because people’s memories are short. The three games I remember most were not during the Lute years:

  • An NCAA Tournament game, in which Coach Don Donoher’s Dayton Flyers took Bill Walton, John Wooden and UCLA into double overtime before the Bruins survived.
  • An epic 1973 battle against ASU with Coach Ned Wulk and center Ron “The Rock” Kennedy, an absolute behemoth of a man. UofA had no answer as ASU pounded the ball inside and Kennedy fouled out four defenders as the Sun Devils won, 110-105. By the end, Kennedy was guarded by a small forward. There was nobody else left. He must have made 80 free throws. Snowden vowed he would get a big man, and before long, Bob Elliott was on the scene.
  • But the big one was a back-and-forth battle with Coach Jack Hartman’s nationally ranked (13th) Kansas State early in the first full season in McKale Center. UofA pulled it out, 74-72, with a rally in the closing minute. I believe it was their first victory – a huge upset – of a nationally ranked team in the new building. The crowd was in an uproar. Nobody left for several minutes. They seemed to sense it was the start of something big, and it was.

As the years went by and I launched my career in journalism, I landed a job in the sports department of The Arizona Republic and would become the basketball beat writer in Snowden’s final year. I then suffered through the Ben Lindsey year — and then, thanks to a good tip, I was the only reporter at Tucson International Airport at 1 in the morning when the private jet from Iowa pulled up and Ced Dempsey and Bob Bockrath greeted Lute and Bobbi as they deplaned. I stayed through the first Pac-10 title. After a long stint covering the Suns, I came back to the UofA basketball beat, just in time to cover its historic run to the national championship.

Now, at 70, I’ve experienced McKale Memorial Center as a student, a staffer in the Sports Information office, a reporter and a fan. Last season, I attended my first game in the building in 20 years.

On the 50th anniversary, so many memories are flooding back. It’s still as special to me every time I walk in the place as it was the day that foreman loaned me a hard hat.

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