February 12, 2013

How my UNO fandom began

On Mardi Gras Week in 1985, The Seed Was Planted

I'm a UNO fan largely because my seventh grade Louisiana History teacher was a criminal.

Hold on.  Let's back up a bit.

On February 20, 1985, I attended my very first college basketball game. It was not at UNO.  It was at Tulane.  Keith Lee and the Memphis State Tigers were in town.  He was a big star, and his team, 20-2 at the time, would go on to the Final Four that season. On this night, they were seven-point favorites over the Greenies.

But Tulane would provide a stern test in a raucous atmosphere. While the game took place on Ash Wednesday, it felt like a continuation of Mardi Gras.  After the very first basket of my very first live college basketball game, scored by Tulane, beads rained down onto the court. The night was festive.  It was fun.

It was also felonious.

As it happens, a backup senior guard for the Green Wave, Bobby Thompson, had been acting as a go-between in a point-shaving scheme between Tulane players and a crooked local bookie.  They were supposed to lose by more than seven, but they led 34-28 at halftime.  While my 9-year-old self was taking in the excitement of my first college game, with my local team pulling a notable upset, the five point-shavers on said local team were holding a panicky meeting in a bathroom during the intermission.  Clearly they got it together, because Memphis State "dominated" the second half.  Tulane mostly just decided not to shoot anymore, scored a cool 15 points in the second half, and lost the game by 11.  I left Tulane Gym one disappointed little kid.

A few weeks later, the scheme was discovered and made national headlines.  Tulane, disgraced, shuttered its men's basketball program in April.

The next winter, my dad took me to a UNO game.  The Privateers, now the only show in town, were led by an exciting young core of Gabe Corchiani, Sam Jones, Mike Smith, and Ronnie Grandison, an innocent bystander at Tulane who transferred after the scandal.  The Bucs -- actually playing to win -- hung 103 on Murray State that night.  I was immediately hooked.  The next season, UNO added Ledell Eackles, went 26-4, won a game in the NCAA Tournament, and I was seriously, hopelessly hooked.  For good.

The responsible party
By the time I hit seventh grade, I was already a walking encyclopedia of UNO basketball circa 1985-88.  I remembered everything, every player, every game.  One guy I did not remember from that infamous Tulane game was Bobby Thompson, because when he walked in to teach that Louisiana History class in 1988, I didn't know the guy from Adam.  He just seemed like a random gruff young coach to me.  You know, a guy that will just come in, read out loud a few facts about Antonio de Ulloa, collect a check, and go coach basketball.

I don't think anyone at Clifton Ganus High School, where Thompson had starred nearly a decade earlier, was particularly eager to share his story.  And, oddly, "Great Pelican State Sports Scandals" was not part of the class curriculum.  I was completely in the dark until the local news ran a retrospective on the Tulane scandal that spring.

That was when I got to watch archival footage of my teacher being led away in handcuffs back in 1985.

Thanks, Coach Thompson.  I wouldn't be here without you.

Go Privateers.  And happy Mardi Gras, everyone.