As a University of Oregon sports fan since childhood, I find myself shouting with joy as 2011 begins … but also wiping my eyes to dab away a bit of sorrow.
A week from Monday, my beloved Ducks will play for the first time for the national college football championship. Only once before has Oregon won a national title in a sport other than track or cross-country; that was in basketball, in 1939, in the very first college hoops tournament.
Whether they win or lose the title game against Auburn on January 10, just having the opportunity to play for Number One has been a long time coming.
The bittersweet? Yesterday afternoon, Oregon lost to Arizona State in the last college basketball game ever scheduled at McArthur Court.
The beautiful new Matthew Knight Arena, two years in construction (at a cost of $227 million), is ready to go. The University of Southern California will visit on January 13 to kick off a new era.
Built in 1927, Mac Court was already “old” when I first made its acquaintance as a junior-high student in 1962. Its three tightly stacked tiers, one balcony directly above the next, turned it into an echo chamber for concerts and basketball games alike.
Rival teams hated to play there. Bleachers beneath the baskets made the highly-partisan student section a major factor in games: Their foot stomping actually bounced the maple floor.
Beginning about the time I was a junior high student in Eugene, I had a home in Mac Court. I caught shows by the Beach Boys and the Fifth Dimension. I was first seduced by the strains of jazz music when I heard the Dave Brubeck Quartet perform.
In high school, I interviewed Bill Cosby and the late Louis Armstrong in their McArthur Court dressing rooms. As a college student, I heard everyone from Simon and Garfunkel to the Grateful Dead within the intimate confines.
But even more than music, Mac Court was about my love of sports. I was about 13 when Mel Renfro, a Portland kid who played for the University of Oregon before he launched a Hall of Fame career for the Dallas Cowboys, sat with me as I kept a scorebook during the Oregon high-school basketball championships.
My four years as a UO student were a time when the school had plenty of sports heroes. Although I was never a serious team athlete — my greatest prowess was on the ski slope — I immersed myself in sports and journalism.
I wrote about sports for the school newspaper, the Oregon Daily Emerald, and became sports editor for two years. I earned a scholarship working as one of two student assistants in the sports-information department. In both capacities, I traveled extensively with the university’s major sports teams and rarely missed a game, home or away.
During my years at the UO, the entire Athletic Department was housed in a row of offices attached to McArthur Court. I could stick my head into consecutive offices to say hello to athletic director Len Casanova, track-and-field coach Bill Bowerman and football coach Jerry Frei. The full-time sports-publicity staff was one man, Hal Cowan.
Four decades later, with the growth of college sports rapidly accelerated by cable television and ESPN, the sports-information office alone has a full-time staff of 10. Athletic administration has long since moved to the beautiful Casanova Center adjoining Autzen Stadium.
When brand-new Autzen Stadium opened for football in 1967, it relegated old Hayward Field, behind Mac Court, to track and field. The late Oregon distance-running star Steve Prefontaine, on his way to practice, occasionally tossed his shaggy head into the sports-publicity office and asked with a cocky grin: “What are you going to write about me this week?”
I shared many moments with future professional athletes, some of whom I remain in touch with. I sometimes haunted the catacombs beneath the Mac Court hardwood, visiting the ghosts of Oregon sports past. I personally researched and compiled the record books that are in use (considerably updated) today.
My favorite McArthur Court memory was a 78-65 basketball win over perennial national champion UCLA in 1970. The Bruins had won 25 consecutive games. With two minutes to play and the Ducks leading by 15 points, the matchless UCLA coach, John Wooden, made his way to the Oregon bench to shake the hand of his counterpart, coach Steve Belko.
“It’s going to be a little wild at the end, Steve,” said the Wizard of Westwood. “I thought I’d say congratulations now.”
Wooden, with whom I had the pleasure of recalling that moment some years later, passed away last year at the age of 99. This weekend, McArthur Court basketball has also moved into the realm of memory. But it will always hold a warm spot in my heart.