Posted January 27, 2023
I want to talk a bit about sports and history today. Actually, it’s really about Tucson sports history.
ESPN Gameday did a broadcast from McKale Memorial Center last weekend. In part, this was to witness a contest between the Wildcats and UCLA Bruins. However, the visit by “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” was appropriate because it comes only a few weeks before the 50th Anniversary of McKale.
The first game was played there on February 1, 1973, a win against the Wyoming Cowboys. It was the first of many wins under then-coach Fred Snowden (the first African American coach of a Division 1 school). Of the first 70 contests at McKale, 67 were wins for the home team.
McKale was named for “Pop” McKale, who served as athletic director for the U of A from 1914-1957. He also coached, at various times, the football, basketball and baseball teams. In all, he accumulated a record of 433-162-13 for all three sports. It was under his leadership that the team started to be called “Wildcats.”
You’ve heard the story of Button Salmon? Pop was the one that Salmon was talking to when he told the team to “Bear Down.”
If you care to dive into Pop’s career a bit further, he taught and coached (all sports, by the way) at Tucson High School before working at the U of A. If you wonder why Tucson High’s badger mascot bears more than a passing resemblance to Wisconsin’s badger, Pop chose it because his first teaching job out of college was in Superior, Wisconsin.
Pop’s career at Tucson High brought him to the attention of students at the U of A when his teams beat both Arizona’s junior varsity football team and baseball team. They petitioned the administration to bring him on, and they eventually did.
The school made the decision to name the planned basketball arena after Pop in 1967. He passed away a few weeks later, so he never got to see the completed stadium.
My first game at McKale was in 1982, a narrow 46-44 win against San Diego State. It was a dismal season with only four wins, and that win that night was the only one against a ranked opponent that season. Still, I experienced the magic of McKale and I was hooked.
By the way, longtime Ward 2 and Eastside neighbor, retired Pharmacist John Belobraydic played in that SDSU game. He’s one of a handful of players to be Coached by Fred Snowden and Lute Olson. Amazingly, he was Camp Director when I attended Lute Olson Basketball Camp at 10 years old.
The next year, Cedric Dempsey became athletic director and things changed. A new coach came to town, a fella named Lute. That was the first season I attended every single game. It was almost a second home for me.
As a matter of fact, I went to just about every game from 1983 to 1990, with only Army service to interrupt my attendance. I got to see a lot of really emotional moments. Steve Kerr’s father was killed in Beirut by militants, and only two days later he was at McKale playing against ASU. He hit a 20 footer and we could see the emotion on his face. It was one of those moments that makes you understand why we follow sports.
Great moments weren’t limited to men’s sports or even basketball. Dave Rubio just completed 31 years of leading Arizona’s women’s volleyball team at McKale. The team went from a no-win season before he arrived to tournament contenders. When you go to McKale, you’ll also see a retired leotard among the retired jerseys. That is to honor Heidi Hornbeek, our All-Pac 10 gymnast who plied her trade at McKale in the 1990s.
But how can we forget the women’s basketball team. Just going over their accomplishments at McKale would double the size of this newsletter. Aari McDonald made an incredible buzzer beater against a certain team from up north at McKale and earned our undying affection. The team’s six games on the way to a well deserved NIT championship in 2019 were all played at McKale. When we talk about Lute, we also need to talk about both Joan Bonvacini and Adia Barnes as great coaches that have worked the sidelines at McKale.
McKale is a special place for us Tucsonans. I’m happy it’s getting some attention for the landmark that it is. Just like my dad used to bring me to games, I bring my sons now. I hope that sort of tradition can continue for Tucsonans for another fifty years.
As of Friday morning at 11:38, the intersection of Kolb and Speedway is open in all directions. Congratulations to the workers that have been putting in an effort since December to get this done for all of us.
This week came the news of the death of my former colleague, Paul Durham. Paul was a great Tucsonan, moreover, he as a wonderful person. My condolences to all of his loved ones.